How the Six-String Changed the Sounds of the South

Photo of author

Few instruments hold as much cultural and historical significance as the guitar, and in particular, its role in the birth of country music. The guitar has been a staple instrument in country music from its earliest days, playing a vital role in shaping the sound and style of the genre. But how did the guitar come to be so closely associated with country music? What are the historical and cultural factors that led to its prominence in the genre? In this article, we will explore the fascinating history of the guitar and its impact on the evolution of country music, from its origins in Appalachia to its current position as one of America’s most beloved musical styles. So grab your pick and let’s dive into the rich history of the guitar in country music.

The Origins of Country Music

The Origins Of Country Music
The origins of country music are often traced back to the migration of Scots-Irish folks to Appalachia in the early 18th century. However, the role of the guitar in this birth of a new genre is often overlooked. It’s important to understand the impact of African-American music on the development of stringed instruments in the United States and the social context in which country music and the guitar evolved. From the acoustic origins to the influential country guitarists of the modern era, the guitar has played a vital role in shaping the sound and style of country music. So, let’s explore the deep roots of the Country genre and its relationship with the guitar.

The Migration of Scots-Irish Folks to Appalachia

In the early years of country music, one of the most significant events that helped shape the sound and style of the genre was the migration of Scots-Irish folks to Appalachia. These immigrants brought with them a rich tradition of folk music and storytelling that would ultimately lay the foundation for what we know as country music today.

Here are a few key points about the Scots-Irish migration:

  • This group of European immigrants settled primarily in the Appalachian Mountains, which extend from Maine to Georgia.
  • They were known for their love of music and storytelling, and brought with them a variety of stringed instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, and guitar.
  • Their musical traditions blended with those of the African-American slaves who also lived in the region, resulting in a unique fusion of styles that would later come to be known as “old-time” music.
  • The music of the Scots-Irish immigrants often reflected the hardships and struggles of their daily lives, including themes of love, loss, and loneliness. These themes would later become hallmarks of the country music genre.

It is impossible to overstate the influence that this group of immigrants had on the development of country music. Their musical traditions provided a rich foundation for later generations of country artists to build upon, and their unique style helped to set the genre apart from other forms of popular music.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history and social context of country music and the guitar in the United States, be sure to check out our article on the subject. You can also read about some of the most influential country guitarists of all time by clicking on this link: Influential Country Guitarists.

African-American Influences on Stringed Instruments

The African-American community played a significant role in the development of country music, particularly in terms of the stringed instruments commonly used in the genre. Here are some of the key ways in which African-American influences shaped the sound of country music:

  • Scots-Irish encounter with the banjo: When the Scots-Irish migrated to Appalachia, they brought with them various stringed instruments, such as the fiddle, dulcimer, and mandolin. However, they were exposed to the banjo through interactions with African-American slaves in the region. The banjo quickly became popular among the Scots-Irish and was eventually incorporated into country music, adding a distinct sound to the genre.
  • Blues-style guitar playing: African-American blues music heavily influenced the guitar playing style used in country music. The blues scale, which features flattened third and seventh notes, was incorporated into country songs, adding a soulful and emotional quality to the music. Artists such as Jimmie Rodgers were known to incorporate bluesy guitar riffs into their songs.
  • Slide guitar: The use of a slide on the guitar to create a distinctive, bluesy sound was also popularized by African-American musicians, such as Sylvester Weaver. This technique was eventually incorporated into country music, with artists like Roy Acuff using it in their songs.
  • Electric guitar: While the acoustic guitar is typically associated with country music, the electric guitar has also played an important role in the genre. African-American musicians such as T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry helped pioneer the use of the electric guitar in blues and rock ‘n’ roll, which in turn influenced the development of electric guitar playing in country music.

The African-American community’s impact on the development of country music is undeniable. From the introduction of the banjo to the use of blues-style guitar playing and the incorporation of the electric guitar, African-American influences have shaped the sound of country music and continue to do so to this day. To learn more about how African-American music has impacted the genre, check out our article on African-American Music’s Impact on Country Guitar. If you want to delve deeper into the acoustic guitar’s influence on country music, read our article on Acoustic Guitar in Country Music.

The Rise of String Bands and Honky-Tonks

The Rise Of String Bands And Honky-Tonks
As country music continued to spread throughout the United States in the early 20th century, it found a home in dance halls and honky-tonks across the country. The rise of string bands and honky-tonks provided a new platform for musicians to share their stories and entertain audiences with their unique sound. This period in country music history was marked by the emergence of new stars and new styles, as the genre continued to evolve and grow in popularity. Let’s take a closer look at how this era helped shape the modern sound of country music.

