Why Some Styles are More Represented | Hub Guitar

Why Some Styles are More Represented

Why some styles of music show up again and again in the study of guitar music

The guitar is a versatile instrument whose popularity has remained somewhat stable for nearly 100 years running now.

The guitar is perhaps the most iconic musical instrument in American music since the 1950’s, having had a prominent place at the table in early blues music, the birth of rock and roll, and contemporary pop music. The work of players such as Andrés Segovia earned a place for the guitar in the orchestra. The guitar forms the backbone of much Latin music.

There are about 2.5 million guitars sold annually in the US[1]. It remains one of the most popular instruments in the US—and the world.

Why is the guitar popular?

The guitar is…

  • Versatile. The tone of the guitar is agreeable and adapts easily to a wide variety of musical styles.
  • Affordable. Guitars are not overly large and complex (like pianos), and can be manufactured from high-end materials such as solid woods and bone, or from laminate woods and plastics. Factories can pump out hundreds per day.
  • Polyphonic. The guitar can be used as a lead instrument, as an accompaniment instrument, or as a solo instrument. The wide range of possibilities ensures that there’s something to appeal to everybody. And a lifetime of study.
  • Portable. A full-sized guitar is easy enough to bring just about anywhere. Put it in a gig bag and it’s even easier to lug. Trade it in for a travel-sized guitar and it’s hard to beat as far as portable musical instruments go.

Some Styles of Music Dominate Guitar Repertoire

Over time, guitar players are often drawn towards the appeal of certain "guitaristic" styles of music.

These styles of music may appear to occupy a niche when viewed against the grand backdrop of popular music in America.

These include:

  • Classical guitar
  • Fingerstyle / solo acoustic guitar
  • Jazz guitar
  • Blues guitar
  • Latin guitar
  • Funk guitar
  • Bluegrass / country guitar
  • Heavy metal guitar

Now compare these to some of the current "staples" of American popular music:

  • Rock
  • Pop
  • Dance
  • Hip Hop/R&B

While there may be some areas of overlap, for the most part these two lists are fairly distinct.

Why is it that guitar players are more attracted to certain niche styles of music, in which guitar plays a more central role?

The simple answer is that after reaching the intermediate level, playing the same simple tunes ceases to be satisfying. Players who wish to climb to higher levels seek out challenges that better suit them, and demand more musical growth. In fact, playing nothing but popular songs can be a recipe for stagnation. Popular music is just not that hard to play. An expanding appreciation for the nuances of multiple styles of music is the key both to greater enjoyment as a music listener and to greater achievement as a player.

The list presented here is far from complete, but it is intended to offer a cursory look at some of the styles of guitar music which have produced great guitar players who have, in turn, helped establish entire guitar traditions.

These styles are also at least partially (or even predominantly) instrumental in nature, which creates a sharper focus on musicianship, and puts the guitar not only in a position of accompaniment but also possibly in the position of being a lead instrument, playing the melody, crafting an improvised solo, or even playing complex parts consisting of bass, accompaniment and melody, all at once.

Let’s look a little bit at each of these styles and the “key ingredients” needed.

Classical guitar

Classical guitar repertoire can be played on steel-string or (much more commonly) on the nylon-string guitar. Most of the well-known concert music repertoire has been adapted for the guitar. Bach’s Sonatas and Beethoven’s symphonies can be performed on the guitar. And there is a growing repertoire of classical music written for guitar in modern times, as well as an established canon of music by the original guitar educators: Sor, Carcassi, Tarrega and Giuliani.

Players who follow this path can learn to captivate audiences by performing complete solo guitar arrangements. There will typically be an emphasis on solo playing, but classical guitar ensembles certainly exist.

Acoustic fingerstyle guitar

Acoustic fingerstyle guitar is similar to classical guitar in some ways, but the guitars used are most often steel-string guitars with slightly wider necks and smaller bodies, the techniques played may be innovative and even invented as recently as the last few years, and the repertoire is of course much more expansive and contemporary.

Jazz guitar

Although guitar did not necessarily play a central role in early jazz, it has certainly found its place in the genre today.

There is a jazz-based style of solo guitar called “chord melody” that is played by creating complex arrangements of bass lines, melodies, and in-between harmonies. This style is perhaps most associated with the late Joe Pass.

More often, the jazz guitar player will learn to take on one or both of two roles in an ensemble: comping, which is tastefully playing chords to accompany another player, and soloing, which is to devise an improvised melody over complex and ever-changing chord changes.

The jazz guitar player may learn all of this through self-study and playing along with pre-recorded tracks.

Blues guitar

Blues guitar carries on what was once a mostly vocal style into one that has also now been adapted to instrumental ensembles or solo guitar.

As in jazz music, the blues guitar player will learn to play as a lead guitar player, perhaps playing the head or melody, then doing an improvised solo in the blues style.

The accompaniment pattern for blues will likely consist of one of many established chord progressions or patterns.

Latin guitar

Latin guitar is an expansive term used to cover Brazilian styles such as Bossa Nova and Samba, Afro-Cuban music, Flamenco music, Argentinian Tango, and folk styles from all over the Latin and Hispanic parts of the globe.

It would be difficult to generalize about so many types of music, except to say they often share a common heritage of Latin rhythms and African rhythms, and a fondness for the minor key.

Latin guitar can be seen in solo guitar styles as well as in instrumental ensembles.

Funk guitar

Funk guitar introduces some unusual demands for syncopation and interesting triplet rhythm patterns. The highly rhythmically challenging nature of this style is sure to stretch out your rhythmic abilities beyond their limits.

Bluegrass / country

Think of bluegrass as a cousin to country music, with more of an emphasis on uptempo music and instrumental prowess. The guitar has earned its place in the bluegrass toolkit by way of providing solid rhythm support to fiddle, mandolin and banjo. But the emphasis on instrumental musicianship in this style has also given support for high speed guitar solos.

Heavy metal guitar

Heavy metal typically features a straight rhythm, an upbeat tempo, and a flurry of high-octane guitar gymnastics.

Stepping onto one of the beaten paths, such as those described above, will expose the guitar player to a wide range of repertoire, an active community of players and listeners, and a living tradition of musical expression.

Musical Instrument Sales, Music Trades. Accessed December 17 2015.

As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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