A Brief History of the Guitar: Its Origins and Evolution

The history of the guitar is long and extensive, with nearly every society throughout the world having using a variation of the beautiful instrument. The influence of this musical instrument gave us the ability to create and spread numerous traditions, and has had a profound impact on our modern history.

Ancient Guitars

The guitar has roots all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, more than four or five thousand years ago. Other similar variations like a simple stringed guitar and harps began to make an appearance in the Middle East and Persia and then spread throughout the entire globe, influencing the musical world.

Storytellers and singers would often use these stringed musical instruments throughout ancient societies. The oldest guitar-like device has been spotted more than 3,500 years ago, in ancient carvings and statues from Egyptian, Sumerian, and Babylonian civilizations.

You can visit it at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo and it once belonged to Har-Mose, an ancient Egyptian court singer. This instrument had three strings and a plectrum that was suspended from the beck by a cord. It had a beautifully designed soundbox that was made of polished cedarwood, as well as a rawhide “soundboard.”

Ancient Guitars- history of the guitars

It is believed by some that the guitar was developed from either the lute or the ancient Greek kithara. However, Dr. Michael Kasha did extensive research in the 1960s that proved that these theories were inaccurate. He was able to confirm that the lute had common ancestors with the guitar, but that the guitar did not influence its development. However, the guitar was influenced by the lute, as the early guitars looked very similar to the fretted lute.

Dr. Michael Kasha also debunked the kithara theory. Much of the evidence for the guitars originated from the instrument kithara was that the Greek word “kithara” and the Spanish word “Guitarra” are very similar. However, a kithara is a square-framed lap harp and is a very different instrument than the early guitar.

What Is A Guitar?

A guitar is part of the tanbur family. A tanbur is a long-necked string instrument that has a small pear- or egg-shaped body. This musical instrument will have either an arched or round back, and often has a soundboard made of wood or hide, and a long straight neck. Tomb paintings and stone carvings show the tanbur and harps being played together more than 3,500 – 4,500 years ago.

guitar instument- a guitar is part of the tanbur family- history of the guitars

To be able to distinguish a guitar from other instruments in the tanbur family, you must first understand what it is. Dr. Kasha has stated that a guitar should be defined as a stringed instrument with a flat wooden soundboard, a long, fretted neck, with ribs and a flat back. Often, it features incurved sides.

Origins Of The Name “Guitar”

The guitar gets its name from the ancient Sanskrit word “tar,” which means string. Many of the stringed folk instruments that are used in Central Asia have names that contain “tar” and a prefix that shows the number of strings in the instrument. Therefore, because the early guitar had four strings, it came from the Sanskrit word “chatur.” When the four-stringed Persian “chartar” came to Spain, it evolved and became known as the Guitarra or Chitarra.

Origins Of The Modern Guitar

However, the guitar as we know it was probably first played in Spain by the early 16th century. It derived from the Guitarra Latina, which was a medieval musical instrument that had a waisted body and four strings. This new guitar, however, was more narrow and had a deeper body than the modern guitar, as well as a less obvious waist.

This early guitar had four courses of strings, including three double strings, with the top one being a single string. These strings ran along from a pegbox that was similar to one found on a violin all the way to a tension bridge that was glued onto the soundboard. The bridge helped to keep the strings pulled tight. On the belly of these original guitars, you would find a circular soundhole, which was often designed with a beautiful caved, ornate wooden rose. During the 16th century, this guitar would be tuned to C–F–A–D, which was similar to the lute and vihuela, which was a guitar-shaped instrument played in Spain.

Between the 16th and the 19th century, the guitar was improved upon greatly. By the turn of the 17th century, the guitar gained another course of strings, making it five in total. Before the 19th century, a sixth course was added. In the 1800s, the double courses were switched out for single strings which were tuned to E-A-D-G-B-E, which is the same modern tuning we use to this day.

That violin-inspired pegbox was replaced for a flat head that utilized rear tuning pegs, which were then upgraded to tuning pegs. Other changes included the fretboard which was switched from a flat board to a slightly raised board.

Who Invented The Guitar?