Radio and Recordings

In the early 1900s, the emergence of the radio and the recording industry helped spread country music beyond its Appalachian roots. The popularity of programs like the Grand Ole Opry, which began broadcasting in Nashville in 1925, brought country music to a wider audience. This led to the rise of string bands like The Skillet Lickers and The Carter Family, who gained fame through their recordings for labels such as Victor and Columbia Records.

The Grand Ole Opry quickly became a beloved institution for country music fans across the country. Radio stations across America began broadcasting the Opry’s live performances, amplifying its popularity and reach. As a result, the Opry became the launching pad for many famous country music careers, including those of Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams.

With the rise of recording studios, country music was able to capture the attention of even more people. Labels began signing artists who could bring new sounds to the genre, such as Western swing and honky-tonk. In 1947, the emergence of Capitol Records led to the popularizing of honky-tonk with The Weldon Brothers’ hit “New Panhandle Rag”.

Billboard Magazine began publishing charts specifically for country music in 1948. This meant that the success of a country music record could be measured and compared to other genres like jazz and pop.

As technology progressed, so did the ability to record music more efficiently and with higher quality. The 1950s saw a rise in rockabilly and rock and roll, with artists like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins taking inspiration from early country music legends like Bill Monroe.

The radio and recording industry helped to bring country music to a wider audience and paved the way for new sounds and styles within the genre.

Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing

During the 1930s and 1940s, two new music styles emerged that would have a major impact on country music: Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing. These genres emphasized the guitar’s role in the rhythm section, paving the way for the electric guitar’s dominance in country music.

Hillbilly Boogie was a style of music that emerged in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was characterized by a fast-paced rhythm and a prominent use of the guitar. Musicians like Delmore Brothers, Bill Haley & His Saddlemen, and Moon Mullican popularized this genre. Hillbilly Boogie was considered a precursor to rock and roll, with its fast tempos and upbeat rhythms.

Western Swing was another new style of music that emerged during this time period. Developed in Texas, Western Swing combined elements of jazz, blues, and country music. The guitar played a much more prominent role in Western Swing than it did in traditional country music. Musicians like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Spade Cooley were among the most popular Western Swing performers.

To fully understand Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing, let’s take a closer look at each of these genres.

Hillbilly Boogie

Characteristics of Hillbilly Boogie Hillbilly Boogie Musicians
– Fast-paced rhythm
– Use of electric guitar
– Use of boogie-woogie piano
– Lyrics focused on love and romance
– Delmore Brothers
– Bill Haley & His Saddlemen
– Moon Mullican

Hillbilly Boogie was all about rhythm and energy. It was characterized by a faster tempo than traditional country music and featured a prominent use of the electric guitar. The use of the boogie-woogie piano was also common, adding to the genre’s upbeat sound. Hillbilly Boogie lyrics often focused on love and romance, featuring themes that were relatable to listeners.

The Delmore Brothers were pioneers of the Hillbilly Boogie sound, recording songs like “Hillbilly Boogie” and “Pan American Boogie.” Bill Haley & His Saddlemen also embraced this new style, recording hits like “Rock the Joint” and “Ten Little Indians.” Moon Mullican was another popular Hillbilly Boogie musician, with songs like “Cherokee Boogie” and “Seven Nights to Rock.”

Western Swing

Characteristics of Western Swing Western Swing Musicians
– Blend of jazz, blues, and country music
– Use of electric guitar, fiddle, and steel guitar
– Fast tempo with frequent tempo changes
– Lyrics focused on life in the American West
– Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
– Spade Cooley
– Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies

Western Swing was a unique blend of jazz, blues, and country music. The use of electric instruments like the guitar, fiddle, and steel guitar was prominent. The genre was known for its fast tempos and frequent tempo changes, adding to its energetic sound. Western Swing lyrics often focused on life in the American West, telling stories of cowboys, rodeos, and life on the range.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were the most influential Western Swing band of the era. They recorded hits like “San Antonio Rose” and “New San Antonio Rose,” which became instant classics. Spade Cooley was another popular Western Swing musician, with songs like “Shame on You” and “Detour.” Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies were also influential in the development of Western Swing, with songs like “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “The Eyes of Texas.”

Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing helped pave the way for the guitar’s dominance in country music. These genres embraced the guitar’s role in the rhythm section, setting the stage for the electric guitar revolution that was to come.

The Electric Guitar Revolutionizes Country Music

The Electric Guitar Revolutionizes Country Music
As country music migrated from its humble origins in the Appalachian mountains to the honky-tonks of Nashville, the guitar would play an increasingly important role in shaping the genre’s sound. But it wasn’t until the advent of the electric guitar that country truly began to rock. With the ability to sustain notes and produce a wider range of tones, the electric guitar gave birth to a whole new sub-genre of country music. So, how did the electric guitar revolutionize country music? Let’s take a closer look.

