Guitar | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Guitar: A plucked-string instrument with a fretted fingerboard.


Development and Characteristics of the Modern Guitar

Guitar: A plucked-string instrument with a fretted fingerboard.

In the 16th century the four-course guitar was a popular instrument, especially in France and Spain. Spain was also home to the more sophisticated vihuela, an instrument similar to the guitar but larger, with five courses. By the 17th century the five-course guitar was well established. There is an extensive European repertoire from this period of both popular strummed music and sophisticated art music.

The modern guitar has metal frets and usually six single strings. Exceptions include the twelve-string guitar (six double strings tuned in octaves), and instruments with added bass strings. Most commonly this results in instruments with seven, eight, or ten strings. Classical guitars are strung with nylon (replacing the gut of earlier times). Folk guitar or acoustic guitar styles generally use steel strings.

The electric guitar, a development of the early 20th century, is either an acoustic guitar with an added pickup/microphone or a solid body guitar (ie, no sound box). In the former, the natural acoustic sound influences the amplified sound. In the solid body guitar, the sound is entirely an electronic product. The rise in popularity of world music has led to the development of amplified classical guitars, as this is the primary instrument of both Spanish and South American music. Many classical players now use some form of amplification when performing in mixed ensembles or with orchestras.

History of the Guitar in Canada

European immigrants first brought the guitar to Canada in the mid 17th century. A letter of 4 Oct 1658 (Lettres de la Révérende Mère Marie de I'Incarnation, Tournai 1876), cited in Kallmann's History of Music in Canada, describes the use of a guitar to lull some Iroquois to sleep, allowing French captives to escape certain death. The officer Jacques Bizard, in 1678 named seigneur of the island near Montreal that would bear his name, possessed a guitar or lute, while the principal businessman in 17th-century Nouvelle-France, Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye, kept a guitar in his work cabinet (La Vie musicale, p. 328, 352). In 1992, archaeologists found, at la Petite Ferme in the Séminaire de Québec, situated on the side of Beaupré east of Quebec, a fragment of a guitar peg box in bone engraved with a lovely muse playing the vièle-à-bras. This fragment, from whose style we can date to 1690-1720, had fallen between the cracks in the floor of the chapel that burned down in 1769 (La Vie musicale, p. 400-401).

In 1752 John Smith of Halifax advertised the sale of guitars. Frederick Glackemeyer taught (and repaired) the guitar in Quebec City and Montreal. The bandmaster Jouve performed and offered lessons on "Le Guitare Française" during the same period. As early as 1790, guitar lessons were part of the young ladies' academy prospectus at the Ursuline Convent in Quebec City.

Montreal was a centre of guitar music in Canada until the mid 19th century. Musicians such as Jean Brauneis I, Signor Jean Muscarelli, Mme Goni, and Mrs. Stennett offered instruction and gave public performances on the instrument. Advertisements by Mead & Co showed the availability of French, Spanish, and Italian guitars in the city. The instrument was used largely as an accompaniment to the voice, and was very much influenced by prevailing trends in European musical fashion.

Victoria, BC, had one of the most active guitar circles in the late 19th century. Much of this activity was centred around the choral group Germania Singverein, formed in 1861. Abraham Hoffman and Charles Hegele had a guitar duo playing popular music transcribed and/or composed by C.G. St. Clair and E. Pique. By the 1890s guitar, banjo, and mandolin groups were popular in Victoria and in most other Canadian cities. Instruction was offered in most major cities as well as in numerous educational institutions for young ladies, especially in Ontario and Quebec. Advertisements and catalogues from US mail-order houses allowed residents of Eastern Canada to order music and guitars directly from the USA, which mass-produced affordable instruments.

There is little mention of the guitar after World War I, until its growth in popularity after 1945. This was part of the worldwide resurgence of interest in the instrument, leading to its present dominance in the field of popular and folk music.

