The acoustic guitar in American culture, 1880-1980

Andrew Durkota / Augustine Bozanic

Once primarily a Victorian parlor instrument, the acoustic guitar emerged in the twentieth century as a key component of almost every major genre of popular American music. How did this happen? The path to ubiquity involved manufacturers, cultural movements, networks of mass communication, and musicians. These factors combined to gradually transform the design, construction, dissemination, and use of the instrument in American musical culture. Makers employed new methods of mass-producing instruments to lower costs and improve the guitar’s intrinsic qualities. They also utilized the strategy of “aspirational marketing.”

This tactic enticed consumers to purchase a guitar not simply as a music-making device, but rather as an object that could virtually transport a listener to faraway destinations or possibly serve as the ticket to gaining fame and fortune alongside the celebrities of mass media. The story of the popularization of the acoustic guitar is inextricably tied to periods of heightened American cultural interest in two other members of the fretted stringed instrument family: the mandolin and ukulele. Ultimately, this process culminated in a wide range of instruments from flimsy plywood guitars decorated with cowboy imagery to durable “Space Age” instruments like the Ovation guitars endorsed by recording artists. Yet this is not just a story about an object, but rather one that involves the people who made and used it, from skilled woodworkers to travelling folksingers.

University of Delaware, Department of History

The acoustic guitar in American culture, 1880-1980

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