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When and Where was the Guitar Invented?

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

The guitar, with its beautiful sound and expressive capacity, has a rich history that carves its way from its ancient roots through its development in Asia and Europe to its refinement during the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic Eras, and finally its modern metamorphosis. This article aims to explore the multifaceted evolution of the guitar, uncovering the influences and innovations that have shaped this beloved instrument. Whether a musician, historian, or simply a curious reader, the tale of the guitar offers intriguing insights into both musical development and cultural convergence.



I. Ancient Origins


A. Early Stringed Instruments


Oud (Middle East, 3rd to 7th centuries AD)

  • Appearance: The oud had a short-neck and a body shaped like a pear, with an intricately carved wooden sound hole.

  • Strings: Usually consisted of 10 to 12 strings arranged in five or six courses.

  • Playing Method: Played with a plectrum or the fingers, it produced a rich, resonant sound.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: Unlike the modern guitar, the oud had no frets, allowing more nuanced pitch control. Its sound is more resonant and less bright than a modern guitar.

  • Example: The Arabic oud, which remains an essential instrument in Middle Eastern music.

Oud: Image by Tdrivas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66957987


Tanbur (Mesopotamia, around 1500 BC)

  • Appearance: Long-necked and slender, the tanbur featured a bowl-shaped resonating chamber.

  • Strings: Typically had three strings, though variations existed.

  • Playing Method: It was plucked with a plectrum or fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: Like the oud, the tanbur lacked frets but had a more delicate sound. Its fewer strings and unique shape gave it a different tonal quality compared to the modern guitar.

  • Example: The Persian tanbur, used in spiritual and classical performances.

Tanbur: Image by Ali ghanbari1379 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61715104


Lyre (Ancient Greece, around 1400 BC)

  • Appearance: A small harp-like instrument with arms and a crossbar.

  • Strings: Generally had four to ten strings.

  • Playing Method: The strings were plucked, either with fingers or a plectrum.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: Though not a direct precursor to the guitar, the lyre's influence on stringed instrument development is undeniable. The tuning of strings over a resonating chamber is a shared trait with the guitar, but the playing technique and sound differ significantly.

  • Example: The kithara, an advanced lyre used by professional musicians in ancient Greece.

Lyre



Pipa (Ancient China, around 200 AD)

  • Appearance: The pipa had a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets.

  • Strings: Generally had four strings.

  • Playing Method: Played upright, plucked with the fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The pipa's fretted neck and the method of plucking the strings show a resemblance to the guitar, although the tuning and tonality are quite distinct.

  • Example: Traditional Chinese pipa, a crucial instrument in Chinese classical music.

Pipa


These ancient instruments collectively laid the foundation for what would become the guitar. Though they differ in appearance, the number of strings, and playing techniques, their shared characteristics with the modern guitar—such as the use of strings, resonance bodies, and plucking or strumming techniques—illustrate the evolutionary path that led to the development of one of the world's most recognizable and loved instruments.



II. Evolution in Asia and Europe


A. Asian Influence


Sitar (India, around 13th century)

  • Appearance: A long-necked instrument with a gourd-shaped resonator.

  • Strings: Typically has 18 to 21 strings, including six or seven played strings and numerous sympathetic strings.

  • Playing Method: Played with a metal plectrum worn on the finger.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The sitar's frets are movable, allowing for different tuning systems. While distinct in sound, the plucking technique and fretted neck are guitar-like features.

  • Example: The sitar has been an essential instrument in Indian classical music.

Sitar


Bipa (Central Asia, around 8th century)

  • Appearance: A pear-shaped lute with a wooden body.

  • Strings: Usually four strings.

  • Playing Method: Typically plucked with fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: Similar in shape to the modern guitar but distinguished by its lack of frets and different string materials.

  • Example: Found in historical artwork across Central Asia.

Bipa

B. The Greek Influence


Kithara (Ancient Greece)

  • Appearance: A professional version of the lyre, larger and more elaborate.

  • Strings: Typically seven to twelve strings.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers or a plectrum.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: Though not a direct ancestor, the kithara's string arrangement and tensioning system influenced later European stringed instruments.

  • Example: The kithara was associated with Apollo, the god of music.


Kithara Replica - Image from https://luthieros.com/


Pandura (Ancient Greece, around 4th century BC)

  • Appearance: A small lute-like instrument with a wooden soundboard.

  • Strings: Usually three strings.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: A precursor to the guitar in terms of its fretted neck and string-plucking technique.

  • Example: Often depicted in Greek artwork.


Pandura Replica - Image from https://luthieros.com/


C. Roman Era


Cithara (Ancient Rome)

  • Appearance: An evolution of the Greek kithara, often more ornamented.

  • Strings: Varied in number, typically seven or more.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with a plectrum or fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: Influenced European stringed instruments through its tension-controlled strings and tuning mechanisms.

  • Example: The cithara was played by professional musicians in ancient Rome.

Cithara


Lute (Ancient Rome, around 3rd century AD)

  • Appearance: A short-necked instrument with a round body.

