BBC To Screen Three-Part Series “The Story Of The Guitar”

How did the guitar become the world’s favourite instrument? Alan Yentob begins this personal journey, fascinated by both the sound of the Oud, an ancient middle-eastern ancestor of the lute, and the iconic guitar draped round the necks of Bill Hailey and Elvis Presley, which rocked the cosy world of popular music in the 50s. Starts Sunday 5th October.

Jimi Hendrix, one of the most iconic guitarists of all time

Such is its domination of the soundtrack of our lives that it’s almost impossible today to imagine a world without the guitar, writes Tony Matthews. But it wasn’t always so. Back in the early Fifties popular music was ruled by crooners like Perry Como and the Beverley Sisters, the big bands and jazz; it was cosy and respectable and the guitar simply did not figure.


“Before Bill Haley and Elvis, there was a sort of vacuum in which the guitar didn’t have a great deal of value,” explains Alan Yentob, who approaches his three-part Story Of The Guitar for BBC One’s arts strand Imagine as a kind of intrigued outsider, whose own background is grounded in a Middle Eastern tradition of ouds and tablas, rather than Gibsons, Fenders and Rickenbackers. Yentob’s aim is to discover how, in little more than 50 years, the guitar has risen from being the instrument of outsiders to the most popular in the world.
So where did this iconic symbol of sexual and social rebellion come from? “That’s the mystery,” he says. “In some ways the guitar comes from everywhere. There are different manifestations of instruments with strings in many cultures, but no one clear line of development. You can see its origins in the Arabian oud; in the lyre of Greek mythology; and in medieval instruments like the gittern and the sittern, or the lute.”

The Ancient Greeks (left) played many instruments with strings. The medieval gittern (right) is another early precursor of the guitar.

In tracing the guitar’s evolution, Yentob finds its forerunners were often street instruments, popular with the common people but considered inferior musically and socially to more classical instruments. In Elizabethan and Stuart times, guitar-like sitterns or gitterns became fashionable props to be seen in competition with the lute, a notoriously tricky instrument to play and keep in tune. Such instruments were often identified with sex and sittern became a slang term for ladies of easy virtue – “any man can play upon them”.

“The guitar has always had that potential,” says Yentob. “You only have to look at the shape of it to see what a sexual object it is. Being a way to impress girls is a theme that can be traced back to the Spanish traditions of Flamenco through to cowboys like Gene Autry in the Fifties, strumming guitars to the delight of whoever.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that classical guitarist Andres Segovia finally gave the instrument a status and repertoire it had previously lacked, developing his own style as a performer away from the clicking heels and flamboyance of Flamenco. “He turned it into something more serious and skilful, something that you could listen to on its own,” says Yentob.

The big problem for Segovia and for another guitar genius, jazz player Django Reinhardt, was the relative inaudibility of their instruments when playing in larger venues or in a band. In America, the Martin company developed bigger guitars called “Dreadnoughts” to produce more sound, but big band leader Benny Goodman still regarded guitars with disdain, at least until Charlie Christian attached a pickup and amplifier to his guitar, becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Benny Goodman Sextet – the first band to build its repertoire around guitar riffs.

Charlie Christian, electric guitar pioneer

The second programme continues the story of the evolution of the electric guitar from early experiments such as Rickenbacker’s “Frying Pan”; to its eventual transformation into the solid-body instrument that would become the central plank of rock ‘n’ roll. “I don’t know how many people know that the most popular guitar style in America in the Twenties and Thirties was the Hawaiian guitar,” says Yentob. “But it’s through that and the evolution of the steel guitar that people came to see that there was a sound that would resonate more.”

One of the first to explore the possibilities was Les Paul, a young American who conducted his own experiments with the electric guitar. Not everyone was convinced, but when Fender came up with the Telecaster – a solid-body electric design of such brilliance that it remains in production today – the Gibson company responded by putting into production a classic of its own. Based on Les Paul’s design and taking his name, it remains one of the most sought-after guitars in the world. “Gibson suddenly realised that they needed Les Paul,” says Yentob, “not least because he had his own radio show to which millions listened on NBC and could publicise this new guitar in a way that they couldn’t do by themselves.”

