History of the Guitar
The guitar has become one of the world’s most popular instruments. In all its different varieties, guitar is used in everything from American rock music to French gypsy jazz to Indonesian dangdut music. So where did the guitar come from? The history of the guitar turns out to be just as diverse as its current usage.
The guitar belongs to a family of instruments called “chordophones”, meaning that it uses vibrating strings stretched between two points. This ties the guitar to a very very long history of chordophones going back thousands of years. The oldest known evidence of instruments with strings stretched across thin necks goes back to ancient Mesopotamia almost 5000 years ago.
A bit closer to home, the guitar can be tied to the Middle Eastern oud, introduced to Spain by the Moors in the 8th century. Various lute-type instruments like the oud became popular throughout Europe up through the Renaissance period (14th-17th centuries A.D.) and into the Baroque period (17th-18th centuries A.D.).
More Recent Ancestors
A major influence on what we know today as the guitar is the Spanish vihuela of the 15th and 16th centuries. It had six pairs of strings, similar to today’s 12-string guitar, and was almost tuned like a modern guitar. The vihuela and lute went on to give birth to the four-course (four pairs of strings) Renaissance guitar and eventually the five-course Baroque guitar, both of which were popular in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France.
The early Romantic guitar was next on the scene, showing up in the 1770s, strung with six single strings rather than pairs of strings. This is the guitar of Sor, Giuliani, Aguado, and Carulli, for you classical guitar nerds out there. This is also the guitar that Beethoven is quoted to have said was “an orchestra in itself” after seeing Giuliani perform in Vienna.
Nowadays, there are three basic kinds of guitars (and many variations of each!). These are the Classical Guitar, the Acoustic Guitar, and the Electric Guitar. I always thought of them as being very spread out in age, mostly because of the kind of music played on each, but that turns out to not be true. They’re actually not that far off from each other.
The history of the guitar can in some ways be seen as a long journey to go “up to 11″, trying different designs to get more volume. The modern classical guitar that we know today is largely based on the designs of Spanish guitar-making genius Antonio Torres Jurado in the 19th century. His design helped allow the guitar to project sound better than its smaller-bodied predecessors, though it would probably still sound pretty quiet by today’s standards. Classical guitars were originally strung with gut strings and had a bone bridge, but today use nylon strings and a plastic bridge saddle.
Also in the 19th century, German guitar maker Christian Frederick Martin moved to the U.S. and started C.F. Martin & Company in 1833. Martin guitars made popular what’s known as the X-brace. This strengthened the guitar in a way that allowed it to handle the much higher tension of steel strings, which became popular in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Steel strings gave the guitar more volume than its previous gut strings. Voila, the flat-top acoustic guitar.
Not long after steel strings were introduced, people started toying around with ways to get even more sound from the guitar electronically in the 1920s. Credit for the first electric guitar design is generally given to Hawaiian guitarist George Beauchamp and electronics engineer Adolph Rickenbacker in 1931. Their design basically involved taking a steel-string acoustic and attaching magnets and coiled copper wire as pickups. The amplification that this gave the guitar allowed jazz guitarists of the 1930s to finally be heard alongside blaring horn sections. No longer did guitarists have to simply bang away on accompanying chords in hopes of being heard, but now the guitar could be a melodic instrument too. Guitar legend Charlie Christian took advantage of this new technology, showing just what the guitar was capable of as a solo instrument.
Unfortunately, acoustic guitars with pickups tended to feedback a ton. So in 1940, Les Paul designed the solid-body electric guitar, which wasn’t nearly as heavy and basically didn’t create feedback. Since then electric guitars have continued to develop in design and technology, as have acoustic and classical guitars. Players and luthiers continue to try out different materials, different looks, different numbers of strings, and any other sort of variation that creativity can come up with. With 8-string guitars becoming particularly popular, there’s no telling what the guitar will look like in a few decades or what sort of music will be possible.