  • Strings: Typically had four strings, sometimes more.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The lute's fretted neck and string configuration had a direct impact on the development of the guitar, especially during the Renaissance.

  • Example: A favored instrument in Roman society, often depicted in mosaics and paintings.

Image by Ching - Flickr: Lute, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25640085


These instruments illustrate how Asian and European civilizations built upon each other's innovations, gradually shaping the guitar's form, structure, and playing techniques. The combination of Eastern and Western traditions contributed to the instrument's richness and complexity, reflecting a global heritage that resonates in the guitar we know today.


III. The Middle Ages and Renaissance


A. The Lute


European Lute (Medieval Europe, around 13th century)

  • Appearance: Pear-shaped body with a bent-back pegbox.

  • Strings: Usually had six to ten strings organized in courses (pairs of strings).

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The lute's fretted neck, string organization, and plucking technique all contributed to the guitar's design.

  • Example: Lutes were popular in medieval court music and continue to be used in historical music performances today.

European Lute


B. Four-Course Guitar


Vihuela (Spain, around 15th century)

  • Appearance: Similar to the lute but with a flatter body.

  • Strings: Six courses, with the first course single, and the rest doubled.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers, sometimes using a plectrum.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The vihuela's tuning, shape, and playing method were critical steps toward the modern guitar. It's considered the direct ancestor of the classical guitar.

  • Example: The Vihuela was widely used in Spain and influenced guitar development in Italy and the rest of Europe.

Vihuela


Four-Course Guitar (Spain and Italy, around 15th century)

  • Appearance: A smaller and simpler body compared to the vihuela.

  • Strings: Four courses, usually doubled, but sometimes single in the top course.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers or plectrum.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The four-course guitar's structure, tuning, and playing technique closely resemble the guitar, representing a significant stage in its evolution.

  • Example: Popular among the middle class and depicted in various Renaissance paintings.

Four-Course Guitar


Renaissance Guitar (16th century)

  • Appearance: Similar to the four-course guitar but with more refined construction.

  • Strings: Usually four or five courses.

  • Playing Method: Plucked with fingers, with a focus on polyphonic music.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The Renaissance guitar continued to shape the modern instrument's appearance, tuning, and repertoire.

  • Example: Played by both professional musicians and amateurs, symbolizing the guitar's accessibility.

Renaissance Guitar


During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the lute and early forms of the guitar were integral to European musical culture. Innovations in construction, tuning, and playing techniques during these periods set the stage for the guitar's subsequent development. The balance of elegance and practicality in these historical instruments reflects a timeless appeal that continues to resonate in the modern guitar.


IV. The Baroque Period


The Baroque period marked a critical moment in the development of the guitar, with the five-course guitar taking prominence and the exploration of the guitar as a solo instrument. This period also saw the creation of music specifically composed for the guitar by some of the era's most renowned composers.


Five-Course Guitar

  • Appearance: Similar to its four-course predecessor, the five-course guitar featured a body that resembled the modern guitar, though with a more ornate design, reflecting the aesthetic of the Baroque era.

  • Strings: The five-course guitar added a fifth pair (or course) of strings. The strings were generally doubled, though the first course might have been a single string.

  • Tuning: A common tuning for the five-course guitar was A, D, G, B, E, essentially extending the four-course guitar's tuning by adding a lower A course.

  • Playing Method: Played with the fingers, the five-course guitar allowed for more intricate melodies and harmonies. The extra string course enhanced its harmonic capabilities, making it suitable for both accompaniment and solo performance.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The addition of the fifth course brought the instrument closer to today's six-string guitar. The five-course guitar’s tuning is notably similar to the modern guitar, except for the missing low E string.

  • Historical Context: This instrument became popular among musicians and aristocracy in Europe, paving the way for the classical guitar.


Notable Composers and Performers

  • Francesco Corbetta (1615–1681): An Italian guitar virtuoso and composer, Corbetta played a significant role in establishing the five-course guitar as a solo instrument. His compositions expanded the guitar's repertoire, showcasing its potential beyond a mere accompaniment instrument.

  • Robert de Visée (1655–1733): A French musician and composer, Visée wrote suites for the five-course guitar, contributing to its prominence in French court music.

  • Gaspar Sanz (1640–1710): A Spanish composer, guitarist, and priest, Sanz is known for his instructional book "Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española," which provided valuable insights into Baroque guitar techniques.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The focus on solo performance, the dedication of notable composers, and the development of specific techniques during this period greatly influenced the modern guitar's solo repertoire.

The Baroque period was an essential phase in the evolution of the guitar, bridging the gap between the Renaissance and the classical guitar. The extension to five courses, the emphasis on solo performance, and the involvement of influential composers made the guitar a respected instrument, setting the stage for further evolution into the Classical and Romantic eras.


V. Classical and Romantic Eras


The Classical and Romantic periods were significant eras in the development of the guitar, characterized by the emergence of the six-string guitar and the contributions of iconic composers. It was during this time that the modern classical guitar, as we know it today, was born.


