|The Quest for Volume|
“People hearing a performance on the guitar in a large room for the first time are generally disappointed,” wrote a correspondent to The Giulianiad in the early nineteenth century.  Volume had long been the bane of guitarists, and especially for the professional. The nineteenth century was an age of enormous technological innovation, and in keeping with the spirit of the times, guitar makers experimented with features intended to overcome the volume problem. Most of these innovations never advanced further than prototypes, but some enjoyed periods of popularity, and a few have profoundly influenced the design and construction of guitars to the present day.
The first guitar-related patent in America, issued to piano maker Emilius Nicholi Scherr of Philadelphia in 1831, was for a “harp guitar.” This was not the type of harp guitar that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century – essentially a six-string Spanish guitar with an additional set of bass strings – but rather was an oversized six-string instrument with an elongated body that was held between the performer’s legs something like a cello. According to advertising material, the larger instrument was louder, overcoming the “strongest objection to the ordinary guitar … that its tone is too weak.” Sherr’s harp guitar enjoyed a modest, but very brief, period of popularity.
“Improvements” patented by William B. Tilton in the 1850s to enhance both the tone and the volume of the guitar were popular and generally well-regarded. Some of C. F. Martin’s guitars were modified to incorporate Tilton’s innovations, and they can be found on some Haynes guitars up until the 1890s. Tilton’s improvements – contained in several patents filed in the 1850s – attempted to increase the responsiveness of the top, and to more efficiently transmit the vibration of the strings to the soundboard. To permit the top to vibrate more freely, Tilton reduced the mass of the large wooden neck and tail blocks, which support the top, and inserted a wooden dowel between the blocks to compensate for the resultant loss in strength. To improve the transmission of the string vibration to the top, he developed a tailpiece and bridge combination that enabled the bridge to serve its purpose of transmitting string vibration without having to also be large enough and strong enough to anchor the strings. Tilton’s novel bridge design maximized the amount of string surface in contact with the bridge while simultaneously reducing its size.
Some of the most significant breakthroughs in guitar design came out of the workshop of the Spaniard Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892) in the 1850s. Torres’ instruments were larger, with a fuller figure and greater depth, than most other instruments of his day. Perhaps his most lasting contribution was perfecting a system of support for the top called fan bracing or fan strutting. Torres’ surviving instruments are not especially loud by modern standards, but they are unusually forceful in their power of projection, especially compared to other guitars of the day.
Fan bracing – in which the top braces radiate from the sound hole in a fan-like pattern – didn’t originate with Torres; it is found on instruments dating back to the eighteenth century. Torres’ contribution was in refining the concept. Fan bracing is the standard for classical guitars today, but it is not practical for steel string instruments since it doesn’t provide enough support to withstand the tension of wire strings. C. F. Martin occasionally built fan-braced instruments, but preferred the x-bracing pattern. Haynes and a handful of other American guitar makers also built instruments with fan braces, but most nineteenth and early twentieth century American guitar makers stuck with the side-to-side bracing pattern known as ladder bracing.
In his 1867 patent application for an asymmetrical pattern of x-bracing, Joseph Bini claims “by the whole system, the general power and tone are increased and improved.” Though C. F. Martin is often, but erroneously, credited with inventing the now-common bracing pattern, Bini was the first to patent an x-bracing system, in which braces run from the upper bout through the lower bout in the shape of an “x,” The system was not new even when Martin began using it in the 1850s: there are guitars with x-bracing that were built before Martin’s earliest x-braced instruments. Most of Martin’s guitars from the 1850s forward were x-braced, and some other nineteenth century makers, such as Joseph Bohmann, routinely used x-bracing, but the pattern did not catch on widely until the advent of steel string instruments. In theory, x-braced instruments should have the edge in volume since the braces more efficiently spread the vibration of the strings across the entire surface of the top. However, x-bracing finally caught on not because it was louder (in practice, it isn’t necessarily louder than ladder-braced instruments), but because it is stronger and better able to withstand the tension of wire strings.
