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Acoustic Guitar Notes #5

The Golden Age
by Eric Schoenberg

The Golden Age, a la Fingerstyle

There's a lot of talk about the golden age of guitar making. Many people say that it's now. I still feel it was 1929-1931. There have been many great monuments to the art of guitar-making before and since, but during those two years qualities came together that made a profound mark on the modern American guitar. Of course, I'm coming from the personal perspective of a player who doesn't use picks, sits down while playing, and isn't eight feet tall. I don't believe guitars should sound like cannons! Therefore I'm talking about the golden age of normal-sized guitars, not those named after battleships or elephants (wait... that was Dumbo... I'm one letter off!).

The guitars of 1929-1931 were the culmination of the growth and development of the American twelve-fret guitar from the second half of the Nineteenth Century and first couple of decades of the Twentieth, and all of that accumulated artistry and finesse was passed on to the new fourteen-fret guitars. Having been meant for gut strings, the small parlor guitars were often built too lightly to withstand a set of light gauge strings, the bridges and fingerboards too delicate for modern setup. Many of these instruments can't be intonated properly for steel strings, since the bridges are too small to take a slanted saddle. Neck shapes are sharp-vee'd to the point of discomfort; and, often, twelve frets just aren't enough. However, the artfulness of guitar-making was fully advanced. Details were exquisitely beautiful: heel shape, perfectly proportioned pegheads, totally tasteful and gorgeous appointments that are even more beautiful now with the added years of patina. The predominant method of playing was fingerstyle, and the wide string spacing was almost perfect for that purpose.

As the Twenties eased out, and steel strings eased in, the modern steel-string was born. Those first guitars retained the breathtaking quality of earlier times, while accommodating the needs of the new music. The vee-shaped necks flattened out to an incredibly comfortable V/U shape, the 000 size blossomed, and two extra frets magically appeared. Neck width was shaved 1/8" at the nut while the bridge spacing was left untouched. If those guys only knew how perfect this combination of characteristics would be for us crazy fingerpickers fifty years later!

Then the flatpick came along, the strings were gigantic, the bodies grew because of all those bass notes the flatpicks were picking. By 1932 the neck shapes starting deepening, the scale length got shorter (on the 000's.) And then, the necks got narrow, both at the nut, to accommodate the swing chords of the era, and the saddle, to accommodate that poor little flatpick, forced to jump around all six strings by itself.