Guitar evolution

The modern guitar is the product of thousands of years of evolution. The size, shape and construction of guitars has changed though history, but is this evolution now over?

The big idea in evolution is that in nature there are variations, some of these variants are more likely to survive (natural selection) and have their attributes are passed on to future generations. The same applies in guitar making. Guitars that play and sound the best are more likely to be popular and have their features incorporated into new models.

The old-fashioned way of guitar making allowed happy mistakes to drive guitar evolution. These were variations due to imprecise construction methods, which turned out to improve the instrument. For example: subtly changing the radius of the fingerboard, the body shape, the materials used, or the number of windings on the pickups. So, there was more variability in the end product; there were some terrible guitars and some great ones. The great ones could be studied and used to improve the next generation of guitars; the terrible ones could be exported to enemy countries.

Modern guitar manufacture uses components fabricated by robots, allowing much greater precision and consistency than in the past. The result is that there are few variations in mass produced guitars, fewer terrible ones but also fewer great ones. Guitar mutations are now confined to the research and development departments of the guitar makers and may never to make into the hands of guitar players.

What could be done to stimulate guitar evolution?

  • Customize your own guitar – make it a mutant. Eddie Van Halen’s customized Frakenstrat influenced a legion of eighties super-strats.

  • Guitar factories could build some randomness into their production robots.

  • Choose your next guitar based on sound and playability alone (not on brand name or artist endorsement). Market forces are the main driver of guitar evolution. Guitarists typically have very conservative taste, the most popular electric guitar are models which were designed in the 1950s. This conservatism stifles innovation.

Of course it could be the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul really are the peak of guitar evolution. Any further changes are just making things worse.

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