The guitar could now not only be heard at the back but was ready to take centre stage. One of the first to make the most of its potential was bluesman T-Bone Walker, featured in a wonderful piece of archive displaying moves that would later turn the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend into rock gods. “That’s my favourite item in a film that’s packed with brilliant archive,” Yentob agrees. “The way he moves is amazing! If you think of Townshend and Hendrix, you should see how T-Bone Walker held that guitar and played with it.”

T-Bone Walker…showmanship way before Hendrix!

Concentrating on the guitars and their players rather than merely re-telling the story of rock, Yentob interviews BB King and Les Paul, both still performing at 83 and 93 respectively, and also talks to an unheralded but influential British pioneer, Bert Weedon, the first man to take a guitar instrumental, Guitar Boogie Shuffle, to the top of the UK charts. Best known for his Play In A Day book which has inspired generations of fledgling guitarists, Weedon also provides a link to Django Reinhardt, with whom he played.

Another important contributor is Elvis Presley’s unassuming guitarist, Scotty Moore, who played on songs like That’s All Right Mama and Heartbreak Hotel. “I think Scotty, in particular, has been overlooked,” Yentob says. “When you listen again to the guitar solos on those Elvis numbers, you realise that he made a big difference. It was great to get him.”

It wasn’t just America that fell for rock ‘n’ roll. Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, BB King and their guitars were just what many young Britons had been waiting for. “Before Elvis there was nothing,” John Lennon once observed, which was certainly true in guitar terms. “The phrase that fascinates me most in all these programmes,” says Yentob, “comes from Bert Weedon who, having bought his first guitar in London’s Pettitcoat Lane as a boy in the Thirties, took it to show his friends who said: ‘What’s a guitar?’ I found that amazing.”

By the late Fifties and early Sixties, owning a guitar was a way to differentiate yourself from the masses. “There was something in its shape which, in conjunction with the exotic sound of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, appealed to youngsters brought up in the suburbs of London or Liverpool,” says Yentob.

The guitar allowed countless young men to reinvent themselves and, as Elvis had shown, it wasn’t even necessary to be good at it. It wasn’t just something on which you played a tune, says another contributor, Pete Townshend, but an accessory with which to create excitement.

“The guitar is an incredible prop for somebody trying to get noticed,” says Yentob, and, at that time, nobody attracted quite as much attention as Hank Marvin of The Shadows.

What was it that Marvin had that the other boys didn’t? A bright red Fender Stratocaster for a start – one specially imported for him from the USA. For the likes of young Mark Knopfler, later of Dire Straits, and David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd fame, it became the ultimate object of desire. “David told me that seeing Hank Marvin with that red Fender really was an iconic moment for a lot of those guys,” says Yentob, “they absolutely had to have one.”

As the Sixties progressed the other thing guitarists craved was volume. Advances in amplification and new technology changed the very nature of the guitar. “I hated being shouted at by yobs,” says Townshend, “so the amplifier maker Jim Marshall and I got together to develop the weaponry to ensure that no-one would interrupt me ever again.”

While Marshall and Leo Fender, whose background was in electronics rather than guitar playing, built amplifiers of ever-increasing power, effects wizards set to work on producing new sounds – Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones is an early example of the use of fuzz. New heroes such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton pushed the boundaries, inspired by the genius of unsung heroes such as Roger Mayer, a former Admiralty acoustic engineer from the Surrey suburbs, whose Octavia pedal allowed Hendrix to come up with Purple Haze.

Johnny Marr of The Smiths (left) and Matt Bellamy of Muse…modern guitar heroes

To support the contention that “it isn’t just the guitar, but what you do with it that counts,” Yentob, in the third and final film, emerges from a garage holding a charred Strat that Hendrix had set alight during one of his incendiary London performances. How could anyone follow that? The last programme covers post-Hendrix guitar, making room for stars such as Townshend, Marvin, Gilmour and Johnny Marr of The Smiths to explain what the guitar means to them and illustrate their style of playing.

From the ostentatious soloing of Steve Vai to the punk-inspiring anti-music of the Stooges’ Ron Asheton, guitar in the Seventies and Eighties went into overdrive. Today, with the likes of Matt Bellamy of Muse inspiring a new generation of fans, there seems little immediate threat to the guitar’s pre-eminence (Bellamy’s father George, who played on the Tornados’ 1962 hit Telstar, is featured in another astonishing piece from the archive).

