The Joy of Fingering

by James LoweCaravaggio was one of the first artists to appreciate the power of the guitar. Not surprising really, considering he could brawl with the best of ‘em, prefiguring seventies rock excess by 350 years. He was arrested and fled Rome in 1606 for killing a young man. But his art was something else. There’s one of his paintings, ‘The Lute Player’ (c.1596), where a typical Caravaggian boy is sitting at a desk, concentrating hard. He’s looking outside the picture, as if waiting for someone to surprise him doing something slightly illicit. His hairstyle and his expansive white, blouse-like dress are not that far off seventies rock chic. What make this painting important in terms of its relationship between youth and the guitar are the other musical instruments that litter the desk. There’s a violin, a wooden recorder and what looks bizarrely like a mini-piano. The Caravaggian tenebrism is at full whack in the background, so that the boy and the exquisite detail of the lute leap out from the darkness, making a bold statement. This is a boy. He’s in love. He’s not chosen the old-fashioned, boring, fuddy-duddy, granddad, traditional methods of complaining about it. He’s strapped on his lute and he’s going to write a song. The youth-guitar concept, so important in twentieth century culture, starts here. The physicality of the lute, with its comfortable size that sits just above the waist, is a precursor to the solidity of the guitar. The lute shows us that the boy in the painting is equipping himself with protection against love and life. He’s a rebel without a clue, but with a lute. The size of the other instruments is not sufficient. The boy needs security against life and love. He’s clutching the only instrument that can do that, like Springsteen on the cover of ‘Born to Run’.

The guitar, developed from the lute, was traditionally used, acoustically and pretty insignificantly, in jazz and solo classical pieces. Not loud enough to make its mark as a virtuosic or particularly powerful instrument, it was relegated to rhythm in jazz groups or the refinement of a little room for the entertainment of small numbers of politely clapping people. Before amplification, the guitar was just a bit boring. That’s not to say it wasn’t an expressive instrument, merely the constant, reliable backup tool, not exotic on its own, a mere functional spade in the hierarchy of music.

Of course, what the guitar needed was some kind of revolutionary context. Always looking for definition against something else, the guitar had to find a volume of its own. To shuffle off the symbolic protection of the instrument, it needed power. And amplification provided this impetus to move the guitar onto such a level of culture-defining importance.

But amplification wasn’t the only key to its success. The guitar itself is a very responsive instrument. Even the pain of the fingers cutting into the strings connects the hands of the player to the vibrations of the guitar in a primal link that creates and sustains empathy between player and instrument which, once felt, makes other instruments feel like Vauxhalls beside Porsches. There are no holes to simply press down and toot through like an idiot child with a recorder: the player’s gradations of pressure and the range of skills from hammer-ons to pull-offs, to the process of string-bending, have a potentially catastrophically brilliant effect on the sound. And the fact that it is two hands that together make the noise, not the combination of breath and fingers, mean that playing the guitar is very much a psychologically satisfying physical experience. The hands are such an integral part of human interaction with the world, and are linked to all sorts of creation, all sorts of jobs, from hunting to carving to caressing, that the employment of them in making music, when the strings themselves cut into the skin, holds a direct and primal appeal. This ties in with the use of the hands, since music on the guitar fulfils both the traditional experience of making and shaping with them, from cooking food to simply picking objects up, and the mental impulse of creation. It is this key link that makes the guitar an unparalleled extension of the creative spark, due to the physicality of the object and the control of the sound the player has. The piano operates on similar lines, but there the hands are at a remove from the strings, and the vibrations are at a slight, but significant, remove from the artist. With a guitar the fingers suffer for being so close to the pain of incision, but wire the vibrations to the heart in a way that links the physical experience of playing the instrument to the thought process that goes into deciding what to play in a visceral way.

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The guitar, like television and latterly the Internet, is effectively behind the most exciting cultural movements of the second half of the 20th Century. If Caravaggio saw the guitar as protection, the 20th Century saw it as power and liberation. If a black musician from the south could play the blues with an instrument that he could carry around with him and call his own, like B.B. King with his ‘Lucille’, he could make the guitar an identifying tool that was a branding symbol. Blues was based around out of tune pianos and the expressiveness of the guitar. Cheaper than a piano, and portable, the guitar became the symbol of blues music. All in one, the guitar represents liberation, protection and power.

