Steel Strings For Different Styles

"by George Gruhn"

Gruhn Guitars - Nashville

Reprint from the Gruhn Web Site

Caveat: This article is  presented as a historical document.  It was originally written in 1979, and has not been modified, appended or updated to reflect changes since its original publication. Although much of the information has not changed, there are things that may have been true in the late '70s that are not the case in 1999.

Types of Steel Strings - Part 1
Originally published in
Guitar Player, March 1979

THE ACOUSTIC STEEL-STRING guitar is a remarkably versatile instrument.  It can be flatpicked, fingerpicked, or played with a bottleneck or slide and sound good in almost any kind of music from bluegrass to pop.  Many acoustic guitarists today play several different styles, and these folks frequently ask me what kind of guitar will suit everything they do. Unfortunately, I don't know of any steel-string that works equally well for a wide variety of styles and techniques.  In my opinion, at least, a single guitar that's genuinely all-purpose simply doesn't exist, although builders and manufacturers have made numerous attempts to develop such an instrument.  The individual who plans to buy a steel-string should bear this in mind and select the type that best meets the requirements of his or her particular repertoire.

Some players will find that they need two or more different kinds of guitars to get the most out of the styles they play. We'll take a look at several kinds of music and the demands they make on a guitar.  We'll also see how various features of construction--size, shape, type of wood, etc.--affect the ability to meet these demands.

For bluegrass and acoustic country-style playing, the general consensus of opinion seems to be that Martin D, or dreadnought, models work best.  Bluegrass rhythm or backup usually consists of bass runs played in the first position using many open strings, and a capo is generally employed to obtain the open-string sound in any key.  For this style (which is often underestimated and is far more difficult than it appears), you need a guitar with four very powerful, good sounding bottom strings.  The sound of the B and high E strings isn't terribly important, and the guitar's action and intonation beyond the 5th fret are almost irrelevant.

For bluegrass rhythm most people prefer guitars with rosewood backs and sides (like the Martin D-28) because they tend to have a booming, resonant bass.  On the other hand, people who play complex bluegrass and country leads such as Tony Rice and Doc Watson often like mahogany guitars like the Martin D-18, because they tend to produce a somewhat thinner, clearer tone with more treble response than rosewood guitars.

Although Martin dreadnoughts are widely recognized as excellent sounding bluegrass and acoustic country guitars, many people today complain that they're difficult to play.  Martin necks were designed for traditional first-position country rhythm playing and often don't suit modern hot lead players who demand comfortable action and precise intonation anywhere on the fingerboard.  This is undoubtedly one reason why a growing number of bluegrass and country players are switching from Martins to guitars of similar design with more up-to-date necks.  Many good quality guitars of this type are currently available and are gaining considerable acceptance, even among hard-core traditionalists.  (The readers should bear in mind that a guitar should not be judged by how well it's set up; the action and intonation of many guitars can be vastly improved when they're set up properly or have needed repairs such as neck sets.)

Blues playing encompasses so many styles that no single guitar could be ideal for all of them.  Generally speaking, blues players want a guitar with a strong treble even at the expense of bass, but beyond this their requirements vary widely.  A number of Gibson flat-tops from the small LG models to the dreadnought-size J-45 and J-50 on up to the extra large J-200 are probably the most popular guitars for blues, but many players use Epiphones, Guilds, or Martins of various sizes.

A few people have discovered the little known Maurer guitars made in Chicago around the turn of the century, which are fantastic blues instruments.  For Delta blues, particularly bottleneck, many players want a funky sounding guitar and prefer some of the old Stellas to any Gibson or Martin.  It's rather ironic that many excellent blues musicians want a sound that's almost diametrically opposed to what most luthiers spend their lives trying to achieve; this points up the fact that evaluating tone is a highly subjective matter.

Guitarists such as GP columnist Stefan Grossman who play a variety of fingerpicking styles usually want a guitar with good tonal balance between the bass and treble, good volume, and good action and intonation all the way up the neck. Many of these folks use instruments smaller than dreadnoughts, such as the Martin OOO and OO models. Maurer guitars, which I mentioned previously, and those produced by Maurer under different names such as Euphonon, are among the finest fingerpicking guitars ever made.  Although they're quite rare and can be fairly expensive, they're well worth the fingerpicker's attention.

Acoustic steel-string guitar has so many applications in jazz--from playing rhythm in a big band to playing solo in a club--that instruments that sound very different may be considered equally good for jazz.  While almost all the most popular jazz guitars are carved arch-tops (such as the Epiphone's Triumph, Broadway, Deluxe and Emperor models) and many Gibsons are braced with only a bass bar and treble bar.  These tend to have considerable volume and power with very little sustain.  Their 'barking' sound makes them especially good for orchestral rhythm playing.