Guitar Makers in Canada

Canadian craftsmen of acoustic guitars have included Richard Berg, Geza Burkhardt, Sergei de Jong, Michael Dunn, Frank Gay, Louis Gosselin, Oscar Graff, George Gray, Chris Griffiths, Neil Herbert, Gordon Judd, Jean-Claude Larrivée, Grit Laskin, Charles-Lévis Laterreur, Bill and Jack Lewis, Patt Lister, Linda Manzer, Fritz Muller, Kolya Panhuysen, Daryl Perry, Mikhail Robert, Edward Rusnac, Daniel Stickel, René Wilhelmy, Daryl Williams, and David Wren. The largest Canadian manufacturer was Guitabec, formerly Norman Guitars Inc, founded in 1972 in La Patrie, Que, by Normand Boucher. Its annual production reached 6,000 instruments by 1972. Unisonic Inc, another firm in La Patrie, produced the Kamouraska model. The Larrivée factory in Vancouver produced both production line and customized electric, acoustic, and classical guitars. Chris Griffiths received a Manning Award of Distinction in 2003 for his innovative bracing system.

Classical Guitar in Canada

Classical Guitarists 1948-70

In 1948 Norman Chapman of Toronto gave one of the earliest known solo classical guitar performances by a Canadian. The instrument gained acceptance as a legitimate concert instrument during the 1950s, and by the end of the decade Stephen Fentok had established the guitar curriculum at the McGill Conservatory and at École Vincent d'Indy. Eli Kassner was the guitar pioneer in Toronto, and by 1951 had introduced the instrument into the syllabus of the RCMT. Between 1950 and 1970, the classical guitar was introduced into all major university and conservatory music programs.

Kassner was well-known for producing many of Canada's finest concert artists. Other important teachers of the period included John Perone in Toronto, Antonin Bartos and Carol van Feggelen in Montreal, and Robert Christopher Jordan in Vancouver. Master classes held by Julian Bream at the Stratford Festival, and Alirio Diaz and Oscar Ghiglia at the Banff SFA, encouraged Canadian guitar students at this time. The Orford Art Centre also presented master classes with Pierre Augé, the duo of Ako Ito and Henry Dorigny, and Alexander Lagoya.

Classical Guitarists 1970-89

During the 1970s there was a substantial increase in the number of concert performers, and the remarkable career of Liona Boyd began at this time. Other notable performers and teachers of this period include Stephen Boswell; Philip Candelaria; Bartholemew Crago; Paul André Gagnon; Lynne Gangbar; Paul Gerrits; Lynne Harting-Ware; Davis Joachim; Norbert Kraft (grand prize winner of the 1979 CBC Talent Festival and top prize winner at the 1985 Segovia International Guitar Competition in Mallorca, Spain); Michael Laucke; Robert Lemieux; Peter McCutcheon; Martin and Marie Prével; Douglas Reach; Alan Rinehart; Ray Sealey; Michael Strutt (prize winner at the 1976 International Guitar Competition in Alicante, Spain); Alan Torok; the Wilson-McAllister Duo; and Jean Vallières.

Classical Guitarists After 1990

After the 1980s, a new generation of players substantially increased the guitar's profile both in Canada and internationally. These included Michael Bracken; Aaron Brock; Philip Candelaria (prize winner in the Bartoli International Competition in France); Danielle Cumming; Rachel Gauk; John Goulart (prize winner in the Guitar Foundation of America Competition 1992); Jeffrey McFadden (silver medallist in the Guitar Foundation of America Competition 1992); Harold Micay; Gordon O'Brian (first prize winner in the John Williams International Competition in Australia); Sylvie Proulx; and Patrick Roux (first prize winner in the Canadian National Guitar Competition 1989).

By making their home abroad, a number of Canadian guitarists added to the international profile through their performances and teaching: Daniel Bolshoy is at the Indiana University School of Music; Remi Boucher (winner of many high-level international competitions including the Segovia Competition in Spain, and the Mauro Guiliani and Fernando Sor Competitions in Italy) lives in Austria. Vincea McClelland was based in Paris and was honorary adviser to the Guitar Societies of Shanghai and Beijing; Dale Kavanagh is at the Musikhochschule in Detmold, Germany.

