Find out the history of this iconic instrument. It’s much older than you think…
The guitar is arguably the most famous musical instrument of all time. It has gained massive popularity in modern times, and is one of the most recognizable and widely used instruments in the world.
It is no wonder then that this instrument has a deep and complex history that is as dynamic and interesting as the sounds that it produces. The first guitar-like instruments have been around for almost 3,000 years, and have been used by many different people and cultures.
You know the sound of a guitar, you might even know how to play a guitar, but do you know the history of a guitar? Don’t you think it is time to find out?
The English word guitar comes from the Spanish word “guitarra,” likely derived from the Latin word “cithara,” which means harp, and the Sanskrit word “tar,” which means string. The earliest guitar forms were thought to have been the Greek “kithara” or even primitive forms of lutes.
These theories were quickly dismissed in the late 1900’s, when thorough studies were carried out. It was found that the lute developed from a completely different direction, and while the word “kithara” and “guitarra” are similar, the kithara, which, was a type of lyre or square framed lap harp, bears no resemblance to a guitar.
The oldest surviving guitar-like instrument comes straight out of ancient Egypt. The instrument belonged to one Queen Hatshepsut’s singers, Har-Mose. Music was as highly regarded in Egyptian society as it is today.
Egyptian life was full of religious ceremonies and so music was a part of everyday life, and early forms of the guitar were especially popular. Today, you can see Har-Mose’s instrument at the Archaeological Museum in Cairo. His instrument was constructed from a beautifully carved cedar wood sound box and a rawhide “soundboard.” It consisted of a long neck and three strings, and its plectrum was suspended from the neck by a cord.
The earliest guitar-like instruments were little more that bowed harps with a curved stick for a neck. Another noteworthy and guitar-like instrument was the tanbur, which was an instrument with a long neck and a small egg- or pear-shaped body. Tomb paintings and hieroglyphs show harps and tanburs being played together in processions.
Played during the European Renaissance, the guitar developed during this era is the closest instrument to the classical guitar that we know and love today. This guitar was made with 9 or 10 strings, with 2 strings usually tuned at the same note.
The guitar came to Europe through Egypt and Mesopotamia, and looked very different from the classic guitars we enjoy today. These guitars had at most 4 strings, and are most likely derived from the early Persian “chartars,” which also only had 3 strings.
Instrument makers in those times would decide which variation best suited them. This lasted through the Roman era and straight through the medieval period. Eventually, four-string guitars were popularized during the renaissance period. These guitars had short necks, only 8 frets from the body. This was gradually increased from 10, then finally to 12.
The standard tuning had already been set at A, D, G, B, E, like the 5 top strings of modern classic guitars. It was around this time that the 5-string guittara battente became popular in Italy. This eventually became a 6-course trend, and guitar makers all over Europe followed in suit.
This was eventually simplified to 6 strings. It is only during the beginning of the 19th century that we can see the more modern shape of the guitar, but bodies were generally small and narrow waisted.
Antonio Torres Jurado
Antonio Torres Jurado is to the guitar what Antonio Stradivari is to the violin. In the 1800’s, he started crafting guitars in the fashion of the guitars we see today. Most guitars that you will see today are variations of one of his designs.
He altered the size, and changed the proportions, and this introduced the revolutionary “fan” top. His designs greatly improved the tone, volume and projection of the instrument. His designs and concepts have remained unchallenged to this day.
Electric and steel-top guitars
Christian Fredrich Martin, a German immigrant to the US began making guitars with steel tops and X-braces to stand up to the task of supporting steel strings which were much louder and much more popular. His design-improved Torres’ “fan” base and a beefed up X-brace quickly became the market’s standard.
At the end of the 19th century, Orville Gibson combined steel-string guitars with a body shaped similar to a cello. This was a stroke of genius because this meant the top could vibrate more freely and allow the sound to be louder. In the early 1920’s Gibson was joined by Lloyd Loar, who refined the archtop jazz guitar, just in time for the jazz era.
These two set the guitar world alight and Gibson Guitars remains an authority in the guitar market down to this day.
The early 1900’s saw the race to create the world’s first electric guitar. The race was finally won when George Beauchamp, who built one with his partner Adolf Rickenbacker, was awarded the patent in the 1930s.
Later, famous electric guitar maker, Les Paul, pioneered the first solid-body guitar made by Gibson Guitars and made electric guitar history. In the 1950’s Leo Fender created the Fender Telecaster; this, along with the Gibson Les Paul, went on to make solid-body electric guitars wildly popular. They remain the most sought after electric guitars in modern times.
We have seen the guitar evolve from an awkward long necked instrument with 3 strings to the magnificent classic guitars that we enjoy today. The road has been long and slow, but the final product is one that generations enjoy and appreciate.
We look forward to the future of guitars which will probably take us on an equally exciting and dynamic journey for the ages.
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