From the September/October 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Doug Young
When Acoustic Guitar published its first issue in 1990, it must have been hard to even imagine we’d be looking back from the futuristic date of 2020. Certainly no one could have predicted the astonishing events of 2020 alone, but there have been a lot of surprising changes in the guitar world over the three decades as well. Acoustic players are often characterized as having conservative tastes—after all, acoustic guitars are rooted in wood and nature. But that stereotype masks significant changes, including technological advances in everything from how guitars are built to how we listen to and create music. Today’s acoustic guitars—and the music made on them—represent leaps into the future while keeping an eye on the past.
No one knows what the future holds, but the 30-year mark is a good time to look at some of the changes and recent directions. There are trends that we can recognize in hindsight, which might provide some clues to where the next three decades will take us.
Shapes of Things
Guitars have come in many shapes and sizes for as long as they have existed, but the past decades have seen renewed interest in smaller instruments. OMs, grand concert, and even parlor-sized guitars compete with dreadnoughts in popularity. Taylor introduced its Grand Auditorium shape, with an optional cutaway in 1994. Although C.F. Martin & Co. made the Orchestra Model (OM) beginning in 1929, it didn’t catch on at first, and was dropped from Martin’s regular lineup until returning in 1990.
Many of today’s players are opting for even smaller guitars like Taylor’s GS Mini, Martin’s LXM (Little Martin), and the Sheeran by Lowden series, along with 00- and 0-sized models in general. Some of these instruments are relatively inexpensive and convenient for travel, taking camping or to the beach, but there are higher-priced offerings, such as Collings’ Baby series, Ryan Guitar’s Abbey Grand Parlor, and Dontcho Ivanov’s Snow Parlor. Advances in amplification have made the need for volume less important, allowing players to choose instruments based on other factors.
At the other extreme, players have discovered baritone guitars, even larger instruments which are typically tuned a fourth or fifth lower than usual. These provide a different tonality and are popular among singers with lower voices. Martin, Santa Cruz, Taylor, Alverez, and other makers offer baritones as standard models.
While scale lengths between 24.9 and 25.5 inches remain typical for acoustic guitars, there have been explorations of both shorter and longer lengths. Players with smaller hands or those who prefer less tension often appreciate smaller-bodied guitars with shorter scale lengths. On the other hand, the popularity of alternate tunings has led some players to longer scale lengths, to support lower bass notes. Multi-scale designs (often known as “fan frets”) offer the benefits of both. By angling the nut and saddle, with frets fanned out accordingly, the bass strings have more tension, better intonation, and more power, while maintaining, or even reducing the tension on the treble strings for easy playability.
Guitar makers have also experimented with structural elements inside the guitar. The X-brace design, originally developed by Martin, has long been the standard approach to top bracing, but builders are trying both new and old approaches as well. Perhaps the best-known example is Taylor’s recent move to what it calls V-Class bracing. Other examples include PRS’s hybrid X/ladder-bracing approach and Michael Greenfield’s radial Tone Halo. And Ryan Guitars pairs a fairly traditional X-bracing pattern with a unique laser-cut brace style.
Ergonomics and Playability
While playing the guitar isn’t generally considered a dangerous activity, injuries due to repetitive stress and posture issues are not uncommon among musicians. Guitar makers have been responding with changes to make guitars easier to play as well as more ergonomic. Taylor largely led the charge in designing instruments with low action and easy-to-play necks, and today’s guitars tend to be easier to play across the board than older generations. Plek (computerized fret-leveling machines) have helped, by providing an automated way to dial in a perfect setup, allowing for lower action without buzzing. Lighter, more responsive builds also support lighter gauge strings, which are easier on the hands.
A bevel avoids cutting off circulation in a player’s arm, and may also make a guitar feel smaller, allowing a lower shoulder position and making the instrument more comfortable to play. Originally developed by luthier Grit Laskin, bevels first appeared on custom guitars, but rapidly moved mainstream. Taylor, for example, offers bevels (Taylor Armrests) on most of their guitars, even the budget-priced Academy line. Some builders are adding additional bevels at other contact points, such as Laskin’s “Rib Rest.” Other luthiers are experimenting with different ways to make larger guitars more comfortable, including wedge-shaped bodies, inspired by an innovation that luthier Linda Manzer designed in 1984.
The Soundport is another increasingly popular feature, although still rare on production guitars. A small port on the side of the guitar, facing the player’s ears, helps the performer hear the guitar better, without leaning over the guitar.
Something Old, Or Something New?
