History of the Guitar

Bow-like stringed instruments have been observed in pre-historic rock paintings. Hand-held stringed lyre- and lute-type instruments are known from artwork dating to beyond 2000 BCE. A wooden guitar-shaped string instrument with distinct sides and flat back is known from Roman times. The word guitar first appears in 14th century Spain, perhaps derivative of the Arabic qitara predating the 10th century, in turn derived from the sanskrit word for music and the Persian word for string or chord.

In the middle ages, three hand-held stringed instruments were popular in Europe: lute, cittern, and guitarra (with 3-, 4-, and 5-courses, where a course consists of 1-4 strings in harmonic relation). The cittern had a long neck, nearly circular body, and wire strings. It resembles a banjo in overall shape, but was made entirely of wood. The guitarra design gradually standardized on 4-double-strings in the 15th century. As in the lute, strings were gut and frets could be movable strands of gut tied around the neck. Some began to use fixed frets as in the wire-stringed cittern.

Guitarra4CoursesGuitarra5Course4/5 course guitarra, 14th-16th century Europe.

16th century European aristocracy adopted the lute as the preferred instrument, with the cittern preferred by commoners. But the Spanish, who associated the lute with the recently-ended Moorish occupation, instead favored the common 4-course guitarra latina dating from at least the 13th century. Made grande by enlarging to 6-double-string form, it became the vihuela, the favorite instrument of Spanish aristocracy. It was tuned a minor third below the lute’s high six strings, similar to current guitar tuning, except with 3rd string a half-tone lower. A large one was four inches longer than current guitars and had 12 frets. Some are said to have had a single string on the first course.

VihuelaVihuela, 16th-17th century Spain

Other guitars, based on 5-course, 9 and 10 string designs, continued to develop elsewhere in Europe from the Renaissance through 18th century, gradually switching to fixed metal fretting. They eventually replaced the vihuela in Spain and eclipsed the lute in popularity in the rest of Europe.

Strad5Course Stradivarius ~1700, Pagés 1804.

18th century Italy produced a 6-double-stringed guitar, a reflection of the vihuela from a century previous. A precursor of the modern 12-string guitar, it spread across Europe while transforming into a modern guitar, standardized and simplified with six single strings and 19 fixed metal frets in equal temperament on a raised fingerboard.

The 6-string guitar’s popularity continued to ascend in Europe and the Americas. By 1870, the Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres had synthesized and optimized the 6-string designs of his time into the first fully modern guitar, settling around a scale length of 650 mm, widening the body and fretboard, and enhancing the quality and bracing of the fir soundboard. His creations are remarkably similar to the modern instruments of over a century later.

TorresGuitar de Torres, 1882

We are at the brink of another chapter in guitar history, as modern materials begin to replace wood in guitar construction. But the tradition of the guitar is wood, so as long as there is wood, there will be wood guitars.

(Images courtesy of http://www.classicalmidiguitar.com)


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