Strombergs are considered to be some of the finest orchestral rhythm guitars ever built.  The larger models in particular, such as the Master 400 (which is 19" across), are loud enough to cut through a 19-piece brass band, but they are often bass-heavy and can sound almost irritating when played softly by themselves.  They were designed for rhythm playing, and in my opinion they are usually not too good for soloing or recording. The best Strombergs were made in the late '40s and '50s and have only one diagonal brace on the underside at the top, while earlier models from the 30s have a bass bar, treble bar. and several transverse braces.

Some arch-tops such as the Gibson L-10s from the '30s, a few of the Gibson L-5s and Super 400s made in the 30s, the Gibson Johnny Smith models, and most of D'Angelico's later guitars built during the '40s and '50s all have X bracing.  Arch-tops with X bracing tend to have less power but more sustain and flatter or more equal response than those with other types of bracing.  D'Angelicos, for example, usually have extremely good balance with very even response from the nut to the last fret. While they may not be particularly loud, they have a very smooth, mellow sound and usually record especially well.

Ever since Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young appeared onstage, acoustic guitar has been used fairly often by contemporary rock and pop players.  Since most or these folks do little more than strum their acoustic guitars, it's hard to generalize about the ideal acoustic for pop or rock. I can say, however, that most rockers I deal with want acoustic guitars with considerable sustain as well as good balance and intonation. Sustain is a quality that can be described fairly well in physical terms--a guitar produces a certain amount of string vibration that can he drained quickly or slowly depending on how it's built.  The faster the string vibration is drained, the more volume and less sustain a guitar will have.  When string vibration is drained more slowly, the sound will be sustained for a longer period; there will be less volume, however, since less energy is being converted to sound at any one time.  As a general rule, therefore, acoustic guitars with good sustain aren't quite as loud as those that produce one short burst.

It's worth noting that a guitar can actually have too much sustain, especially for styles such as bluegrass and orchestral rhythm.  The right balance of volume and sustain for the type of music to be played is an important consideration in selecting an acoustic instrument.

As we've seen, different playing styles make different demands on a guitar, and steel-strings of similar quality can have vastly different playing characteristics.  It may be helpful to take a brief look at how some of the major structural features of a guitar affect qualities such as tone, volume, balance, and sustain, and that's what we'll do in next month's article.


Types of Steel Strings - Part 2

Originally published in
Guitar Player, April 1979

IN MARCH'S ARTICLE I discussed which types of steel-string acoustic guitars are considered--by many musicians, at least--to be best suited to each of several styles of music.  This month, I'd like to examine specific structural characteristics of guitars and how they can influence an instrument's sound and performance.

Body size and shape

The Martin dreadnought body is so popular today that there almost seems to be a "dreadnought conspiracy" among acoustic guitar players. However, in my opinion the Martin D body size has certain deficiencies for playing styles that require a strong treble and maximum protection of the notes played at the higher frets. I think that this is due to its width, which is 4-7/8" on 14-fret models. In general, the deeper a guitar is, the more mellow and boomy it will be. Since the Martin dreadnought was designed for playing bass runs, the deep body works very well. But if a strong clear treble is desired, I don't think a guitar should be much deeper than four inches. Fortunately there are some excellent alternatives to the D size body, such as the Martin O, OO, OOO, and M sizes, which I'll describe briefly. These are convenient examples, but the reader should bear in mind that there are other good body sizes and shapes available. Some of these are produced by guitar companies, and others are original designs by independent makers.

The Martin O size guitars are 13-1/2" wide and 41/4" deep. They tend to have good treble and work well for fingerpicking. Occasionally, they're a bit weak in the bass, but the 12-fret models with slightly longer bodies have surprisingly good bass. While they're not as loud as the D's, the O's can still produce considerable volume.

The OO is 14-5/16" wide and 4-1/8" deep and tends to be a bit more balanced than the O. The 12-fret models in particular frequently have very strong bass for their size. These guitars are excellent for fingerpicking and can also work well for some types of flatpicking.

The OOO, which is 15" across and 4-1/8" deep (12-fret models are 4-1/16" deep) is one of the most versatile Martins ever made. This guitar cuts extraordinarily well and is excellent for flatpicking as well as fingerpicking. The bottom E string is a bit weak on some of them, but overall I think that the Martin OOOs--especially those built between 1934 and '38--come closer than anything to being the perfect all-purpose guitar.

