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History of the Guitar
 by: Graham Howard

It is very difficult to trace a line back to the exact birth of the instrument we know as the guitar today, as there is a lot of myth and uncertainty surrounding its origins.

This is mainly due to the fact there have been a number of similar instruments throughout the ages. Many historians claim the guitar originated at various points in time. Some believe the guitar in its earliest form dates back some 4000 years, however no-one really knows for sure. This is due to a number of artworks that depict guitar-like instruments being used at various times throughout history. Many ancient Egyptian paintings portray musical instruments that could be mistaken for the guitar.

A popular theory is that the guitar could have been invented by the classical-era Greeks. This is due to confusion, however, mainly with the similarity of its name with the Kithara. The Kithara was in fact a type of harp or lyra, which bares little resemblance with the guitar other than in name.

The guitar as we know today appears to be an ancestor of the lute. The lute had four strings which would be plucked, not strummed as with a guitar. The body was oval in shape and had a rounded back. The downside of this construction was that the lute was not a very loud instrument, meaning it could not be played along side other instruments. Although missing many of the elements of today’s guitar, it is an important step in the guitars evolution.

The first written mention of the guitar as a distinct instrument is from the 14th century. In this very early form the instrument had three double courses (or pairs) of strings plus a single string (tuned the highest in pitch), similar in comparison to the lute, as mentioned earlier.

The next step was in the vihuela, which originated in Spain sometime in the 15th century. The vihuela had a slightly ‘pinched’ waist – less pronounced than today’s guitar and a smaller body then the lute. It also had added treble strings, again arranged in pairs and was made to be strummed rather than plucked as the lute was.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that the two instruments were ‘combined’, in a manner of speaking, when an instrument was made with a body like that of the vihuela but closer in size to the lute.

The guitar became popular throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries and by the late 17th century a fifth course of strings had been added below the other four. By the mid-18th century the guitar began to take its modern form. The double courses were changed to single strings, and a sixth string was added above the existing five. It is very unclear whether this took place in France or in Italy, but the resulting instrument was very similar to that of which we know today.

The late 18th-19th century, guitar makers changed many aspects of the instruments design. These included broadening the width and thinning the depth of the body, increasing the curve of the waist, and adding internal bracing – all in effort to amplify the sound. The end result meant the guitar could now be played along side other instruments without struggling to compete in terms of volume.

The guitar became very popular with people because it was a very easy instrument to learn at least a few basic chords and songs. However, the guitar was not accepted well with the ‘serious’ musical community, hence the reason there is very few concertos written for the instrument – and is still dismissed by many classically trained musicians today. In the early 19th century, Fernando Sor became one of the most prolific composers for, and promoters of, the guitar as a ‘concert’ instrument. It was him, and others like him, which paved the way for Andrés Segovia to emerge and help bring the guitar to the immense popularity it enjoys today.

The 20th century has seen the majority of the instrument’s improvements. Firstly the strings used, which were cat gut until that time, were replaced by metal and nylon ones. The classical guitar was then modified to make the steel string acoustic guitar we know today. This required additional bracing to strengthen the body, and the introduction of the truss rod to give support to the neck. Again this resulted in an even louder instrument.

Many tried to amplify the sound further by electrifying the guitar. Many of the first attempts were made by the Martin Company in the 1930’s. It was here the invention of the magnetic pick-up occurred. The first amplifiers came about around the same time and were pioneered by Leo Fender.

The first ‘electric’ guitars were nothing more then existing acoustic guitars that had been modified to include a magnetic pick-up. This caused many problems due to the fact that they had hollow bodies, which would resonate the sound produced by the amp as well as the strings of the guitar – which creates ‘feedback’.

It was Les Paul that developed the first ‘solid’ bodied guitar which he named ‘The Log’ – due to it being little more then a plank of wood with a neck and two double coil pick-ups attached. To make his invention more appealing he stuck two halves of an acoustic guitar on either side, giving it a more traditional look. He went on to sell the idea to Gibson who still produce the ‘Les Paul’ model that you see today.

It was Leo Fender however, that really brought the electric guitar into mass production and made it available at far less a cost then all previous attempts (more on the Fender story can be seen on our ‘History of Fender’ section). The first mass production guitar was the Broadcaster, which we now know as the Telecaster, which was released in 1948. He later went on to design and produce the Stratocaster, in 1954, probably the most well known electric guitar to date. Leo Fender was also the innovator of the electric bass guitar which he invented for live use along side the guitar, as a normal contrabass could not compete in terms of volume - The first model being the Fender Precision Bass.

Since then various forms of the guitar have come and gone but the main form of the instrument has rarely differed far from what we have seen from the 1950’s onwards. The main differences have been in the choice of materials used in the manufacture of the guitar. This has mainly been in the attempt of producing increased sustain or simply due to the scarcity of certain woods. Nowadays a complete range of guitars are available, from the lower priced entry level models to the premium custom shop models for all of us to enjoy, what ever our level of ability.

About The Author

Graham Howard has written guitar and musical instrument articles for many sites on the internet and is currently writing for, one of the leading guitar sites on the web.

Do as you please with this article but keep my links in tact.

This article was posted on October 13, 2005


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