The Guitar is an ancient instrument, whose first appearance in history can be seen and followed from 3 500 to 4 000 years ago.
Of course, there are many theories about the Guitar history alone, origins, the exact time of occurrence and forerunners of this noble instrument. It’s impossible to track and see development of the guitar until the time of Renascence, somewhere around 15th century c.e.
However, there were many “stringed” or as called by others “Chordophone” instruments from the time of ancient Egypt, Persia and Greece, which by the shape, working principle, material and the sound alone resemble the instrument that we know today as Guitar.
TWO MOST COMMON THEORIES
Two suppositions, which are most common in the history of guitar that you can find, are that it has developed from the Lute (from Arab countries), or even ancient Kithara (from ancient Greece). However, both theories are rather unconvincing and unfounded.
Dr. Michael Kasha has defined guitar as “a long, fretted neck, flat wooden soundboard, ribs, and a flat back, most often with incurved sides”. According to his research from 1960, the guitar couldn’t become from Lute, the only thing that is for sure is that the both instruments have the same ancestors.
Their development took place at the same time, but in different directions. Lute, in its own appearance, big and rounded body, short neck and “Laid” back head, does not remind by any chance on perfect guitar. However, the process of the other way around is undeniable, later in the evolution, the guitar had a big influence on Lute.
When it comes to the Kithara, the only resemblance of this Greek instrument and a guitar is just that the word “kithara” sounds a lot like the Spanish word “quitarra”. It’s impossible that guitar had developed from this totally different kind of instrument.
ANCESTORS (Older guitar history)
The first “stringed” instruments known to scientists are “bowl harp” and “tambur”. People had made bowl harps since prehistory, using shells of tortoise or calabashes for the body, curved stick for the neck and one or more silk strings or even gut strings.
Preserved examples of more advanced bowl harps are found on the territory of ancient empires Sumer, Babylon and Egypt, and they are around 2 000 to 2 500 years old. For example, an extremely crooked instrument with 11 chords and gold decorations, was found in Queen Shub-Ad’s tomb.
Tambur is defined as “a long-necked stringed instrument with a small egg- or pear-shaped body, with an arched or round back, usually with a soundboard of wood or hide, and a long, straight neck”. She was created just after bowl harp, and it is assumed that it’s developed when the curved neck of the bowl harp was straightened.
This made pressing the strings on the frets possible and enabled a way more notes and a completely new sound of the stringed instrument. Drawings and gravures in the stone found in Egypt, around 4 000 years old, show the musicians how they hold both instruments, together with some wind instruments and drums.
THE OLDEST “GUITAR” IN HISTORY
It’s precisely one kind of tambur which most reminds on the guitar today, the remains of this instrument were found in Egypt. It belonged to the Egyptian singer, musician Hermose, he was even buried with this tambur 3 500 years ago.
This Tambur is a lot like guitar, it had three chords, long neck and smaller body made of smoothly polished wood and the animal skin.
However, even closer to the guitar by its characteristics, is the instrument which can be seen on stone gravure over 3 000 years old, found in Turkey. Next to the long neck, a larger number of chords, flat top, this “guitar” also has a curved top and the bottom of the body and probably flattened back.
Through the years and centuries, and through the further history of music, many types of tamburas have been developed and traveled over the different continents and countries of the world. A big number of these instruments is in use even today, this is most common in central Asia.
NAME “THE GUITAR”
The single name “guitar” is coming from a word “tar”, it is an ancient Sanskrit word for “string”. It is the ancient language of Central Asia and Northern India, from which all the modern languages have developed from these two territories. We can see that many stringed instruments, mostly from Central Asia, end in “tar”, with a prefix which indicates how many strings it has.
Here are some examples:
DOTAR- two-stringed instrument from Turkestan
(“DO”, a modern Persian for “two” + “tar”)
SETAR- three-stringed instrument from Iran (found in old Persia)
(“SE”, a modern Persian for “three” + “tar”)
CHARTAR- four-stringed instrument, Persia
(“CHAR”, a modern Persian for “four” + “tar”)
PANCHTAR- five-stringed instrument in Afghanistan
(“PANCH”, an ancient Sanskrit for “five” + “tar”)
It’s obvious that the guitar got its name from Persian four-string CHARTAR, since we know that the first guitar known under this name had four strings.
To be more precise, when the chartar arrived in Spain, it changed in terms of construction and form. Now instead of four strings alone, it acquired 4 pairs of strings, and got a name CHITARRA or QUITARRA.
FOUR to SIX STRINGS GUITAR
Around the 15th century, at the beginning of the Renaissance, guitar (chitarra) with 4 unison-tuned pairs of strings was wildly spread in most of the Europe. At the beginning, a lot of the time a single first string was used only. Later, during the 16th century, first music in history known for four-course chitarra was made.