Chet Atkins and the Nashville Sound

During the 1950s and 60s, “The Country Gentleman” Chet Atkins emerged as a leader in the country music industry. Atkins was a legendary guitarist and producer who played a pivotal role in the creation of the Nashville Sound, a subgenre of country that blended traditional country instrumentation with pop-style production techniques.

Atkins’ innovative use of the guitar and unique playing style were both instrumental in shaping the Nashville Sound. He incorporated a variety of guitar techniques, such as fingerpicking and string bending, into his playing, which helped create a more sophisticated sound. Atkins also experimented with new production techniques, such as using an orchestra in his arrangements, which lent a more polished, pop sound to country music.

Through his work as a producer, Atkins helped to create hit songs for many of the biggest names in country music, such as Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline. He also played guitar on numerous recording sessions, both as a solo artist and as a session musician for other artists.

Atkins’ legacy in country music is still felt today. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, and his contributions to the Nashville Sound and country music as a whole are immeasurable. Many contemporary country guitarists still draw inspiration from Atkins’ playing style and innovative use of production techniques.

Chet Atkins and the Nashville Sound
Chet Atkins played a key role in the creation of the Nashville Sound, a subgenre of country music that blended traditional country instrumentation with pop-style production techniques.
Atkins’ unique playing style and use of guitar techniques like fingerpicking and string bending helped to create a more sophisticated sound in country music.
As a producer, Atkins contributed to hit songs by big country names such as Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline. He also played guitar on numerous recording sessions.
Atkins’ legacy in country music still influences contemporary country guitarists who draw inspiration from his playing style and innovative use of production techniques.

Outlaw Country and Alternative Twang

Outlaw Country and Alternative Twang represented a breakaway from the standard Nashville sound and marked a return to a more traditional style of country music. The guitar, as always, played a vital role in these sub-genres, with artists using it to tell their stories of rebellion and individuality.

Outlaw Country Alternative Twang
Outlaw country emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s and was championed by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. These artists rejected the slick production values of the Nashville sound and instead favored a raw, gritty sound with a focus on the lyrics and storytelling. The guitar was central to this movement, with artists using it to create a sense of urgency and rebellion. As the ’80s dawned and mainstream country became increasingly slick and pop-oriented, a new sub-genre known as alternative twang emerged. Artists like Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle drew on the sounds of traditional country and rockabilly, but added their own alternative flair. The guitar continued to be a central component, but the emphasis was more on melody and nuance than on sheer power.

The guitarists of these movements were known for their distinctive playing styles, which often drew on blues and rock influences as well as traditional country techniques. For example, Waylon Jennings was known for his use of the Fender Telecaster, which he played with a distinctive thumb-picking style. Meanwhile, Dwight Yoakam favored the Telecaster as well, but also incorporated elements of surf rock and rockabilly into his playing.

Outlaw Country and Alternative Twang represented important moments in the history of the guitar in country music. These sub-genres allowed artists to push the boundaries and explore new sounds, while still paying homage to the rich tradition of country music that had come before. The guitar continued to play a vital role in the genre, serving as a conduit for emotion, storytelling, and rebellion.

The Guitar in Modern Country Music

As country music evolved over time, so did the role of the guitar. With the rise of new subgenres and influences from other genres, the guitar continued to reign supreme as a key instrument in the world of country music. From traditional sounds to pop-infused hits, the versatility of the guitar has allowed it to remain a cornerstone in the ongoing evolution of the genre. Let’s take a closer look at the guitar’s place in modern country music.

New Traditionalism and Country Pop

In the 1980s, there was a resurgence of traditional country music, known as New Traditionalism. This movement emphasized classic country instrumentation, such as fiddles, steel guitars, and acoustic guitars. Iconic performers of this era include George Strait, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam.

So what brought about this return to traditional sounds? For starters, many fans and musicians had grown tired of the crossover success of country pop artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. These performers had achieved mainstream popularity by incorporating elements of pop, rock, and disco into their music. While this made them household names and earned them a great deal of money, it also drew criticism from traditionalists who felt that the genre was losing its roots.

Another factor was the rise of alternative country, which emerged as a reaction to the slick, polished sound of Nashville. Alternative country, also known as Americana, drew from a wide range of influences, including folk, rock, and punk. Performers like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Uncle Tupelo helped to redefine what country music could be.

But while traditionalism and alternative twang were gaining ground, so too was country pop. In fact, the 1980s saw the rise of superstars like Reba McEntire, Alabama, and Garth Brooks, who brought a polished, pop-infused sound to the genre. These artists were wildly popular, selling millions of albums and packing out arenas across the country.

It’s worth noting that while country pop has sometimes been criticized for being too slick and generic, it has also played an important role in bringing new fans to country music. Additionally, many artists have successfully blended elements of traditional and pop country. For example, Shania Twain is known for incorporating rock and pop into her music, but she has also been influenced by traditional country performers like Dolly Parton.

