Guitarists know a lot about their instruments, techniques, chords, songs etc. But what many guitarists don’t know is the history of the guitar. It’s understandable, because many people don’t feel this helps at all in actually playing the guitar. Still, it is helpful to know everything about the instrument, including its history.
The history of guitar is a debatable topic, as there are no concrete facts about the guitar and when exactly it first appeared. What is known, though, is that guitars or similar instruments have been around for over 5,000 years. Entire books could be written about the history of guitar, so in this article, we’ll just go over a timeline of how it is thought the guitar evolved.
1400 B.C.: The Hittites played a four-string, guitar-like instrument. This four string instrument had soft, curved sides, which were somewhat similar to the current guitar. Also around this time, the Greeks produced a similar instrument which was modified by the Romans and became known as the cithara.
By 1200 A.D.: There were two types of guitars. One type was known as the Moorish guitar (guitarra morisca). This guitar had a wide fingerboard, rounded back, and several sound holes. The second type of guitar was the Latin guitar (guitarra latina). The Latin guitar looked more like our current guitar with a narrower neck and just one sound hole.
The late 1400’s: A new guitar, called the vihuela, evolved from the two types of guitar mentioned. The vihuela was a large instrument with double the strings of the Latin and Moorish guitars, a longer neck and ten or eleven frets. The Portuguese and Spanish courts preferred the vihuela over any other instrument for roughly 200 years.
Until the late 1600’s: The vihuela, and another instrument called the lute, were more popular than the guitar. This changed when the popularity of the lute declined because it had too many strings and was too hard to play and tune. The vihuela was replaced by four and five course guitars of that time. Four course guitars had seven strings, a single high string and three pairs of other strings, while five course guitars had nine strings, a single high string and four pairs of other strings. Some feel that the addition of the fifth course during the 16th century, which gave the guitar greater flexibility, was the reason why the guitar became popular.
By the beginning of the 1800’s: Some guitars used fan struts under the soundboard and featured six strings (like the modern guitar). Also changed during this time was the neck (which was raised), the fingerboard (which used ebony or rosewood), and the tuning pegs (which were replaced with machine tuners). Guitars like these are most similar to early classical guitars.
By the late 1800s: A man named Antonio Torres Jurado changed the guitar dramatically by refining the strutting of the guitar. This allowed for as many as seven struts to be spread out like a fan under the soundboard. Additionally, the size of the body and the width of the neck were greatly increased. As a result of Jurado’s improvements, the guitar had greater bass response and volume. Jurado’s work made it possible for the guitar to meet the demands of both the solo performer and the concert stage.
The Present: Our modern guitar is practically the same as the one made by Jurado.
As was previously said, this is but a brief introduction to the fascinating history of guitars. If you wish to find out more on certain types of guitars, such as the history of Acoustic, Electric or Bass guitars, you can check out our articles titled “The Acoustic Guitar”, “The Electric Guitar”, and “The Bass Guitar”.
Photo by Tyfferz