Six-String Guitar

  • Appearance: The six-string guitar maintained a familiar shape to its predecessors but often included more refined craftsmanship and materials, reflecting the aesthetic standards of the period.

  • Strings: The six-string guitar added a sixth string (low E) to the existing five-course guitar, resulting in a total of six single strings.

  • Tuning: The tuning became E, A, D, G, B, E, forming the standard tuning for the modern classical guitar.

  • Mechanics and Sound: The new string configuration allowed for broader harmonic possibilities and a more resonant sound.

  • Innovators: Antonio Torres Jurado is credited with shaping the modern classical guitar. He increased the body size and altered the proportions, creating a more robust and balanced sound. This design has influenced virtually every classical guitar since.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The six-string guitar of this era is essentially the prototype for the contemporary classical guitar, both in terms of appearance and mechanics.

Iconic Composers

  • Fernando Sor (1778–1839): Often referred to as the 'Beethoven of the Guitar,' Sor's compositions are foundational in the classical guitar repertoire. His studies and exercises are still used today for technical development.

  • Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909): Tárrega's contributions to guitar technique and his numerous compositions helped to elevate the guitar's status as a concert instrument. His piece "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" remains a cornerstone of classical guitar literature.

  • Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829): An Italian guitarist and composer, Giuliani wrote many concertos, sonatas, and studies for the guitar. His works remain central to the classical guitar's pedagogical and performance repertoire.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The contributions of these composers continue to shape the repertoire, performance practice, and pedagogical approach of the modern classical guitar.

The Classical and Romantic Eras saw the final transformation of the guitar into its modern form. The adoption of the six-string configuration and the influence of celebrated composers solidified the guitar's place as a serious concert instrument. These developments continue to resonate in the contemporary classical guitar world, underscoring the instrument's rich heritage and ongoing evolution.


VI. 20th Century to Present


The 20th century brought a radical transformation to the guitar world, introducing new technologies and expanding its reach across a wide array of musical genres. This period marked the birth of the electric guitar and a massive surge in the guitar's popularity, especially within pop culture. Here's a closer look at these developments:


Electric Guitar

  • Appearance: The electric guitar introduced a new body style, often solid, without the sound hole found in traditional acoustic guitars. Famous designs include the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul.

  • Mechanics and Sound: The most significant innovation of the electric guitar is its electromagnetic pickup, which converts the vibration of the strings into an electric signal. This allows the sound to be amplified and processed through effects, leading to an immense variety of tonal possibilities.

  • Number of Strings: Most electric guitars maintain the six-string configuration.

  • Innovators: Adolph Rickenbacker is credited with the creation of the first electric lap steel guitar in 1932. Other innovators like Leo Fender and Les Paul contributed significantly to the development of the modern electric guitar.

  • Comparison to Modern Guitar: The electric guitar is an essential part of the contemporary music scene, found in genres ranging from rock, blues, jazz to pop, and more.

Modern Popularity

  • Rock 'n' Roll Era: With the emergence of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, the electric guitar became the symbol of a musical revolution, played by iconic figures such as Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.

  • Various Music Genres: From the soft strumming in folk music to the distorted riffs in heavy metal, the guitar's versatility has made it a staple in nearly every modern music genre.

  • Education and Access: The proliferation of guitar education resources and the availability of affordable instruments have contributed to the guitar's widespread appeal.

  • Comparison to Acoustic Guitar: The electric guitar has not replaced the acoustic guitar; instead, it has expanded the range of expressive possibilities. Many guitarists perform and record with both types of guitars, appreciating their distinct qualities.

The journey from the early 20th century to the present day has seen the guitar's transformation from a classical instrument to a universal icon in popular music. The invention of the electric guitar and its adoption across various musical genres underscores the guitar's adaptability and enduring appeal. Its rich history and constant evolution continue to inspire musicians and audiences alike.


VII. Learning the Guitar Today


For those inspired by the guitar's rich history and interested in learning, places like Descant Music and Art Studio in Holyoke MA offer piano, voice, guitar, and bass guitar lessons, providing an opportunity to be part of this musical tradition.


Conclusion

The guitar's multifaceted evolution from ancient stringed instruments to the electrifying powerhouse of today's musical landscape is a testament to human creativity and the timeless allure of music. Tracing its roots from Mesopotamia and Persia through its refinement in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, the guitar has been reinvented time and again, mirroring cultural shifts and technological advancements. Its adaptability has made it a central figure across eras and genres, from the contemplative melodies of the Renaissance to the shredding riffs of rock 'n' roll. The guitar's enduring legacy as both a solo instrument and a collaborative force resonates not only in concert halls and stadiums but in living rooms and schools, connecting generations of musicians and enthusiasts. Its rich history, profound impact, and continued evolution ensure that the guitar's song is far from over, and its strings continue to strum the chords of our shared human experience.


Captivated by the world of music and eager to explore piano, voice, guitar, or bass guitar lessons? Take the next step on your musical journey by filling out our MORE INFORMATION form, and we'll connect with you soon!


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