The Earliest Solo Guitar Recordings

Of interest to all of us who love the instrument is the simple question: Who made the first solo guitar recordings, and when?

In the liner notes to "John Williams - Barrios" (Columbia M-35145) no less an authority than Mr. Williams himself is quoted as saying: "(Augustin Barrios) was the first guitarist to make recordings, beginning in 1909." Another source, the notes to 'Nick Lucas: The Singing Troubadour' (AJA 5022,) has Michael Pitts making the same claim for Lucas, stating that Lucas "recorded for Pathe the first guitar solo record ever made..."

So wherein lies the truth?

Recent research (notably Tim Gracyk's essay in Victrola And 78 Journal no. 3) indicates that both these sources are incorrect and that at least two other guitarists predated both Barrios and Lucas.

"Octaviano Yañes," writes Gracyk, "appears to have recorded solo pieces... for Edison in Mexico City around March to May 1907." Of interest to modern outside-the-box guitarists, at least some of the Yañes pieces utilized alternate tunings and/or instruments. Quoting Gracyk again, "(On Habañeres) Yañes plays an instrument with at least seven strings. From low to high note it is tuned B E A D B B E.

"Dick Spottswood also identified two solo guitar performances recorded in Havana, Cuba for Edison by Sebastian Hidalgo," Gracyk continues. "These cylinders... would have been recorded in late 1905 to March 1906, so these are arguably the first guitar solos. Does anyone own copies? We cannot rule out the possibility of earlier solo guitar recordings made in Europe."

With regard to that possibility, there are rumors of cylinders by Tarrega himself, from about 1903. And just to whet the appetite even further, musicologist Jack Silver (project leader of Doremi Records' 'Segovia and his Contemporaries' CD series) reports that a friend/dealer in Spain can recall having sold several solo-guitar cylinders by both Luis and Simon Ramirez that were recorded on the Viuda de Aramburo label in 1895. According to the dealer, these were compositions by Sor, Mozart, Lucena, and Granados. Segovia would have been two years old.

And so the search continues! Until the missing Hidalgo, Yañes, Tarrega and/or Ramirez recordings surface, it will be impossible to pinpoint the first solo guitar recordings.

I can only echo Mr. Gracyk's plea that if anyone reading this should have any cylinders of solo guitar, details would be much appreciated by those of us attempting to answer these questions.

Chicago-style blues bands provided the milieu for Tom Ball's talents throughout the '60s. He spent much of the '70s abroad before settling in Santa Barbara, CA, in 1978.

A noted blues historian, he has written countless articles on the music for various publications, and has taught harmonica at the university level.

His latest instrumental CD is entitled "18 Pieces For Solo Steel String Guitar".

Tom Ball