Liberation was what black musicians were seeking. Liberation from classical standards, and an object that could define them as musicians solus. Brass instruments were, of course, the absolute foundation of black music, being key in jazz, but the guitar can be played effectively and enjoyably on its own, with singing. This is a crucial aspect, and a key factor in its importance and development; the fact that you can sing at the same time as playing. An instrument that requires nothing else. This characteristic takes us back to the liberation/protection/power trope that the guitar represents. It liberates the player from the constraints of playing within a group; it protects the player both by covering his torso (surely a factor that gives the guitar a satisfying nestle in the human body, where vital organs are almost covered by the guitar); and by allowing the player to express himself through music and not his own speech, it gives the literal power to sing and play at the same time.

This was a power of expression but also of emancipation. The guitar was claimed by black musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson as the symbol of their talent, and without it, they were simply conventional. The ability to sing while playing also makes the lyrics more important, along with the generally low volume at which early blues music would be played, compared to jazz or classical. The guitar thereby allowed musicians to write social commentary to be sung, in itself a powerful skill and method of disseminating knowledge or reinterpretation of cultural standards.

Of course, the advent of amplification raised the profile of the object itself to new heights. The merits of the shape of the instrument are key to its success as an object of desire, and it is remarkable that such a geometrical construction could have such a large impact on culture in general.

The body of the guitar is a comfortable size for an adult to fit their arms around, and its nestling in front of the torso enables the guitarist to hold and surround it. This protection concept links to psychological dimensions of control, and empowers the player because he or she feels that they have complete mastery not simply of the sound it makes, but also of the unit itself. The neck stretching off towards the sky suggests a thrusting power in itself, and the balance of a well-made guitar forces the body to settle in the lap, with the headstock on the end of the neck pointing upwards. An exception to this is Gibson’s SG, which is weighted at the headstock end, which gives the body an unsatisfactorily light feel, although still giving a full sound.

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The holding of the instrument in such a position empowers the player, but the crucial point about the aesthetic of the guitar is that the shape itself is satisfying. The design of the guitar has not changed much over the years, apart from Ibanez and other such manufacturers wresting the body into ever more exotic shapes. The most popular guitars with the consumer are instruments that employ either the shape of the Fender Stratocaster or the Gibson Les Paul. These designs were first made by Leo Fender and Les Paul in 1954 and ‘51 respectively, and considering the changes to electronics, amplification and general cultural aesthetical appreciation that has taken place in the last fifty years, to have hit upon a design that fit the bill instantly was quite a feat.

The iconography of the guitar links back to the lute of Caravaggio and Vermeer, and got a shot in the arm from the blues musicians, before finding its most powerful expression in the ‘60s with the advent of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The explosion of rock music into more than simply a musical, but also a cultural force, shown at Woodstock and the hippy communes of the late ‘60s, meant that the guitar, for many people, was in itself an icon of cultural revitalisation, not simply an instrument that sounded good. It was perhaps inevitable that the guitar itself would be cheapened by advertising, and placed on children’s clothing and on billboards. Using rock and roll to sell stuff was unavoidable once it made money. But in a way that’s a salute to the kids that made it good, that made it big. There’s no greater honour than when the man who’s been telling you you’re no good for years suddenly joins in with what you’ve been doing. And that’s what happened to the guitar. Putting it on baby’s socks, on cereal packets, on children’s drinks, turning it into an object divorced from its musical context, made the guitar one of the most recognised shapes in modern culture.

There’s a new film out called Air Guitar Nation. It looks awfully unfunny. But the title hits on something. If a film is being made, not actually about the object, but about people imitating the object, we’re looking at something that’s rarely happened before in culture: where the object itself is so recognisable that it no longer needs to be shown in order for it to be understood, imagined and accorded worth. The idiots playing along in the air to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, not even guitar players themselves, know how to hold the thing. Such cultural iconography is a bit odd. If the guitar does not need to be represented, only hinted at, in order to have an effect, where can its status as a real product go?

The guitar is the great aesthetic object of our age. Stupid, sure, to say, but if we take its influence on popular music, its liberating force, we can track it right up to the present. When Britney Spears and Madonna have guitars on their T-shirts, and the latter even resorts to playing one on stage, we know that the object itself is at saturation point in our culture. The fact that it has been claimed by ‘uncool’ people has had no effect on its sales. The guitar is still the most-purchased instrument per year, topping £100m worth in the UK in 2006, and this suggests that the instrument is so powerful that it can be remoulded and re-imagined by each new player within his or her generation, not simply as a musical instrument but as a symbol of the individual versus the world. Sure it’s clichéd, but then in an age where every new, initially cool thing (think iPods) is so quickly saturated within the media, it’s inevitable. The guitar is ageless: each generation reclaims it, to the point where it doesn’t even need to exist in order to have an effect, and surely that’s the most liberating, protective and powerful ability any object can have.