William Foden: America's Greatest Guitarist

28, July 2016
Portrait of William FodenPortrait of William Foden taken by Fitz W. Guerin. Missouri Historical Society collections.

When William Foden put his fingers to the strings of his beloved guitar, the instrument sang so richly one couldn’t help but be transported by his music.

Born in St. Louis in 1860, Foden had a natural gift for music—both performing it and composing it—and the guitar was his instrument of choice. George C. Krick, a former student of Foden’s and founder of the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society, recalled the first time he watched Foden play in the November 1939 issue of the magazine The Etude:

Perfection is the only word to describe his rendition of the “Grande Sonata,” by Ferdinand Sor or an operatic “Fantasie” by J. K. Mertz. A right and left hand that seem to have been especially made for the guitar, enabling him to overcome the greatest difficulties with an ease and nonchalance, and these combined with instinctive musical insight and unfailing memory, have helped him to reach the top rung of the ladder to fame as virtuoso.

A World-Class Performer

Foden souvenir programSouvenir program from Foden's 1904 Carnegie Hall performance. Missouri Historical Society collections.

A largely self-taught virtuoso, Foden was widely acclaimed for his technique. According to one review in the Nebraska newspaper the Omaha Bee:

Mr. Foden’s execution on the guitar was remarkable. His rendition of intricate chord combinations and sustained passages were made with a fullness of tone usually associated with the pianist or harpist.

Foden gained national attention after a January 29, 1904, performance at Carnegie Hall as part of the annual convention of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists. Seven years later he moved his family from St. Louis to the New York City area and joined forces with mandolinist Giuseppe Pettine and banjoist Frederick Bacon to form the Big Trio. The group embarked on a hugely successful national tour that helped cement Foden’s reputation as “America’s greatest guitarist.”

Page from Foden Special brochureClick to view descriptions of the Foden Specials. Missouri Historical Society collections.

A Lifelong Teacher

In addition to performing, Foden gave lessons to budding musicians. Prior to leaving St. Louis in 1911, he taught at the Beethoven Conservatory of Music, the Smith Academy, and the Strassberger Conservatory.

During his early years living in New Jersey, he partnered with guitar maker C. F. Martin & Co. to design the Foden Specials, four styles of guitar available exclusively for Foden’s students. The promotional brochure made a special point of noting that each guitar was “examined by Mr. Foden before being shipped.”

Cover of Foden's guitar method bookFoden's Grand Method for Guitar. Missouri Historical Society collections.

In 1920 and 1939, Foden published his Grand Method for Guitar, a two-volume set that included some of his own original compositions. Contemporaries praised the work as the most complete teaching method since the one published by Carcassi in the 1800s.

After spending nearly 30 years on the East Coast, Foden returned to St. Louis in 1939. He spent his remaining days teaching and composing in his home on Aresenal Street before falling victim to the influenza epidemic of 1947.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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