It is believed that the guitar maker Antonio Torres designed the form of the modern guitar in roughly the 1850s. Torres made the size of the guitar slightly bigger and changed the proportions of the guitar, making it more of a fan top. He also utilized bracing, which helps to enforce the internal pattern of the wood, and helps to prevent the guitar from collapsing under the tension of the strings. His modern design significantly improved the tone, volume, and projection of the instrument. The design of modern guitars has remained very similar ever since then.

Who Invented The Guitar? History Of Guitars

Around the same time that Torres designed his guitar in Spain, German immigrants in the United States were making guitars with X-braced tops. It is thought that this unique style of the brace was first designed by Christian Fedrick Martin, who built the first guitar that was used in the US in 1830. X-bracing is popularly used in steel-string guitars. Steel-string guitars became more popular around the 1900s because there were able to produce a louder sound, but the tension from the strings was too much for the fan-braced guitars created by Torress. The X-brace was able to handle the strain much more effectively.

At the end of the 19th century, Orville Gibson became to design archtop guitars that featured an oval soundhole. He merged together the steel-string guitar with a cello-like body. Therefore, the bridge would exert no torque on the top, and only created pressure straight downward. This new design helped the top of the guitar to vibrate more freely and was much louder. In the 1920s, Lloyd Loar joined forces with Gibson and invented the archtop jazz guitar that has f-holes, cell-type tailpiece, and a floating bridge.

When Was The Electric Guitar Invented?

The need for the electric guitar began to emerge in the 1880s. As more bands started to perform in more massive concert halls, the classical guitar was much too quiet to contribute in any meaningful way. Instead, the bands in the early 20th century would get their power and sound from drums and brass, and the acoustic guitar would instead be used to produce melodies that were often too quiet for even the members of the band to year. It became clear that a more powerful instrument was needed.

While many people might think that Les Paul was the creator of the electric guitar, this is not the case. There were several people that had a hand in the invention of the electric guitar. The electric guitar is not merely an invention, but instead an evolution of several people’s ideas. George Breed was one of the first who was granted a patent for an electric apparatus that helped to transfer vibrations into an electric current. However, this device did not create a very guitar-like sound, but he was one of the first to combine a stringed guitar with electricity.

Lloyd Loar also had a hand in the development of the electric guitar. He was a quality control supervisor at Gibson who experimented with amplification and pickups. Loar designed a prototype for an electric harp guitar, electric bass, and electric viola and even played some of his instruments at a concert. However, Gibson was not receptive to his ideas of electrifying stringed instruments. Loar eventually quit, started his own company, but quickly moved on to building keyboards.

When Was The Electric Guitar Invented? history of guitars

George Beauchamp is the one who is credited with being the inventor and even designed his first electric guitar in his own house. He got his inspiration from the Hawaiian guitar, which was used by Hawaiian musicians as the melody instrument. The musicians were the push that Beauchamp needed to create the electric guitar.

Originally, jazz musicians and others tried to utilize attachments to enhance and amplify the sound of hollow-body wooden guitars. However, all of these attempts were unsuccessful. A Hawaiin-style lap steel guitar was electrified. This type of guitar was played across the knees and horizontally, and was much louder than the wooden acoustic guitars.

George Beauchamp teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacker, an electrical engineer. After some experimentation, they were able to invent an electromagnetic device that picked up the vibrations coming from the strings of the guitar. The device was able to convert these vibrations into an electric signal, allowing them to be amplified and played through speakers.

By 1931, Beauchamp and Rickenbacker began to use pickups that were designed by Harry Watson. These pickups were called the “Frying Pan” due to their shape and were part of the first commercial prototype. By 1932, the Frying Pan became the first commercially produced electric guitar that produced a clear sound.

In 1932, we saw the first public mention of an electrically enhanced guitar. An article printed in a local Kansas newspaper spoke of the electric guitar. A musician Gage Brewer showed up two of the newest electric guitars produced by Beauchamp. The guitars were also used in a series of Halloween concerts. Ever since those times, the electric guitar has come to dominate the music industry and has taken over in popularity.