Making a Guitar

It all starts with a tree. With several trees, in fact. Since the first modern guitars were made in northern Spain over 150 years ago, craftspeople have known that a guitar is only as good as the wood from which it is made. Rosewood, mahogany, maple, spruce, ebony, cedar, willow—the names of the wood almost sound like music themselves!

Every guitar is made of several different kinds of wood. Each piece is carefully chosen and then cut to fit the part of the guitar for which it is designed.

The most important part of any guitar is the soundboard—the piece of wood with the large hole that lies underneath the strings. Guitar-makers are careful to make the soundboard just the right shape and thickness. Then they glue strips of wood across the inside in a special pattern. This bracing helps strengthen the soundboard. It also improves the tone of the guitar.

Wood for the curvy sides of the guitar must be soaked in water and bent over a hot iron pipe. When all the pieces of the guitar are ready, they are carefully glued together.

Special woodworking tools, like the rasp, are used to shape and smooth the neck of the guitar. Making a guitar takes a lot of time, patience, and skill. Craftspeople must make sure the neck is perfectly centered over the soundboard.

Finally it is time to apply varnish or lacquer. This finishing polish brings out the beauty of the wood and protects it from moisture and wear and tear. Varnish also improves the sound of the guitar—but too much makes the guitar sound flat and dull!

Guitar strings are attached and tightened to make just the right musical tones.

And now—it's time for a song!

Vocabulary

bracing:
A support.

rasp:
A coarse file.

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Activity

  1. How do you think volume on a guitar is changed?
    [anno: Volume on a guitar is changed by plucking the stringers harder or more softly. Students may also answer that if someone is playing an electric guitar, the volume is controlled by an amplifier.]
  2. A guitar usually has five or six different strings. How do you think pitch is controlled on a guitar?
    [anno: Answers may vary but could include that pitch is controlled by the thickness of the guitar string that is being plucked. Thinner strings may make higher pitched sounds than thicker strings. Also, where a person grasps the string along the neck of the guitar controls pitch as well.]
  3. There are many different instruments that have strings. Violins, cellos, and banjos all have strings. What is your favorite stringed instrument? What kind of sound does it make? Why is this stringed instrument your favorite? Write a few sentences about your favorite stringed instrument.
    [anno: Answers will vary.]
  4. Craftspeople take a lot of time to make the different parts of a guitar. They make sure that the soundboard is the right thickness. They use certain woods for the parts of a guitar. Why do you think craftspeople spend so much time making each part of a guitar? How might each part of a guitar affect the sound and tone of a guitar?
    [anno: Answers may vary but could include that a soundboard of uneven thickness may not amplify the vibrations that produce sound in a pleasing way. Students may also suggest that a soundboard made from a lighter, less dense kind of wood may amplify the sound differently than a soundboard made from a heavier, denser kind of wood. Students may suggest that each part of the guitar contributes to the overall sound that the guitar produces. If one soundboard is shaped differently than another, then the two guitars would have a different sound. If the neck of one guitar is longer than the neck of another guitar, the sound each produces will be different.]