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How Did the Guitar Evolve Through Time?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Music > Guitar > Things You Didn’t Know about the History of the Guitar.

The guitar is a well-known string musical instrument. A central rosette, six strings, integrated tuning pegs, a handle with frets, a central sound hole: these are the characteristics that all guitars share (at least when speaking of the acoustic guitar!).

But who knows where it comes from? When did we start learning to play guitar?

From the myths and legends to the true history of the guitar, let yourself be lulled by its sweet melody. The bets are open: is the guitar of Indian, Uzbek, Arabic or Spanish origin?

Was the Instrument of the Egyptian Singer Har-Mose the First Guitar in the World?

In a remote time, even very remote, under the reign of Queen Hatshepsut – that is to say 3,500 years ago – lived an Egyptian singer named Har-Mose. She used a primitive type of 3-stringed guitar made of a polished cedar box surrounded by leather.

The Egyptians began to use this instrument that became quickly very popular. It was then introduced into Europe by the Mesopotamians. The teaching of this instrument and the first guitar lessons appeared around this time.

The history of guitars goes far back in time - to the Egyptians Guitars can be traced way back to Egyptian times.

This “original guitar” was successively embellished with a fourth (to reach unison) then a fifth string (in Europe), and finally a sixth in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately for Har-Mose, whose instrument was fairly rudimental, the guitar became evidently became much more sophisticated during this time.

The guitar, as we now know, even those of the greatest guitarists, is of Egyptian origin!

The Lute of Mesopotamia, a Grandfather to Jimi Hendrix’s Guitar?

The lute has a semi-pear soundboard, a small bridge like a guitar, a fretboard and many strings. There are a number of commonalities.

The dôtar, a two-stringed lute with a long neck, was also seen as the origin of the modern guitar, to which more and more strings were progressively added.

At first a shepherd’s instrument, it became a noble instrument in the scholarly music of the nineteenth century in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

In reality, the lute is a string instrument among many others – and guitarists don’t also like the idea that this is a guitar at all! Just because something has strings – doesn’t make it a guitar!

A Very Old Lady: an Ancestor of the Guitar Found in Ancient Rome?

In Antiquity, we used an instrument called the cithara (from the Greek “kithara”), a musical instrument with plucked strings. It consists of a soundboard on which were fixed strings of decreasing size, in the sense that they were increasingly fine.

With the right hand, one plucks chords while the left hand serves to pinch the frets.

For a long time this string instrument (like the others) was made out of animal gut. (For your information, it was not until 1940 that the strings went from those of animal origin to nylon.)

An obscure example of an historical guitar Guitars came in many different forms.

It is said that the zither was imported into Spain by the Moors, and that to this instrument a neck was added to form the guitar as we know it.

Michael Kasha’s Point of View and His Contributions to the Guitar

Dr. Kasha, a researcher in molecular physics and a guitar enthusiast, defines the guitar as “a plucked string instrument played with fingers or a plectrum, having a long fretted neck, a flat wooden soundboard, a head and a flat back, with, most of the time, curved flanks.”

He’s the first researcher to have wondered about the following question: how to play the guitar?

Although the lute and the guitar have common ancestors, the guitar is not a derivative of the lute, he says. According to him the Greeks themselves would have borrowed the term “zither” from the Persians who had a 4-string musical instrument called the “chartar”.

Parts of different guitars in a luthier's workshop The guitar evolved with new engineers working on a better model

The Romans have often been criticized for saying that they stole everything from the Greeks. But the Greeks too may have looked around their neighbor’s home!

Michael Kasha studied the vibratory behavior of soundboards and Gibson used his research to develop the dear Series Mark, with an asymmetric bridge and a special dam. This model, not hugely marketable, was quickly abandoned.

However, studies are ongoing about the benefits of playing the guitar

15th-19th Centuries: From the First Old Guitars to the Modern Guitar

At the time of its elaboration, the Middle Ages guitar is characterized by the following elements:

  • A fairly short neck
  • 8 frets maximum (there are now 22 or 24 nuts on an electric guitar neck!)
  • Double strings

At this time, two forms of guitar are known:

  • The Saracen guitar: it’s recognized by its domed case and double strings, it’s a sort of lute with a long handle.
  • The Latin guitar: it has a flat case and strings made out of guts, it’s the closest we know to the guitars we have today.

The Renaissance marks the appearance of a family of small string instruments (cordophones) in Spain, under the name of vihuela.

Ah! That sexy Spanish guitar: who could resist! Discover our top ten list of seductive guitar based songs

Someone playing the historical Vihuela guitar Some guitars are extremely rare and can be found in museums only.

