Melody, Harmony, the Piano, and the Guitar
(Part Two)
D. L. Stieg

In traditional and bluegrass music, much of which is based on fiddle tunes, the role of the guitarist was initially limited to providing a rhythmic foundation by strumming chords, with occasional bass notes and short bass runs between chords. Soon after the advent of steel strings in the mid-19th century, guitarists realized that they could effectively duplicate these fiddle melodies with a flatpick, and the guitar took on an important melodic function in traditional and bluegrass ensembles. The alternation between a rhythmic and a melodic style of play became an accepted practice, at least for this style of music, and rhythmic flatpick styles of play were embellished by incorporating more melodic development, particularly in the bass.

Early blues guitar, another distinctive style of music played on the steel string acoustic guitar, was mainly an accompaniment for singing, and the province of solo musicians in the second half of the 19th century. Open tunings (tuning the strings to the notes of a chord) were commonly used, and this facilitated melodic development in early blues guitar music, especially by better allowing for the use of a bottleneck or slide, a device that is used mainly for melodic purposes and that dramatically changes the timbre and quality of the notes. In a variety of fingerstyle as well as flatpick styles of play, and largely through the use of open tunings and slides, early blues guitarists became proficient at developing brief melodic fragments on the treble strings in the context of a parallel and simultaneous rhythmic style of play on the bass and interior strings.

The obvious difference between jazz music and traditional, bluegrass, and blues music is that jazz music employs a considerably larger vocabulary of chords. While the same is true of classical music, jazz chord progressions generally have a decidedly unclassical feel about them, and the chords tend to be more complicated than in any other style of music. Jazz guitar, a flatpick style of play, is likewise unique among the many possible styles of play on the guitar. In early jazz music, the guitarist had no chance of being heard over the horns for solo passages, and therefore mainly played a strummed rhythm. The development of the hollow body electric guitar in the 1930’s removed the restrictions given by the inequality in volume of the various instruments, and made the guitar music audible regardless of the size of a jazz ensemble. This in turn allowed for the development of an innovative style of play in which melody and harmony were developed simultaneously, rather than in alternation like in traditional and bluegrass music, and in a single integrated musical structure, rather than in parallel structures like in blues music. In a jazz guitar style of play, melody is structured around the shapes of chords, and chords are fashioned around the notes of melody. There are purely melodic passages and purely harmonic passages, but the predominant sense is that melody and harmony are sounded together in an integrated fashion by a single guitarist.

The simultaneous development of melody and harmony is also the defining characteristic of a style of play on the guitar called fingerpicking, a fingerstyle of play that was developed and popularized in the second quarter of the 20th century. In a fingerpicking style of play, a complete melody is played on the treble strings with the fingers, while at the same time an active bass line is played with the thumb, together with occasional additional notes or strums with the thumb, to create a rhythm part below the melody. The unique ensemble sound centered around this style of play, championed by early pioneers like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, was widely popularized around the middle of the 20th century and became known as country music. Since these somewhat narrowly defined origins, country music has evolved considerably, mainly by incorporating elements from other musical styles like popular, traditional, bluegrass, folk, and rock.

Roughly coincident with the initial popularization (urbanization) of country music, guitar based folk music enjoyed a brief but very successful run as one of the dominant forms of popular music in America. Together these two events greatly accelerated the popularization of the guitar, which had begun a decade or so earlier with America’s fascination with singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and was made certain by the development of the rock music genre, which began only a short while later. Like the classical and flamenco traditions, the folk guitar tradition had remained relatively unchanged since its origins in the early history of the guitar, except that folk guitar had gradually become a steel string acoustic guitar idiom. This was a significant development, however, because although folk guitar was still primarily an accompaniment tradition, the use of steel strings greatly enhanced the guitar’s responsiveness in either a strumming style of play or a fingerstyle of play. The improved balance between the bass and treble strings, together with great improvements in the manufacture of flatpicks, allowed for the development of a more musical touch in strumming. The enhanced volume and sustaining power of the treble strings greatly enhanced the musical effectiveness of fingerstyle patterns of play.

Toward the end of the third quarter of the 20th century, a new musical style emerged that most closely resembled folk music, and was likewise based on the steel string acoustic guitar. But this new style of music was centered around different types of songs with lyrics about different kinds of subjects than in folk music, and it was characterized by a more musically sophisticated approach to fashioning rhythm guitar accompaniments. In the short space of a decade or so, this new musical style was widely popularized by a number of singer-songwriter-guitarists whose music is still frequently heard even today. There has never been general agreement regarding a name for the new musical style developed by the Beatles (acoustic), Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, and many others. Even at the outset this new style was alternately referred to as contemporary folk, folk-rock, or pop music, and it has since come to be called by many other names as well, including contemporary acoustic guitar music, rhythm guitar music, or just acoustic guitar music.

This new acoustic guitar tradition in effect took the steel string guitar and made it the centerpiece of an all-inclusive musical style in which elements from a wide variety of musical styles (including folk, traditional, blues, jazz, and classical) could be drawn upon. It was characterized by the unrestricted use of the instrument’s range of musical capabilities, irrespective of musical styles or genres, and by a heightened awareness of a guitar accompaniment as a musical arrangement that has a musical form and can be musically developed. One important way in which guitar accompaniments were musically developed was through the incorporation of melodic activity into the context of rhythmic styles of play. It is seldom possible for a single guitarist to play entire melodies in the context of a self-sufficient rhythmic pattern of play that can itself produce complete sounding music. Nevertheless, the musical effectiveness of rhythm guitar arrangements can usually be enhanced by introducing melody in the form of brief melodic fragments and implied melodies.

The coexistence of harmony and melody in a rhythmic style of play was only one of a number of important innovations that were introduced in the guitar music of the early pioneers of the new acoustic guitar tradition. Other important developments included the use of the fingers (rather than fingerpicks and a thumbpick) for fingerstyle music, the expansion of musical form given by the use of rhythm guitar introductions and rhythm guitar solos between verses, the layering of two or more rhythm guitar arrangements, and the use of hybrid playing styles in which elements of strummed music and fingerstyle music are combined into a single style of play. The guitar music of these early pioneers was in many cases anticipated by important contributions made by other lesser known musicians, and has since been followed by the development of an expansive catalog of rhythmic steel string acoustic guitar music, in a wide variety of musical styles, and by an untold number of talented musicians.

To be sure, each of the more specialized styles of play on the guitar (folk, classical, flamenco, rock, traditional, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and country) remains viable to this day as the primary musical interest of a great many accomplished guitarists, and will likely continue to do so indefinitely. The new acoustic guitar tradition, for lack of a better name, incorporates elements from all of these disciplines into a universal approach in which the sole consideration is making effective and satisfying music with a steel string acoustic guitar, and in which the guitarist and the composer are bound only by the limits of their musical imagination. While the freedom of expression and musical independence implied by this new tradition are not necessarily limited to the steel string acoustic guitar, neither the nylon string guitar nor the electric guitar is as well suited to a wide variety of musical styles. In any case, the replacement of the piano by the guitar as the most popular and widely owned instrument is closely connected to the basic similarity of these two polyphonic instruments, in that either allows for the development of a complete musical context (melody and harmony) by an individual, and either can be used to provide musically effective accompaniments for singing or for other instruments.