Evolution of the American Guitar - Part One

Evolution of the American Guitar - Part One

This is the first piece for the relaunched Guitarkadia so a few words are in order. First, I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who has stuck with me for the past decade in my quest to tell original guitar stories. Secondly, I've already started filming new stories but wanted to publish some of my favorite unpublished stories over the next couple months. Thirdly, why have I been inactive for nearly four years? Simple answer: I didn’t know what I could bring to the table as a creator, but I had an epiphany earlier this year which can best be summarized by Tom Hardy’s character in ‘Inception,’ “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling."

Which brings us to the first relaunch piece and why I chose to open with  “Inventing the American Guitar.” On the surface this book appears to be only about Martin Guitars, but it's so much more: It’s a book about striving to be great at what you do. It’s about immigrants in pursuit of the American dream. It’s about collaboration. It’s about the history of New York. It’s about people you meet who become, as my mentor Kenny Forsh says, “a part of your biography."

This is not a review of “Inventing the American Guitar” because I’m anything but. It's my response to a book that seems almost custom-made for me. Robert Shaw & Peter Szego edited the book with essays by David Gansz, Richard Johnston, David LaPlante, Arian Sheets, and James Westbrook, along with contributions from researchers, appraisers, collectors and builders. History detectives they all are for sure.

The mastermind of this project is Peter Szego. I sat down with him in 2014. Below are excerpts from a recorded interview at his home edited for clarity. 

Guitarkadia: Give me a little background about yourself. 

Peter Szego:  I was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945 and I spent my childhood in East Orange, New Jersey. I practiced architecture, and had a design, marketing communications and marketing consulting firm for many years.  As a teenager I played bluegrass music. I've been playing old time string band music for the last 30 years.

I've been collecting early 19th century banjos for about 35 years and more recently have become intrigued by the history of the earliest American guitars, which happened to be developing at exactly the same period of time as the earliest banjos. 

The first time I remember visually seeing a guitar that just knocked my socks off was on an LP album of Buddy Knox, a Texas rocker, with a red Gretsch Tennessean. I must have been 13 or 14 at that point. It was, very sexy, very, very beautiful. 

Guitarkadia: How soon after that were you playing? 

Peter Szego: I told my father I wanted to learn how to play guitar and he said, 'Well, when you were in second grade, we gave you the opportunity to play music and we rented a flute for  you that you played for three months and gave it up. So if you want to play another instrument, it's up to you.' I worked for a while and made enough money to go down to a pawn shop in Newark and picked up a used guitar. I picked a first guitar that probably wasn't the best guitar for the kind of early Rock and Roll I would have liked to have played. It was a Harmony Archtop guitar.

Peter Szego in his home in New Jersey. (Emon Hassan/Guitarkadia)

Peter Szego in his home in New Jersey. (Emon Hassan/Guitarkadia)

Guitarkadia: When  did you become interested in the history of the instrument?

Peter Szego: A year or two after I started playing the guitar I remember hearing the sound of banjo coming out of the second floor window two houses down from us. I knew a guy a couple years older than me lived there so I knocked on the door and found out he was teaching himself to play bluegrass banjo. I fell in love with that sound and decided to do the same thing. I started studying the five string banjo, like everyone else of my generation, from Pete Seeger's book “How to play the 5-string Banjo.” It was a self published book with all sorts of wonderful illustrations and included the African American roots of the banjo. I became intrigued by the history of the banjo and all the richness of the origin of the banjo. My neighbor and I used to go to Washington Square Park every Sunday to play by the fountain with a whole bunch of bluegrass musicians. There was blues, a lot of just traditional folk music, people playing Bluegrass, and some people were playing old time string band music. This was the early 1960s and the beginning of the folk revival in the Village, or right in the midst of it really, and they were wonderful musicians. David Bromberg might have been there. David Grisman certainly played with us, he had just begun to play Mandolin. A lot of great players. 