Orville Gibson is justifiably renowned as an innovator, though he was granted only a single patent. His 1898 patent for a mandolin, which was also applicable to guitars according to the specifications, was intended to enhance “power and quality of tone.” Among the features of this instrument were a violin-style arched top and back, each carved from a single piece of wood, and thicker in the middle than at the sides; sides carved to shape from a single block of wood; and a lack of internal “braces, splices, blocks or bridges … which, if employed, would rob the instrument of much of its volume of tone.” Gibson believed that single pieces of carved, unstressed wood are superior in their acoustic properties than pieces of wood that are bent into shape and glued together, which is the conventional way to make a guitar or mandolin. Foreshadowing the hyperbolic prose that characterized Gibson’s early advertising, Orville Gibson described his invention as “alive with empathetic sound at every touch of the instrument – a character and quality of sound entirely new to this class of musical instruments.”
Guitars made by Orville Gibson prior to the founding of the Gibson Guitar-Mandolin Manufacturing Company followed these principles. However, this method of construction did not prove practical for mass production, and was abandoned shortly after the company was formed. Orville Gibson’s instruments also seem deficient in the very attributes about which he was so rapturous in his patent. It is difficult to judge how 100+-year-old guitars sounded when new, but Gibson’s surviving guitars, while lovely to look at, tend to sound rather dull.
Gibson’s idea that carved, unstressed wood has superior vibrating qualities to bent wood is controversial even today, but it did lead to the creation of the first commercial archtop guitars. Gibson’s earliest guitars were made, as described in the 1903 catalog, with a “swelled shape by being carved.” The instruments had a single round or oval sound hole. The now-familiar style of archtop with f-holes on each side of the lower bout – which became the preferred instrument of jazz and big band guitarists because its penetrating sound could cut through an ensemble – was part of a package of innovations introduced by Gibson’s legendary designer, Lloyd Loar, in the 1920s. However, Gibson was not the first to propose the archtop design, and Lloyd Loar was not the first to suggest violin-style f-holes for a guitar. Guitar maker Albert Herve Merrill patented in 1896 a very modern looking instrument “of the guitar and mandolin type … with egg-shaped hoop or sides and a graduated convex back and top.” The instrument featured a metal tailpiece and f-holes, and strongly resembled the archtop guitars of the 1930s. Like Gibson, Merrill attempted to apply violin design features to the guitar, claiming “the tones thereof … [harmonize] more perfectly with the tones of the violin or bow family of musical instruments.” Another inventor, William Oakes of Seattle, Washington, patented an archtop guitar in 1901 that he claimed had “a better quality of tone” and a “larger amount of sound.” Oakes’ basic concept was similar to Gibson’s, namely that convex tops and sides, each carved from a single piece of wood, provide superior sound and strength. While Oakes’ instrument didn’t have braces per se, it did have “sound conductors” running along and between the top and the bottom that provided “sufficient rigidity to assist in supporting the body.”
The 1880s and 1890s saw a number of patented refinements to tailpiece design – none of any lasting significance – intended to permit the soundboard to vibrate more freely by eliminating the need for bulky bridges reinforced to withstand the tension of attached strings, and by reducing the amount of bracing required to support the top. A number of patents for bridges, which often were in combination with tailpieces, sought to improve the transmission of string vibrations to the top. Some inventors proposed radical changes to the interior of the guitar. One Silas Arthur Hunt of Chicago patented a series of secondary sounding boards glued at right angles to the top to “increase the volume of sound without affecting its quality.” A “tone chamber” that sat beneath a specially designed bridge, was patented by George W. Lyon of Lyon & Healy in 1891. This bridge and tone chamber combination purportedly produced a “sustained, round, and full tone of great power, combined with beauty and sweetness,” but it never caught on, not even in Lyon & Healy’s own instruments.
An obvious solution to the volume problem, following the logic of Scherr’s harp guitars, was to build larger instruments. While nineteenth and early twentieth century guitars are generically known as “parlor guitars,” implying small instruments for intimate music making, most manufacturers also made larger-bodied instruments for performances in theatres and concert halls.