Today’s country music is a reflection of all these influences and more. From the honky-tonks of the 1920s to the pop charts of the present day, the guitar has been a key part of the genre’s evolution. Whether it’s the twangy sound of a Telecaster or the soaring solo of a Les Paul, the guitar continues to play an important role in country music, driving the songs forward and providing a foundation for the stories that make this genre so timeless.

The Influence of Rock and Blues on the Genre

The influence of rock and blues on country music is undeniable. As the 1960s and 1970s rolled around, country music began to take on a more modern sound, with electric guitars and drums becoming more prominent in the genre. This shift was largely influenced by the emergence of rock music and its impact on popular culture.

Some of the most notable artists of this era who incorporated rock and blues elements into their country music include Johnny Cash, who added a groovy beat to his classic country sound, and Willie Nelson, who infused his music with bluesy guitar riffs and soulful vocals.

Here are some of the ways that rock and blues influenced country music:

  • Electric Guitars: The explosive rock sound of the electric guitar found its way into country music, with pioneers like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry inspiring country guitarists to try their hand at the new sound. This added a new layer of excitement to country music and helped it appeal to a wider audience.
  • Drums: Similarly, the use of drums in country music became more common, thanks to the influence of rock music. The steady beat of the drums created a new driving rhythm that energized the genre and set it apart from its more traditional roots.
  • Lyrics: The lyrics of country music also began to evolve, with more emphasis on themes of heartbreak, loss, and rebellion. This was influenced by the confessional nature of rock and blues songs, which often explored personal experiences and emotions in a raw and honest way.
  • Attitude: Finally, the influence of rock and blues on country music brought a new attitude to the genre. Country music had always been known for its earnest and sentimental approach, but the infusion of rock and blues added a sense of rebellion and swagger to the music. This can be seen in the emergence of outlaw country, which emphasized a more rough and tumble image for country artists.

The influence of rock and blues on country music has helped the genre stay relevant and fresh over the years. By embracing new sounds and attitudes, country music has continued to evolve and capture the hearts of fans all over the world.


In conclusion, the guitar has played an essential role in the birth, development, and evolution of country music. From the earliest days of the Scottish-Irish migration to Appalachia, to the African-American influences on stringed instruments, the guitar has been a vital tool for musicians to tell their stories.

The popularity of string bands and honky-tonks in the early twentieth century expanded the reach of country music across the United States. With the advent of radio and recordings, the genre began to reach even more listeners, and hillbilly boogie and western swing brought new energy to the sound.

The introduction of the electric guitar revolutionized country music and helped shape the Nashville sound through the skill of musicians like Chet Atkins. Outlaw country and alternative twang later emerged, embracing a raw and rebellious spirit that felt distinct from mainstream country.

Today, the guitar continues to be a defining feature of country music, as the genre has undergone shifts toward new traditionalism and country pop. With the influence of rock and blues, modern country has absorbed new sounds and styles while staying firmly rooted in the guitar-driven tradition.

Overall, the guitar is a crucial element in the history and ongoing evolution of country music. Its versatility and emotional range have made it an essential tool for musicians to express themselves and connect with audiences. As the genre continues to grow and change, the power of the guitar remains a constant force driving its sound forward.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were some popular stringed instruments used in early country music?

Early country musicians used a variety of stringed instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar.

What is the “Nashville sound”?

The “Nashville Sound” was a style of country music created by Chet Atkins in the 1950s that combined elements of pop and jazz with traditional country music.

Who were some early pioneers of country music?

Early pioneers of country music include Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Roy Acuff.

What role did radio play in the rise of country music?

Radio played a significant role in the rise of country music by allowing musicians to reach a wider audience and by popularizing the genre through various shows and broadcasts.

What is honky-tonk music?

Honky-tonk music is a style of country music that originated in the 1940s and is characterized by its upbeat rhythms and lyrics about heartache, love, and drinking.

Who were some notable outlaw country musicians?

Notable outlaw country musicians include Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard.

How did the electric guitar revolutionize country music?

The electric guitar revolutionized country music by providing a more versatile and amplified sound that allowed for greater musical expression and experimentation.

What is the difference between new traditionalism and country pop?

New traditionalism is a style of country music that emerged in the 1980s and focused on reviving traditional country sounds, while country pop combines elements of country and pop music to create a more mainstream sound.

What is alternative twang?

Alternative twang is a sub-genre of country music that emerged in the 1990s and is characterized by its unconventional sounds and themes that combine elements of indie rock and traditional country music.

What is the current state of country music?

Country music continues to be a popular genre worldwide, with many artists exploring new sounds and fusing different styles to create fresh and exciting music.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

Leave a Comment