Much of the guitar’s popularity lies in the fact that it is open to everyone whether they pick up Weedon’s Play In A Day or adopt the famous punk maxim “here’s a chord, here’s another, here’s a third… now form a band”. Fittingly, the series concludes with an astonishing but touching display of devotion by non-guitar players performing at an “air guitar” club. In a madcap way it makes perfect sense. “In an instant virtual world where everything is possible, why not just play the guitar without the guitar?” Yentob says. “The air guitar sequence is, I think, a very funny one, while the Guitar Hero games franchise, which has shipped 40 million units, is incredibly successful and gives everybody the chance to have a go…”

What do you think is the future of the guitar? Is the age of the guitar heroes over?


Are the days of the real Guitar Heroes over…thanks to Guitar Hero?

Quotes from the series

B.B. King

“The guitar is like a friend, it introduces me to people. If someone really wanted to punish me, they’d take my guitar away from me.”
BB King, the king of the blues

“Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?”
Benny Goodman, who changed his mind after Charlie Christian plugged in…

“It’s like turning your daydreams into sound… playing the guitar feels more natural than talking.”
Johnny Marr, The Smiths

“Any instrument that you’re allowed to set fire to, and people actually cheer you on, has got to be an instrument worth playing.”
Matt Bellamy, Muse

“I don’t have any respect for the thing as an artefact, it’s a tool.”
David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, owner of a 1954 Fender Stratocaster serial number 0001

“It’s not about playing well it’s about causing disasters – magnificent ones.”
Malcolm McLaren, Sex Pistols svengali

“I don’t use effects as an addition to the sound – effects for me are the sound… I find songs in sounds.”
The Edge, U2

“It’s private, it’s personal, it’s wonderful, it’s poetic, it’s cathartic, it’s moving, it’s expressive, it’s a real release, it’s just a wonderful, wonderful thing to have.”

“It’s a little bit of a social problem.”
Iggy Pop, punk godfather

Watch it!

This first programme features the rise and rise of the acoustic guitar and features interviews with Bert Weedon, the man who taught Britain to Play in a Day, Pete Townshend, Bill Bailey, Flamenco player Paco Pena and classical guitarist John Williams.

Sun 5 Oct, 10:20 pm – 11:20 pm 60mins

View Guitars at Dolphin



~ by dolphinblog on October 1, 2008.

9 Responses to “BBC To Screen Three-Part Series “The Story Of The Guitar””

  1. Has there been any consideration as to who was FIRST Englishman to put the CLASSICAL guitar On to the Concert platform ? It was Julian BREAM,I HOPE THAT HIS EXPERTISE IS GOING TO BE FEATURED
    within the series . THANK YOU

  2. How come in the first part having arrived in America did Mr Yentob not cover the Chicago blues scene and Wasburn guitars? And also when in America and covering acoustic guitar playing how could he have overlooked the seminal contribution to guitar playing offered by John Fahey?

  3. Q. Are the days of the real Guitar Heroes over…thanks to Guitar Hero?

    A. No. No they aren’t.

  4. If a music programme says ” contains swearing ” you can bet that Pete (Turnip) Town-shend will feature. Aside from that, it was pretty dull stuff. Very disappointing. Could have been good but with Yentob in charge, no hope of that sadly.

  5. Pity it included a clip at the end of programme 2 of that FAKE Hendrix guitar! Yentob and BBC clearly don’t know shit!

  6. As a guitar addict anything about guitars on telly meets with my general approval. However, whilst I suppose they can’t possibly cover everything, I would have liked to have seen coverage of a few “guitarists’ guitarists” – e.g. Robben Ford, Steve Morse, Larry Carlton etc, Larry Carlton is also one of the great guitar educators – he’s actually going to be in London giving an exclusive master-class for Guitar Getaways on November 19th.

  7. what abour Richie Blackmore who was a fantastic showman and bridged the gap between pop and rock with Rainbow in the 70’s/80’s. What about new blood like Vinnie Moore of UFO and Doug Aldrich of Dio/Whitesnake – surely worth a mention?

  8. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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