The Guitar in the History of Rock Music
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By Alexader Cortes
Editor, Guitar Theory in Depth
Since rock music was born, the guitar has played a central role in it. It has defined rock so much, that we take rock guitar for granted. But what are the roots of rock, and why is the guitar the emblematic symbol of this genre?
Part of the answer lies in that it is such a readily accessible instrument, and rock and the genres that shaped it were certainly not the music of the elite. But let's take a closer look at the history of the instrument in 20th century popular music.
The origins: the Blues
The blues is the result of a mixture of styles that, seemingly, have very little to do with one another. Yet, each of these types of music played a crucial role in determining the characteristics of rock.
In the first place, there was the traditional music that Africans from Mali and other regions, taken as slaves to America, took there with them. Pentatonic scales, swinging polyrhythmic structures, and improvisation are three key aspects of that music. This style blended with the European traditions that their masters sought to impose on them: many African slaves received training in music at church. European religious choir music contributed harmony as it understood in Europe to the Blues and its liturgical counterpart, Gospel. Last, but not least, the proximity of the southern states of the U.S. to Mexico meant that African slaves had contact with Mexican rancheras, style of which the main instrument is the guitar.
This blend, together with a mood of irreverence and 'got nothin' to lose' determined the characteristics of the earliest styles of blues. The nature of the tuning system used for the guitar made the blues and the guitar a perfect marriage.
Country and Rockabilly
The blues had tremendous influence on all ensuing popular styles in America. Country and Rockabilly, the direct forerunners of Rock 'n' Roll, were no exception. White people started playing their own versions of the blues, blended in with other traditions of European origin: they tended to eliminate the polyrhythmic aspect so natural to African peoples, and to focus far more on melody.
Other styles, like Ragtime and Jazz, kept the African elements to a greater degree, and in some cases even returned to them in a very conscious way. However, the guitar played a minimal role in Jazz up to the 1960s, and even since then, it has only been one of many instruments used in that musical genre.
Folk and Rockabilly, however, adopted the guitar as their main instrument.
Rock 'n' Roll and Beyond
In contrast to Jazz of the big-band era, where the guitar was used mainly in the rhythmic section, Rockabilly and Rock 'n' Roll kept using the guitar more as it was used in the blues. In commercial records of that era, though, the emphasis was more on vocals than on instrumental solos. Nevertheless, the guitar was near the foreground all the time.
The big revolution that turned the guitar into the solo instrument it is in rock nowadays happened in England. Bands like the Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Bluesbrakers, and many others, influenced as much by the harsher sounding blues, as by the more commercial Rock 'n' Roll, started using the guitar as a lead instrument in more prominently: this way, modern rock was born. Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page were all the lead guitarist of the Yardbirds at different points, and each would later have a huge impact on the development of rock guitar.
Jimi Hendrix, also drawing heavily on the blues tradition, and greatly influenced by psychedelic rock from Britain and other styles such as funk, had as big an impact (if not greater) on the development of rock guitar as his British counterparts.
The way the guitar is used in rock was forever changed by these revolutionary guitarists.
About the author: Alexander Cortes is a composer and guitarist, with a keen interest in exploring all the facets of human consciousness. He is editor of Guitar Theory in Depth, a website that explores musical theory as it relates to the guitar, from a fresh perspective. He currently lives in Mexico, and can be contacted via his website.
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