Almost everybody knows that a steel-string guitar has metal
strings, as opposed to classical
guitars, which are strung with
nylon. But many people don’t
know anything else about the
steel-string’s construction, parts,
materials, or origins. Guitarists
often associate the name Martin
with steel-string guitars, but that’s
pretty much it. In this three-part
series, we’ll explore the genesis of
the steel-string and look at the
evolution of this versatile and
intriguing stringed instrument
over the last century.
Guitarists often ask, “Why
does the guitar have six strings?”
Guitars in the 17th and 18th
centuries had five strings, or
sometimes five pairs of strings.
These were used to play music
that was fairly simple, often
comprising single-note melodies
and two- and three-note chords.
And these instruments had all
and early bowed and plucked
instruments. But early gut
strings were problematic. They
were usually uneven in thick-
ness, changed tuning with the
weather, and frayed and broke
easily. Producing thin, strong gut
strings of even thicknesses was
made possible by adapting rope-
making technology (the braiding
of many thin fibers into strands,
and then twisting or cabling the
strands into ropes) to other uses.
Gut strings were thus improved,
but quite expensive.
The steel-string guitar was born when tech-
nology first made possible the production of
plentiful, cheap wire.
replaced earlier, 4-string guitars
that were developed to play even
simpler, monophonic music.
Luthiers and musicians found
that adding a sixth, lower string
made the guitar a much more
versatile and expressive instrument. A 6-string could play a
wider and more complex range
of music. Equally important,
expanding the bass register made
the music sound richer. Today,
with the exception of a few 8- or
10-string guitars, which are used
to play extended-range compositions, virtually all acoustic guitars have six strings (or six pairs
of strings). This arrangement
works best to express almost all
The technology for making
metal strings developed late.
The first guitars were strung
with gut—as were violins
rope was irresistible, and ulti-
mately this technology benefited
This 1929 Ditson 111, serial
#37658, is one of the first X-braced steel-string dreadnoughts.
Significantly, this flattop was built
for standard (Spanish-style)
fretting, rather than for use as a
Hawaiian lap-slide guitar. Working with Harry Hunt of the Oliver
Ditson Company in 1916, Martin
produced a series of unique
wide-waisted, steel-string guitars
in three sizes and three different
styles. The 111, 222, and 333 were
the largest, and they became
what we know today as the Martin
dreadnought. Photo courtesy of
the Martin Guitar Museum
dreadnought guitar—that really
put the steel-string flattop on the
map, just as Henry Ford put the
early automobile on the map.
The Martin dreadnought is easily the most recognized and copied steel-string in the world.
In my next column, we’ll continue investigating the history
and evolution of the steel-string.
I hope you’ll join me then!
A professional luthier
since the early 1970s,
Ervin Somogyi is one
of the world’s most
guitar builders and
rosette designers. To learn more about
Somogyi, his instruments, or his rosette
and inlay artwork, visit esomogyi.com.