The Canadian guitar community continued to be augmented by immigrant artists. These included the American Alexander Dunn, who moved to Victoria; and the internationally acclaimed performer Alvaro Pierri (a gold medal winner in the Paris International Guitar Competition), who settled in Montreal. The Scottish-born performer and editor-publisher of many important early music editions, Simon Wynberg, based himself in Toronto.

Other Guitar Experts

Carol van Feggelin, who also taught at the Royal Conservatory of Music and later at Dalhousie University, amassed one of the finest collections of guitars in North America. Abel Nagytothy-Toth of Montreal was a recognized authority on the literature and music of the instrument and had an extensive library including many important early editions.


Almost all of the major Canadian composers have written music for the guitar. The list includes John Armstrong, Edward Arteaga, Milton Barnes, Robert Bauer, Walter Buczynski, Stephen Chatman, Robert Daigneault, Omar Daniel, Samuel Dolin, Robert Feuerstein, Alain Gagnon, Claude Gagnon, Steven Gellman, Gary Hayes, Jacques Hétu, Douglas Jamieson, Otto Joachim, Denis Lorrain, Bruce Mather, François Morel, R. Murray Schafer, John Oliver, Harry Somers, Alan Torok, and John Weinzweig. Major works that have attracted international attention include Le Cri de Merlin (Schafer), Suite (Hétu), and Contrasts (Weinzweig).

Guitar Societies

Societies for the promotion of interest in the guitar have existed in Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Kingston, Lethbridge, London, Montreal, Ottawa, Sault Ste Marie, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg. Some of these are now defunct. The most active societies were Calgary, Ottawa, and especially the Guitar Society of Toronto, which promoted a series of major international guitar festivals (1975, 1978, 1981, 1984, and 1987). In 1986 the first Canadian National Guitar Competition was held in Toronto. In later years it was held in Ottawa (1989) and Calgary (1992).


With few exceptions, jazz guitarists play an electric instrument, and their function in a group closely parallels the support and solo role of the pianist. Prominent jazz guitarists in Canada have included Ernie Blunt, Oliver Gannon, Ray Norris, Ron Samworth, and Felix Smalley (Vancouver); Bob Cairns (Edmonton), Gordie Brandt (Saskatoon); Greg Lowe and Larry Roy (Winnipeg), Lenny Breau (Winnipeg-Toronto); Georgie Arthur, Ed Bickert, Art DeVilliers, Kenny Gill, Sonny Greenwich, Peter Leitch, Lorne Lofsky, Hank Monis, Roy Patterson, Rob Piltch, Reg Schwager, and Stan Wilson (Toronto); Roddy Ellias (Ottawa); Donald Meunier (Hull and Montreal); Greenwich, Leitch, Mike Gauthier, Ben Johnson, Gilbert 'Buck' Lacombe, Sylvain Provost, Tony Romandini, Eric St-Laurent, Nelson Symonds, and Bill White (Montreal), and Jamie Colpitts (Moncton).

Canadians Arnold "Red" McGarvey and Danny Perri had careers in the USA, the former briefly with Red Norvo in the 1930s, and the latter with Jack Hylton and for many years as accompanist to Perry Como. Belgian guitarist René Thomas lived 1958-63 in Montreal; the influential US blues musician Lonnie Johnson, 1965-70 in Toronto. Other US guitarists active in Canada have included Michael Muñoz in Toronto and Eugene Chadbourne in Calgary during the early 1970s and Stan Samole in Toronto as of 1984.

In the fusion idiom that combines elements of jazz and rock, Piltch, Michel Cusson (UZEB), Joey Goldstein, Harris Van Berkel (Skywalk), Tony Zorzi, and Geoff Young have been prominent, while Tim Brady, Lloyd Garber, and René Lussier have explored free improvisation and new techniques of guitar playing.

Studio orchestras usually employ jazz-based guitarists, among them Gannon in Vancouver, Bickert, Bobby Edwards, Bob Mann, and Jim Pirie in Toronto, and Lacombe, Romandini, and Richard Ring in Montreal. Rock guitarists also draw studio assignments for jingles and film music. Tony Bradan has been an important teacher in both the jazz and rock fields, and Bickert and Symonds have had a strong influence on other guitarists in their respective cities.