For many players, prewar Martins—meaning those made roughly between 1929 and 1940—are the holy grail of instruments. Why these guitars sound so good is a constant topic of debate, but many builders, from independent luthiers to larger manufacturers, try to capture the magic. Martin’s Authentic line replicates the construction techniques of these vintage guitars, using hide glue, hand-scalloped braces, and torrefied woods. (Torrefaction is a process that involves heating the wood in a way that accelerates the aging process, allowing builders to construct a new guitar whose tone resembles that of a vintage instrument.) Similarly, Collings’ Traditional series combines a lighter build, animal protein glue, and a thinner lacquer finish.
However, not all builders want to pursue the past, and many are exploring new techniques, materials, and tools. The use of CNC machines, laser cutters, and other advanced tooling has helped make it possible to produce high-tech masterpieces, and even relatively inexpensive instruments that are cosmetically near-perfect.
Guitar finishes are another area where the influence of the past coexists with current high-tech trends. Some manufacturers are using a UV-cured lacquer that is more durable than the traditional nitrocellulose lacquer. But at the same time, other guitar makers offer vintage approaches that offer sonic advantages, like varnish and French polish.
The Quest for Alternative Materials
Guitars have traditionally been built with spruce tops and mahogany or rosewood back and sides. Part of the appeal of coveted prewar examples comes from their use of Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce. Brazilian rosewood and mahogany are now endangered species controlled by the CITES act, and Adirondack spruce is hard to source in the size needed for a guitar, forcing guitar makers to search for alternatives. Other varieties of spruce, such as Sitka, Englemann, and Alpine, have been substituted for tops, and the last few decades have seen the more common use of woods like cocobolo, macassar ebony, and ziricote for backs and sides.
In the search for sustainable and ecologically responsible wood choices, Taylor has launched its Urban Wood initiative, which leverages wood removed from the urban canopy in Southern California for some of its guitars. Taylor has also worked to provide a sustainable and legal source of ebony, another endangered wood, widely used for bridges and fretboards. Martin has used katalox, a very dense wood from Mexico for fretboards and bridges as an alternative to ebony.
However, there are reasons to be concerned about the sustainability of nearly all tonewoods, and there is growing interest in non-wood-based instruments. RainSong, Emerald, and Composite Acoustics are just a few of the companies making guitars entirely from carbon fiber. Guitarists who try carbon fiber guitars are often surprised by their tone, and the instruments have advantages for musicians who travel or live in humid climates. Martin and a few other companies have also been using High Pressure Laminate (HPL), a composite material made from paper and resin, which can be designed to look like wood. Like carbon fiber, HPL is fairly forgiving of heat, humidity, and doesn’t scratch or dent like wood.
It seems likely that alternative materials, both synthetic components and non-traditional woods will become more prevalent over time simply out of necessity.
Acoustic guitarists have far more options for amplification today than 30 years ago. One of the more dramatic changes came in 2003 with the release of the Bose L1, which introduced the concept of a line array in a portable form, ushering in a new category of lightweight portable amplification. Meanwhile, for those who prefer a full PA system, powered speakers keep getting lighter and more powerful, and digital mixers such as the QSC Touchmix, Behringer X Air, and Line 6 StageScape offer performers programmability, impressive effects, built-in multi-track recording, and even remote control via mobile devices.
Small combo amps have also become more powerful, lighter-weight, and feature-rich. While some manufacturers embrace digital technology with effects—some acoustic amps even include harmonizers and built-in loopers—others, like the Rivera and Humphrey, take a retro approach based on tube circuits. Effects pedals designed with acoustic guitar in mind were relatively rare three decades ago, but today we have pedals with EQ, reverb, compression, and more that are tuned to the needs of acoustic players. Loopers are an especially interesting category.
The first commercial looper was the Lexicon JamMan, an expensive device introduced in the mid-1990s that provided only eight seconds of looping. Although used effectively by performers such as Phil Keaggy, it didn’t flourish until advances in technology allowed an explosion of relatively inexpensive loopers that support hours of looping time, multiple loops and more. Performers like Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall helped bring looping back to our attention.
Of course, acoustic amplification starts with a guitar pickup, the focus of a lot of imagination and energy over the past decades. Many brands now default to including a pickup, but guitarists also have a wide range of aftermarket systems to choose from. In an effort to better capture the complex tone of the acoustic guitar, systems that incorporate more than one pickup have become more common, including the L.R. Baggs Anthem, Fishman PowerTap, and Seymour Duncan Wavelength Duo. Guitar builders have also explored ways to integrate pickup systems into their guitars during the construction process. Taylor Guitar’s Expression System and Maton’s AP5-Pro are just a couple of examples.