We, my neighbor and I, formed a band and I became interested in the Dobro. I went down to the Newark pawn shop again, found a solid-body National resonator and taught myself how to play. It was pretty straightforward because I listened to “Uncle Josh” Graves of the Flatt & Scruggs band and figured out how he played them. So he taught me how to play Dobro! That's what I did until I went to college. At that point I sort of gave up playing for a number of years. 

Guitarkadia: How long before you started playing again? What did you do in the meantime?

Peter Szego: After I graduated and started practicing architecture in New York City, a friend of mine suggested we take up tap dance. So six of us started studying tap dance at a studio in Carnegie Hall, the kind of classes that secretaries or lawyers or architects would go to after work. Eventually after the rest dropped out, I was the only one left and decided to study jazz tap dance with Chuck Green.

Guitarkadia: What year was it when your friends decided to leave tap dance? 

Peter Szego: It was probably around 1971 or 1972. By that time I was married. We were going to have a child and decided that we wanted to move from Manhattan to a town where we could get a large Victorian because we couldn't find one in the middle of Manhattan. When we moved to suburban New Jersey, I had the good sense to realize I couldn't export jazz, tap dance to suburban New Jersey.  I decided to get back to playing music and at that point I picked up the banjo again and taught myself Clawhammer banjo, old time banjo frailing. And that's what I've been doing for the last 30 years. By 1978, I started collecting early banjos. 

Guitarkadia: Can you explain what a Clawhammer banjo is?

Peter Szego: For the most part, there are two classic ways of playing the 5-string banjo, which is different than the jazz banjo. The 5-string banjo has a short fifth string, and that is bluegrass picking, which is a three-finger picking, not unlike guitar picking, and frailing or Clawhammer, where you are actually almost brushing the back of your fingers over the strings, almost hammering into the strings, a much more percussive way of playing the Banjo that most people play.  

Peter Szego on the type of guitars C.F. Martin, Sr. would have built shortly after coming to New York City in 1833. Martin’s first shop was on 196 Hudson Street.

Guitarkadia: What led to your interest in Martin Guitars?

Peter Szego: Two friends of mine, Philip Gura and James F. Bollman, wrote the definitive book on the history of the 19th-century banjo, American Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century. After completing the book, Gura, a distinguished scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,  discovered that the Martin Guitar Company had all of the old business journals, throughout the history of Martin, from 1833 to the present. Using those journals, he wrote C.F. Martin & His Guitars 1796-1873, which ended up being the first book of its kind that covered cultural history, trade history, as well as biography. When I read Philip's book, I literally had an epiphany. First of all, I discovered that Martin invented the American guitar at exactly the same time as the 5-string banjo was being developed. Second, I realized how absolutely beautiful those instruments were. And third, I was impressed with how quickly Martin developed his guitars from the earliest German-style guitar to the Spanish-style guitar. 

Martin & Bruno, C. 1838 (courtesy of Peter Szego)

Martin & Bruno, C. 1838 (courtesy of Peter Szego)

I tracked down one or two guitars to buy and became interested in trying to figure out how many of these guitars were around.  I put together a database of these instruments from museum collections, from whatever private collections we could find, and published pictures of these instruments. I did this with Fred Oster who is an Antiques Road Show appraiser and owner of a very fine instrument shop in Philadelphia called 'Vintage Instruments.’ We discovered that there were far fewer of these instruments we could track down than we ever expected. One reason for that was because all the pictures of these early instruments in various guitar books ended up being the same guitars that were illustrated time and time again. At that point, Fred and I decided that perhaps we should have a conference on early Martin Guitars, gather a few scholars and see whether we could figure out how Martin developed the guitar, how it all happened. We had two conferences, collected as many of these instruments as we could, as well as instruments by other makers that competed with Martin, of which there were very few. Also, instruments from Spain or Europe, Vienna, Germany, that we thought might have impacted on Martin. 

Guitarkadia: When was this? 