At that time the five-course (5 unison-tuned pairs of strings) guitar appeared in Italy and progressively replaced 4 course guitar. This guitar had the standard tuning settled at A, D, G, B, E, like the modern guitar has today for the top 5 strings.
Chitarra battente, as it was officially called, had shorter neck then today’s guitar with only 8 frets free of the body. With time, this number increased to 10 and then to 12 frets, and remained unchanged until today.
Six- strings guitar first appeared in 17th century, in Italy again, of course. The sixth pair of strings was added to the “Chitarra battente”, now with the 12 frets free of the neck sometimes.
Soon, 6 unison-tuned pairs of strings (twelve-string guitar) were replaced by six single strings. (Usually, we assumed that the twelve-string guitar evolved from the six-string one, but this in fact shows the opposite development)
This transition from five double string to six single strings guitar led to the new modified instruments with new stringing pattern. This task was quite simple, it entailed reworking the bridge and nut, and removing four of the tuning peg holes.
One surprisingly incredible guitar like this was made by Joakim Thielke (1641-1719), the German master from Hamburg. But for the note, this guitar had only 8 frets, and until the 19th century most bodies were still narrow-waisted and smaller than they are today. Another one like this, but with 12 frets was made by George Louis Panormo in 1832.
FIRST “CLASSICAL” GUITAR IN HISTORY
At this point in the history of guitar, we can say that the first modern-like classical guitar was made. It happened when the size and proportions of the body were increased and altered by Spanish maker Antonio Torres (1817-1892), somewhere around 1850. He also introduced the famous “fan” pattern for the guitar.
This pattern is not built for the extreme tension of the steel strings, so it’s made for classical guitar which uses nylon string only.
This man has extremely improved projection, tone and volume of one of the most popular instruments today, next to the piano. His work made a revolution in music history, this design is kept unchanged until today, and still unchallenged.
MASSIVE USE OF STEEL STRINGS
Somewhere around 1900, steel strings became widely available and used in USA. The reason why this happened was a big migration of Germans to USA, around the same time classical guitar developed. Among them, Christian Fredrich Martin was working on a new pattern, he was making guitars whit X-braced tops.
But the steel strings tension was still too high for this invention, so he beefed-up X-braced tops, and it became the standard for the steel string guitar whit a flat top. This type of guitar is called acoustic, it’s different than the classical guitar because of steel strings, deferent top and of course the sound.
Close to the end of the 19th century, Orville Gibson began to make archtop guitar, it’s a type of acoustic or, as it’s called semi-acoustic guitar. It has a hollow body, now more shaped as cello, with oval sound holes, the top and the back are not flat and there is a moveable adjustable bridge. This new design allowed the bigger volume of the sound because the top of the guitar could vibrate more freely now.
Gibson’s company hired Lloyd Loar, in 1922, and together whit Gibson he designed the famous “jazz” guitar whit f-holes, forced back neck and today familiar cello-like body guitars. In this year the Gibson L5 was released, and is in production to this day. Although a long time has passed and a lot of new designs were made, all Gibson guitars signed by Lloyd are still the most prized and appreciated on the instrument market.
The first electric guitar was of course from the Gibson “Family” of guitars and it was made somewhere around 1936, the same year when it was presented to the world and got its popularity – especially among the jazz players. The guitars name is “ES-150” (ES is short for Electric Spanish while 150 represents the price of the guitar in dollars). But this guitar couldn’t make any sound without the amplifier because it didn’t have any acoustic features.
The Electric guitar was “born” when some changes were made on “jazz” and Hawaiian guitar, and electric pickups were added to the body of the instrument. This allowed way louder and a different sound of the guitar.
In 1951, the L5CES was released by Gibson company, and now it had two magnetic (electric) pickups, so it could be played either as an acoustic or an electric instrument. This type of guitars became popular right away, and some of the models actually remained available until now (Gibson L-7C for example).
What made guitars so popular and seen, actually is not only their perfect design and sound, they were promoted and played by many famous actors and musicians. Such as Charlie Christian, who made ES-150 popular, then BB King, Elvis and a lot of others.
Some of the artists, musicians and actors again, had their part in designing electric guitars. Many of them are being part of the industry to this day, and stands to be very popular.
For example Les Paul (1915-2009), he was country and blues musician, and a guitar designer too, and one of the pioneers of firmed neck guitars, which was the beginning of rock n roll.
Then there is Leo Fender (1901-1991), who created a Fender Electric instrument Manufacturing Company, now called Fender.
Or Paul Adelburt Bigsby (1899-1968), known as Paul Bigsby, who was one of the creators of solid body electric guitar.