The Canadians Arnold 'Red' McGarvey and Danny Perri had careers in the USA, the former briefly with Red Norvo in the 1930s, and the latter with Jack Hylton and for many years as accompanist to Perry Como. The Belgian guitarist René Thomas lived 1958-63 in Montreal; the influential US blues musician Lonnie Johnson, 1965-70 in Toronto. Other US guitarists active in Canada have included Michael Muñoz in Toronto and Eugene Chadbourne in Calgary during the early 1970s and Stan Samole in Toronto as of 1984.

See also Jazz.

Rock And Folk

The largest number of guitarists in Canada play in these styles and are often self-taught musicians. The level of accomplishment required to play folk or rock music or the music of the chansonniers consists, at its most basic, of a knowledge of a small number of chords. Nevertheless many highly skilled players have developed in both styles.

Among the folk guitarists were Amos Garrett, David Rea, and Laurice Milton 'Red' Shea, who were accompanists in the 1960s to Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, and others. Shea (b Laurice Pouliot, Prince Albert, Sask 1938?, d Aurora, Ont 10 Jun 2008) later worked with the Good Brothers and Tommy Hunter.

Most folk singer-songwriters accompany themselves on guitar and Bruce Cockburn, Stephen Fearing, Sue Foley, Ken Hamm, and Don Ross are particularly renowned for their instrumental skills. Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan, and the country singer Terri Clark are additional examples of highly successful singers who accompany themselves on guitar. Shirley Eikhard has written for guitar; her 'Pickin' My Way' was recorded by Chet Atkins.

Among the rock guitarists, who use electric instruments almost exclusively, are 'Red' Armstrong, David Bendeth, Terry Bush, Randy Bachman (BTO), Marvin Birt (Haywire), Rik Emmett (Triumph), Derry Grehan (Honeymoon Suite), Bill Hill (J.B. and the Playboys), Fred Keeler, Roger Law (Mother Tucker's Yellow Duck), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Frank Marino, Moe Marshall (Jury), Danny McBride, Kim Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, Ed Patterson, Walter Rossi, and David Wilcox. Stacey Heydon, Robbie Robertson, Pat Travers, Dom Troiano, and Zal Yanovsky have had significant careers in rock outside of Canada. (See also Rock.) Others, including Jean-Marie Benoit, Gaye Delorme, Kat (Kathleen) Dyson, Terry Frewer, Rick Haworth, Danny McBride, and Robert Stanley, have made careers largely as accompanists in studio and/or concert to pop and rock figures. Canadian blues and blues-rock guitarists of note include Jeff Healey, Colin James, Jimmy James, Paul James, Colin Linden, Ellen McIlwaine, Mike McKenna, Jack Semple, Margaret Stowe, and John Tilden.

Notable proponents of the bass guitar have included Melissa Auf der Maur (formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, and latterly leading her own band); Alain Caron (UZEB); Sylvain Gagnon; Denny Gerrard; David Piltch; and Rene Worst (Skywalk). The bassist Bruce Palmer (b Liverpool, NS, 9 Sept 1946; d Belleville, Ont, 4 Oct 2004) cofounded the influential 1960s country-rock band Buffalo Springfield.

Hawaiian Guitar; Pedal Steel Guitar

Of the variants of the guitar, the Hawaiian guitar was popular in North America in the 1920s and 1930s when the singer-guitarist Ben Hokea lived (in turn) in Toronto and Montreal and recorded for Compo and HMV. The pedal steel guitar, prevalent in country music, has had among its leading Canadian exponents Al Briscoe, Ron Dann, Mike 'Pepe' Francis, Ken Greer, Ernie Hagar, Bob Lucier, Steve Smith, and Art Williams.

World Music

After 1990 there was a substantial growth in the area of world music. This is an interdisciplinary field, with players often having experience in classical, jazz, and folk styles and techniques. Prominent players and recording artists have included Jesse Cook, John Gilliat, and Celso Machado.

Further Reading

External Links