Peter Szego: I believe the first conference was in 2008. We literally put the guitars we collected on stands in a circle around the table at which we were working. One of our objectives was to inspect the guitars in-depth and document them. One reason was to see if we could determine in which order they were made, which would then help us understand the creative process C.F. Martin went through to develop the design of his guitars that we now look at and say, "Oh, that's the iconic American flat-top guitar."

Guitarkadia: How did you decide on who to reach out to for the conference?

Peter Szego: It was fairly straightforward. Fred Oster, who's been in the guitar trade for decades and decades, knew the key Martin experts, so he knew who to invite from that side. Meanwhile, I had, because of my own networking, gotten to know the one scholar who had studied Martin's only major competitor James Ashborn, and I also knew someone who had an expertise in the musical instrument trade in the part of Germany that Martin had come from. I also had struck up an acquaintance with someone who had the insight that Martin must have been effected by early Spanish guitars. 

Guitarkadia: What came out of that conference? 

Guitar Label, C. 1834

Guitar Label, C. 1834

Peter Szego: We came to a number of conclusions. The first was that it appeared that Martin had moved through the whole design process to arrive at X-braced flat-top guitar faster than any of us ever imagined. It just happened in a shorter period of time than we suspected. I should back up one step. How did we know which guitars to track down? Fortunately, there was one particular cutoff point - 1867. By 1867 an elderly C.F. Martin formed a partnership with his son and nephew, so his branded stamp changed from C.F. Martin, New York to C.F. Martin and Company, New York. So we knew that if we were interested in Martin's early guitars, they were going to all have the stamp that said C.F. Martin, New York.  We certainly knew what not to collect, what not to bring to the conference, but at that point we had no idea how much before 1867 he had really progressed in the final development of the mature Martin Guitar. In that conference we discovered that it probably happened within 15 or 20 years of his coming over to America, which was a briefer period of time than we had initially suspected. What we didn't think about until we looked closely at all the instruments is that Martin's guitars didn't progress in any straight line chronology. He didn't go from, you know, very German guitar to gradually changing all the components and features until he arrived at the American guitar. In fact he would do a bit of this, a bit of that, mix this with that, go back and do guitars that looked like earlier guitars because, after all, he was a creative person. He was also businessman. He was responding to what his customers were asking him to do and also responding to what he learned as he developed his guitars. It was was a lot of mixing and matching. 


Peter Szego on how early 19th century Spanish-style guitars influenced C.F. Martin’s designs.


Guitarkadia: What was the one feature that stayed exactly the same from Martin's earliest guitars to what became the modern American guitar? 

Martin & Coupa guitar case that Colonel John Wilkins carried throughout his military career.

Martin & Coupa guitar case that Colonel John Wilkins carried throughout his military career.

Peter Szego: The simple answer is that nothing was constant. That is from his earliest guitars to his mature guitars, effectively, everything changed except the quality of his craftsmanship. His aesthetic discernment and his appreciation of fine materials never changed. There isn't one guitar that we've run across that was badly made, that was poorly designed, that didn't use the finest of materials. I think Martin was a remarkable personality. First of all, he had the courage to leave his hometown, which was a major center of musical instrument making. I believe he found the guild system too restrictive and just decided to abandon it.

He arrived in New York in 1833 and within several months established a shop which was a full service music shop. He handled and sold the full range of musical instruments, as well as strings and any other parts that people would need. He did repairs on all the instruments and made his own guitars. He would barter as well as sell. Over the first approximately 20 years of his career, he had a number of partners. He was probably a fairly conservative businessman, but he built a market and developed a base of customers who were teachers, retailers, major musical instrument distributors or jobbers, as well as selling to individuals. So he was a resourceful, entrepreneurial, creative craftsman. 

Guitarkadia: Did you ever find out why he chose to set up shop on Hudson Street? 

Peter's answer, the rest of the interview, and more videos next week. Sign up to receive alert when it goes live.