The style M (which Martin introduced recently) is a flat-top version or the pre-War Martin style F, an arch-top f-hole guitar. The M has the same shape as the OOO, but is 16" wide. These guitars are also very versatile with strong treble, good bass, and considerable volume.


There are a number of factors that affect a guitar's tone: the most significant one is the instrument's top. Most steel-strings have tops of spruce; there are several varieties--Adirondack, Appalachian, Canadian, American Sitka, and German alpine spruce. Each has a different type of tone. Martin guitars made prior to 1946 have Appalachian spruce tops; those made afterwards have Sitka spruce tops. I have compared many Martins whose construction is similar except for the wood in the tops, and to my ear, at least, there was a significant difference. Those with Appalachian spruce tops had a crisper tone and better treble response than those with Sitka spruce tops. Martin continued to make a few guitars with Appalachian spruce tops on a random basis through the '50s and on into the '60s. These are easily recognized since Appalachian spruce ages to a yellow color, whereas Sitka spruce has a different grain and ages to a reddish brown or orange color. Guitars with German alpine spruce tops are relatively rare and are frequently made by independent craftsmen. In my opinion, German alpine spruce tends to be similar in tone to Appalachian spruce.

Most flat-top guitars have backs and sides of mahogany or various types of rosewood. The great classical guitar maker Torres once constructed a guitar with a back and sides of papier mache and a top of very fine spruce. This instrument had excellent tone quality, although it lacked the power and projection of an all-wood guitar.

While Torres's classic experiment demonstrated that good tone is primarily the result of the top, there's no doubt that a guitar derives some of its tonal character (as well as volume and power) from the back and sides. Rosewood and mahogany guitars certainly sound very different. Of course, tone quality is almost entirely subjective, but to my ear a hard, dense wood like Brazilian rosewood works best for rhythm guitar, while mahogany seems to work better for lead playing, where strong treble and maximum clarity are required. Due to trade restrictions, Martin and other large manufacturers have used Indian rather than Brazilian rosewood since the late '60s. However, most older rosewood guitars are of the Brazilian variety, and many people feel that it is prettier than the Indian; some prefer the sound also. Brazilian rosewood is still used today by some independent builders who make small numbers of guitars.

Braces and bracing patterns

Martins made prior to 1944 have scalloped braces, which provide structural strength with a minimal amount of mass. These guitars seem to be more responsive than those with the heavier, conventional struts, and in recent years many people have had the braces in their instruments shaved to achieve this effect--with varying degrees of success. Martin took notice of the public's interest in the pre-War scalloped braces and reintroduced this feature on their herringbone HD-28 and M-38 models.

In contrast to Martins, many pre-War Gibsons such as the advance jumbos and some of the Nick Lucas models and J35s have triangular cross section braces that look rather crude but are lightweight and achieve a remarkably fine result. Maurer guitars built as early as 1910 have unique laminated braces constructed like a sandwich with ebony or rosewood in the center. These guitars have excellent treble and sustain and are extremely durable. I've rarely seen a Maurer with this type of bracing that had the top pulled up or needed a neck set. This is remarkable when you consider that Martins were not even braced for steel strings until the late 20s and rarely hold up as well as steel-string Maurers made many years earlier.

Obviously, the bracing pattern is significant in determining the sound and structural stability of a steel-string guitar, but there has been little experimentation in this area. Most steel-string flat-tops have the familiar X-bracing pattern, although the transverse or simple straight-across type is seen on some cheaper guitars.

Over the years, many tests have been conducted to determine how much difference listeners can detect in guitars of various sizes, shapes, woods. etc.; these experiments have shown that the ear tends to be very adaptable and have a short memory. Guitars may have astoundingly great differences in tone, but the members of an audience won't necessarily hear them. This is particularly true today, when very few people use the guitar in purely acoustical applications onstage. Played through a microphone and a modern PA system with EQ, almost any guitar can sound good for all practical purposes. A guitar's tone and other sound qualities really don't carry over 30 feet and may be irrelevant to an audience; still, they can be highly evident to the player.

In my opinion, the most important feature of a guitar is what it does for the guitarist who plays it. Some models have definite personalities that are stirring, and certain guitars have even inspired pieces of music or playing styles that would never have come into being if the instruments hadn't existed. In my view, it should be the goal of every guitar maker to produce instruments that will be inspirational to those who play them. Ideally, the musicians will in turn convey some of these qualities to their audiences.

Gruhn Guitars - Nashville

George Gruhn