Martin positioned its large No. 0 for “concert playing and club use” and the even larger No. 00 for “exceptional power.” The yet larger No. 000, introduced in 1902, was built to hold its own against mandolins and banjos, and measured 20 7/16” long, 4 1/16” deep, and 15” wide. The Larson Brothers’ Auditorium size instruments dating from the early years of the twentieth century also measured 15” across. Washburn’s No. 4 Auditorium Size models, “for use in Guitar, Banjo, or Mandolin Clubs,” was a hearty 19 ½” long and 14 ½” wide. Gibson’s original Grand Concert Size models were 16” across the lower bout, and the largest Wolfram Triumph guitar was 16 ½” across, larger than the Dreadnought instruments made by Martin originally for the Oliver Ditson Company starting in 1916, the standard for large-bodied flat top guitars to the present day.
Size alone was not the answer to the volume question, and increasing the size changed the sound of the instrument in sometimes-undesirable ways (as Martin discovered with its first Dreadnought model built for Ditson, which sold only 19 units between 1916 and 1921). Bigger guitars may be louder, but they also tend to be “boomy” and bass-heavy.
A major breakthrough in the quest for volume was the invention of the resonator guitar by George Beauchamp and John Dopyera in 1927, now often generically known by the brand name “Dobro.” A resonator guitar produces sound by transmitting the vibration of the strings to an aluminum cone rather than to the wood top of the guitar. However, the Beauchamp and Dopyera resonator guitar was only the latest, and ultimately most successful, incarnation of experimentation that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Bob Brozman dates the earliest patent for an instrument based on the principles used by Beauchamp and Dopyera to England in the 1860s. Beauchamp’s inspiration for the resonator guitar apparently was an amplified violin invented in 1899 by John M. A. Stroh. The Stroh violin was designed to produce enough volume to be captured by the recording technology of the era, which relied on sheer acoustic brute force to carve grooves in wax cylinders. Stroh replaced the violin’s wood body with a metal resonator. The vibration of the strings was transmitted to a membrane made of thin aluminum, and the resultant sound then was directed through, and amplified by, an aluminum horn. The instruments were manufactured, beginning in 1904, by George Evans and Company, which also built a limited number of other instruments based on the same principle, including ukuleles, mandolins and guitars. The Stroh violin enjoyed modest success, but died out once electronic recording and amplification rendered it obsolete (except, for some bizarre and inexplicable reason, in a tiny region of Transylvania called Bihor, where it is known as the vioara cu goarnä and is still used in the region’s folk music). Stroh-style guitars never caught on, and apparently only three have survived. Other guitar-like instruments based on similar resonator principles were patented in the early 1900s by Alfred T. Bond of Rexburg, Ohio, and Samuel E. Buercklin of Prague, Oklahoma.
The volume issue was finally put to rest with the invention of the electric guitar. While experiments specifically with electronically amplified guitars seem to have begun only in the 1920s, leading to Stromberg-Voisinet introducing the first, though unsuccessful, production model electric guitar in 1928, a patent for an electric pick-up was applied for in 1909 and granted in 1911. The patent was for a means of electronically amplifying piano strings, but the underlying principle – “electromagnets which are disposed so that the strings intersect their magnetic fields” – is identical to the guitar pickup.
Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford
 Quoted in Turnbull, p.97
 Projection is an often used, but ill-defined concept that has to do with how effectively sound is directed, and how clearly it can be heard. A comparatively low volume instrument with good projection may be able to be heard clearly at a greater distance than a higher volume instrument with poor projection.
 Actually the holes were more teardrop shaped, similar to some of the stylized f-hole designs that became popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
 The relative roles of Beauchamp and Dopyera in the invention of the resonator guitar remain a matter of debate. Beauchamp was a guitarist and apparently developed the basic concept for the instrument. Dopyera was an instrument builder, and the first patent was issued in his name.
 The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments, Bob Brozman, Centerstream Publishing, 1998, p. 20.