There’s something magical about solo guitar music.
In Greek Mythology, It was Hermes who crafted the first plucked string instrument. This “lyre” proved so entrancing that it helped him settle a dispute with his brother Apollo, who would go on to master its secrets. The guitar has many ancient antecedents, the lyre being one of them, but it was the “vihuela” of 15th century Spain that assumed the most clearly guitar-like proportions. Initially, it was used to supply chordal accompaniment to vocals, but composers increasingly found new ways to navigate its possibilities. The first solo, instrumental pieces published for the Vihuela were “fantasias”, meaning they followed their own rules and placed a strong emphasis on improvisation.
By the early 19th century, the guitar as we know it in terms of tuning and construction had emerged, and guitarist/composers across the globe were taking advantage of the instrument’s popularity. It briefly fell out of favor later into the 1800s due to various factors (not the least of which was its relative lack of volume when compared to a violin or piano), but despite this sway of courtly opinion, the instrument remained popular in folkloric circles, further solidifying its cultural resonance. By the turn of the next century, largely due to the efforts of esteemed luthier Antonio De Torres Jurado and guitarist/composers such as Julian Arcas and Francisco Tarrega, the guitar had been refined and re-established as a reputable “classical” instrument, capable of conveying the complexity of Bach, as well as the fire of Flamenco.
It’s range, portability, and acceptance in both folk and concert contexts set the guitar up to be arguably the most popular instrument of the 20th century. Furthermore, though highly adaptable in ensemble settings, its simultaneous melodic and harmonic potential made it ideal for soloists. One of the first pioneers in the classical realm was Andres Segovia, whose ambitious repertoire and staggering virtuosity earned him world-wide acclaim. Latin America experienced a classical guitar renaissance, as well, lead by the Paraguayan master, Agustin Barrios. Meanwhile, early North American folk musicians were adapting banjo, fiddle, and vocal tunes to six strings.
Jazz music, with its emphasis on instrumental mastery, pushed the boundaries of what the guitar was capable of, even inspiring the notable soloist George Van Eps to add a 7th bass string. While early Jazz players such as Freddie Green established the guitar as a rhythm instrument in the genre, electric pickups allowed artists such as Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass to cut through with horn-like lead lines. Ideally, a jazz guitarist is capable of playing every role within an ensemble: percussive chops, bass lines, searing leads, and complex harmonies. Although many of the greats still preferred to record and perform with groups, a few of them recorded solo guitar albums that are definitely worth a listen. Check out “Virtuoso” by Joe Pass and “Soliloquy ”by George Van Eps. For a more adventurous listen, check out “Guitar” by Sonny Sharrock or “Saints” by Marc Ribot.
Although the 60s folk revival is best known for its anthemic lyricism, some artists were more concerned with the preservation and veneration of rural American instrumental music. One of the most important records in this vein was the 1956 release “Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians”, which featured the guitar work of a virtuosic textile-mill worker named Etta Baker. Baker’s effortless syncopations and inventive compositions caught the attention of then unknown Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal. Her “piedmont” picking style became the template for masterful folk guitar playing for years to come.
One notable accolade of American instrumental guitar music was a Marylander named John Fahey. Wary of the burgeoning rock and roll scene, Fahey immersed himself in old 78s, and even went to far as to seek out the still-living artists that he had come to revere, such as Skip James and Bukka White. His own musical output primarily consisted of solo instrumental compositions for acoustic guitar, and most of it is staggeringly beautiful. At one point he off-handedly referred to his style of playing as “American Primitive”, and it stuck. He went on to inspire countless up and coming guitarists (including Leo Kottke, who he had to convince to remain instrumental), and remains highly influential to this day. Subsequent American Primitivists include Glenn Jones, Jack Jones, and Daniel Bachman.
Since Rock & Roll is such a rhythmic form, it’s rare to encounter someone onstage shredding “soli”. That said, there are still some wonderful examples of what one guitarist can do with six strings and a whole lot of gain. Roy Buchanan, one of the most under-appreciated guitarists of all time (they even made a documentary about it), didn’t need any accompaniment to captivate an audience:
Obviously, neither did Jimi:
Finally, I must confess that I am guilty of consistently and flagrantly playing air guitar with Eddie Hazel whenever “Maggot Brain” comes on (technically, there are two guitars, though).
One of the greatest joys in being a musician is playing with other musicians. That said, for those of us who tend to require solitude (hermits, introverts, etc.) that isn’t always an option. Furthermore, there’s something to be said for the natural inventiveness that arises when someone is tasked with distilling the essence of a piece of music onto one instrument. When the great blind guitarist Gary Davis heard a brass band there was little hesitation. He set about fitting it into his guitar. Which sounds are most important and what can this thing DO? These are the eternal questions.