The guitarra, relatively small, has four double strings while the Vihuela de Mano has six.

To date, only four authentic Vihuelas de Mano have been preserved because of their great fragility, including 2 in Paris (Musée Jacquemart-André and Musée de la musique).

In the sixteenth century, the vihuela eventually gave way to the Spanish guitar.

It was at this time that the 5-string instrument made its entrance with a standard tuning in A, D, G, B and E. As we composed these instruments, we began to look for more variations which led to an increasing number of frets: from 8 to 10 and then to 12.

In the seventeenth century, it was the Italian luthier, Antonio Giacomo Stradivari, who added a sixth string to the guitar. His competitors and successors would later do the same, while opting for six single strings rather than six pairs of strings.

And so we got E, A, D, G, B, E – the standard tuning of the guitar today!

During the nineteenth century, the shape of the soundbox evolves and makes a huge leap in the evolution of this magical instrument. Around 1850, the Spanish manufacturer, Antonio Torres, decided to change the proportions of the soundbox and to renew the materials he used. This made it possible to improve the sound as well as its projection.

One can say that he is the inventor of the classical guitar. Therefore a Spanish man! They are not quite wrong to declare that the guitar is Spanish then. Another preconceived idea about the guitar!

The guitar is an instrument that has often been “snubbed” by the high sphere of classical music.

The first college guitar course in the UK was given by John Williams (outside of his classic repertoire, Williams played for  Kate Bush, David Bowie, and many, many others). This guitar lesson was given for the first time in 1965.

Therefore, and contrarily to popular belief, most older guitar heroes have a classical training.

By the Way, How Did the Electric Guitar Appear?

So, if that was the classical guitar – what about the electric? When did that start being played?

The Birth of Electric Guitars

In the 1900s, they started to use steel ropes. They offer a better resonance but also have a lot of tension on the neck. This allows you to play the guitar faster.

Christian Fredrich Martin, a German who settled in the United States, developed the technique of “brace” in X. From there on end, other luthiers and artists have made their own contribution.

  • Orville Gibson was inspired by the cello so that the bridge no longer touched the strings and offered a greater resonance.
  • Lloyd Loar introduced the F-holes and a floating vibrato (also commonly called the Floyd Rose).
  • 1920: we add pickups to the jazz guitar.
  • It was in 1930 that the electric guitar (a guitar equipped with tungsten microphones) began to be marketed by Rickenbacker.
  • However, the beginning of the real electric guitar is in 1936 with Gibson and its 504 models ES150.

The solid body (full body of the electric guitar) appeared around this time at Audiovox, Rickenbacker and Epiphone. The descendants of the inventors soon started to make the Les Paul or Leo Fender, which were named after the producers.

It was in 1950 that the general public discovered the first solid body guitar by Leo Fender, the Fender Telecaster.

Nowadays, Les Paul (a solid body with two humbuckers) and Stratocaster with its two horns (on which you can change the parts as much as you wish) remain the main forms of electric guitar.

(Want to know what sort of jobs you could land as a guitar player?)

The Guitar, a Low-Grade Instrument?

The guitar was considered inferior to the lute at the time of its appearance in the fifteenth century.

However, geniuses of composition have succeeded in making this instrument an object of lust and fantasy! What’s more, playing guitar is good for the health of guitarists!

Thank you rock, jazz and blues and different guitar styles!

Just take a look at the pricing of some artists’ guitars:

  • The top record is held by a white Fender Stratocaster bearing the autographs of 19 artists from Mick Jagger to Brian Adams. Funds raised in 2005, $ 2.7 million, helped the victims of the 2004 tsunami.
  • The best known is none other than Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar, that very one that made Woodstock go wild. It was sold for 2 million dollars.
  • Bob Marley’s Washburn Custom was valued at between $1.2 million and $2 million. It was given by the artist to his favourite technician, Gary Carlsen, who founded the charity “Different Journeys, One Destination”.
  • The classical and acoustic guitars sell a little cheaper, but Eric Clapton’s CF Martin & Co of 1939 still cost the price of 791,500 dollars …

We bet that the lute, now seldom used and relayed to the rank of museum piece, has not finished vibrating with jealousy!

You get the idea, the history of the guitar is vast, because it counts a crazy number of distant relatives. Building on its success, it has also integrated classrooms in the twentieth century. The long awaited recognition of guitar lessons?

The good news is that if this text made you want to scratch off the pick, Superprof helps you find a private teacher whenever you want!

Now discover scientific proof that playing the guitar is good for you!

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