A brief history of the guitar

How old is the guitar, exactly?

Stringed instruments, played with two hands, pre-date written history. Two of the main forebears of the guitars we know today are the oud and the lute. 

The oud dates back to ancient Persia (originally called the barbat), and was used throughout the Middle East. The oud has a pear-shaped body, a fretless fingerboard, and a short neck. Its name in Arabic, ūd (“wood”), refers to its body, made of aloe wood.

“Oud (Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris)” by dalbera is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The lute is descended from the Middle Eastern oud, brought to Europe through Spain in the 8th and 9th centuries. During the Medieval Period, the lute usually had five strings that were played with a quill as a plectrum. In the late 15th century, lutists mostly abandoned the quill and plucked with their fingers, as sixth (sometimes more) strings were added. 

“File:A Woman Playing the Theorbo-Lute and a Cavalier MET DP145907.jpg” by Gerard ter Borch is marked with CC0 1.0.

By the 16th century, Spanish musicians started to use string instruments that more closely match the curved guitars we recognize today. They were known as baroque guitars and featured five “courses” (strings) and movable frets. 

These guitars, known as Baroque guitars, effectively replaced the lute as the go-to stringed instrument for musicians from about 1600 to 1750. Further refinements, such as five courses of gut strings and moveable frets, made these instruments easier to play.

“Tielke baroque guitar” by Jo Dusepo is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

By the 1790s, a sixth course was added to Spanish guitars, and a standard body type was established (although it was smaller than modern guitars). 

In the mid-1800s, Spanish musician and luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado created the guitar design that resembles the modern classical guitar. It featured a wider body, a thinned belly, and had machined heads instead of wooden tuning pegs. The strings were split evenly between gut (now plastic or nylon) and metal-spun silk. 

In the United States, the guitar continued to develop. Christian Frederick Martin, who was born in Germany, created the flat top acoustic guitar in the U.S. in the 1830s, which was designed to handle the extra tension caused by modern steel strings. 

The harder, tighter steel strings required musicians to change up their playing style from the delicate, plucked melodies of a classical guitar. Many started using picks, which helped to popularize chord-driven music. 

 Despite the popularity of picking, early guitars still often got drowned out in the mix during the big band jazz era. Innovative musicians tried to use attached microphones or telephone transmitters to increase the volume of the guitar. The first commercially available electric guitar – as we know it today – was released in 1931. 

The Rickenbacher A-22 Electro Hawaiian – also known as the “Frying Pan” was created by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker. The guitar included an electromagnetic device that changed the strings’ into a clear resonant sound. Although Rickenbacher and Beauchamp won the first patent for the electric guitar, there were plenty other inventors who worked on electrifying guitars – including        , who designed the solidbody design for Gibson Guitars, Leo Fender, who created the Fender Telecaster in 1951. 

“File:Rickenbacher Frying Pan (clone), short scale, 22 fret – 2011 TSGA Jamboree.jpg” by brad_bechtel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.



Musicians Institute: Guitar History: How the Guitar has Evolved

Britannica – Guitar 


Yamaha Corp – The birth of the classical guitar


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