Advances in digital electronics are also changing the pickup landscape. The Fishman Aura, introduced in 2004, digitally manipulates the raw pickup signal to match the unamplified sound of the guitar. Audio Sprockets’ Tone-Dexter and L.R. Baggs’ Soundscape allow musicians to leverage these techniques themselves to match the tone of their specific instrument with any pickup they choose.
Some manufacturers are combining modeling techniques with custom integrated pickup systems. For example, Fender’s American Acoustasonic instruments can function as electric guitars, but also use digital processing to produce acoustic sounds from the same instrument. Martin incorporates the Aura system into many of its guitars, while Yamaha’s SRT (Studio Response Technology) system leverages their proprietary pickups with digital signal modeling technology.
In the Pocket
It’s easy to take accessories for granted, but picks, straps, tuners, metronomes, strings, string winders and many accessories that play an important role in making music have evolved as well over the past few decades.
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Electronic tuners have existed in some form since the 1930s, but early models were bulky and expensive. Chromatic tuners in stompbox form, like the Boss TU-2, began to appear in the late 1990s. More recently, clip-on headstock tuners—often so small they are nearly invisible—have gained in popularity. With the widespread adoption of the smartphone, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of app-based tuners, offering a wide range of visualization approaches. Another recent development is TC Electronic’s Polytune, introduced in 2010, which displays the tuning of all six strings as you strum.
Well-known pick manufacturers like Dunlop have extended the variety of styles, materials and shapes they provide. There is also an active community of boutique pick makers, like BlueChip, Red Bear Trading Co., Wegen, and others, offering high-grade materials with options to customize shape, bevels, and more. D’Addario has also gotten in on the game with its high-end Casein picks.
Capos are a seemingly simple idea, but the number of creative solutions that exist is nearly endless. Some solutions have proven the test of time; for example, Schubb’s first capo, introduced in 1979, remains popular today, and the company has continued to refine the original design, expanding the line and adding a roller mechanism in 2013. Schubb also introduced its first partial capo in 1995. The Spider Capo, a flexible approach to partial capos, appeared in 2008. Maintaining intonation when adding or removing capos is often a challenge, partly due to variations in fretboard radius. Thalia Capos address this issue by providing replaceable “fretpads” with different curvatures, while G7th has designed adaptive capos that automatically adjust to your fretboard’s curvature.
One of the biggest changes in strings over the past three decades began when Elixir introduced coated sets in 1995, promising strings that would maintain their tone longer. Since that time, most string manufacturers have added some type of coated string. Several companies offer cryogenically frozen strings, which also promise to last longer. Others have explored alternative materials and different alloys, including high-carbon steel and aluminum bronze. And in a nod to the interest in vintage tone, strings like Martin Retro Monel and D’Addario Nickel Bronze promise a return to the 1930s, when nickel was commonly used for guitar strings.
The humble guitar case is more complex than we might expect, and designs are continuing to evolve. For example, comparing 1990s cases from Taylor or Martin against today’s versions, it’s evident that current cases are stronger, offer better support for your guitar, and feel more luxurious. Today’s standard cases tend to be better balanced, with handles that are more comfortable than those of the past. New materials have also enabled a new generation of cases, such as Hoffee’s and Calton’s carbon fiber models, and Visenut’s ultra-light double-walled PVC designs.
The explosion over the past decade of mobile devices has touched almost every aspect of our lives, and acoustic guitar is no exception. You can now use phones and tablets to play backing tracks, display lyrics and chord charts, record, and control the mix on sound systems. Some sound setups even allow each individual musician to tailor their own personal mix using their phones. There are nearly endless apps available that turn our devices into tuners, metronomes, ear trainers, and drum machines. Guitar amps and effects pedals can be programmed by phone, or you can simply use your phone as your amplification chain, playing through a virtual pedal board and amplifier on the device.
Of course, smartphones have also transformed the concert experience. Where once, recording devices were banned from nearly all performances, today’s concert photos show a sea of audience members holding up their phones. Bands often encourage their fans to shoot and share videos on social media. Especially during the coronavirus lockdown, mobile phones are the musician’s portal to connect with an audience online, as they stream music to Facebook or YouTube. We are only at the beginning of what is possible now that everyone has a powerful computer in their pocket.
Even the humble mic stand has been impacted by mobile devices, with manufacturers turning out attachments and accessories to support mounting phones and tablets for easy access during performances.
Back to the Future
The saying—variously attributed to everyone from Yogi Berra to Mark Twain—goes, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While we can’t be sure what the next 30 years have in store for the acoustic guitar, it seems safe to predict that the instrument will continue to improve and evolve to meet the demands of future musicians—and, most of all, play an important role in making music. Guitarists and makers will continue to draw inspiration from the great instruments of the past while leveraging new technology and new ideas to push forward both the music and the instruments that make it possible.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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