The guitar is easily one of the most universally recognizable instruments and has been present in one form or another for more than 4,000 years. And if you’re reading this, there is a good chance that you either know someone who plays guitar or are a guitar player yourself. However, it is less likely that you know where the guitar came from or why it has six strings instead of four or five. That’s where we come in! The history of the guitar is rich with musical pioneers in both craftsmanship and composition whose combined efforts over many centuries culminated in what we now recognize as the modern guitar. If we tried to introduce you to all of them, you would be here all day! So, in an effort to remain brief, we have created the timeline below as an introduction to early guitar history. However, we encourage you to visit our Facebook page and share with us your favorite wedding guitarist or any bit of guitar history you find interesting as well!
5 Fast Guitar Facts
- The first guitar-like stringed instruments can be traced back more than 4,000 years.
- Guitars usually have six strings, but some have as many as 16.
- The word “guitar” comes from the early Spanish word quitarra, meaning “stringed instrument.”
- Classical guitar strings were once made of catgut and nowadays are made of polymers such as nylon.
- A person who makes and repairs guitars is called a luthier.
History of The Guitar
Scholars often disagree as to the origins of the guitar prior to the Renaissance. However, there are several earlier plucked-string instruments, like the lute and vihuela, which are often related to later guitars either in physical form or playing technique. The general belief among Historians is that the first recognizable form of the guitar by modern audiences may have originated in Spain in the 1500s. The first guitars were much smaller than their modern counterparts and had only four strings that ran from a violin-like pegbox to a tension bridge glued to the belly. The four string guitar, tuned c–f–a–d, was played widely throughout England, France and Italy by such composers as Alonso Mudarra of Spain (ca. 1510–1580) and Guillaume de Morlaye of France (ca. 1510-1558).
As the lute and vihuela declined, the guitar grew in popularity and by 1600 a fifth string was added to allow players a wider range of notes. The violin-like peg box was replaced by a flat, slightly reflexed head with rear tuning pegs which would later become metal screws in the 19th century. This version of the instrument is often referred to as the “Baroque Guitar.” Some well known composers of the baroque guitar were Francesco Corbetta (ca. 1615–1681) and Angelo Michele Bartolotti (ca. 1615-1682).
Eventually, a sixth string was added in the 1700s to expand the range of the guitar even further. The six string guitar was tuned E–A–d–g–b–e′ and is the popular version of the instrument we know and love today.
The guitar remained an amateur’s instrument until the early 18th century. At this time several virtuosi gained notoriety in Europe. These include, Fernando Sor (1778–1839), and Joseph Kaspar Mertz (1806–1856). In addition to European composers, modern classical-guitar technique has been greatly influenced by Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909), a spanish composer whose transcriptions of works by Bach and Mozart formed the basis of the concert repertoire.
In the mid 1800s a luthier named Antonio Torres (1817-1892) redefined the guitar, producing innovative designs which have shaped the work of every guitar maker since. Torres created a broader and more shallow guitar body with a soundboard which was uncharacteristically thin compared to that of its predecessors. The soundboard was arched in both directions and reinforced by an arrangement of fanned out wooden struts. These famous fan-struts strengthened the thin soundboard while allowing it to respond to the vibrations of the strings.The resulting instrument is what we now know as the classical guitar.
Fun fact: According to historical documents, Francisco Tárrega is reported to have owned and played a Torres made guitar during much of his time as a composer!
In the 20th century, Andres Segovia (1893-1987) of Spain ushered the classical guitar into the spotlight of the concert stage world wide. He is often regarded as the grandfather of the classical guitar and is known for playing a Hermann Hauser, Sr. Guitar, which was based directly on the Torres tradition.
The first electric guitar was introduced in 1931. It was nicknamed the “Frying Pan” because of its long neck and circular body. Like the acoustic guitar, electric guitars also have necks and strings, but they usually have solid bodies and are plugged into an amplifier to be heard adequately.
And there you have it! A brief history of the guitar. There are undoubtedly hundreds of notable guitar players in history. Who do you think is or was the best guitar player of all time? Find us on Facebook and weigh in!