Brief Guitar History
The history of the guitar can be traced back to more than 4,000 years. There are a lot of theories about the instrument’s origin. Some of them even claim it’s a development of the ancient Greek kithara or the lute. However, the research maintained in the 1960’s showed that such claims are groundless.
The only testimony for the theory of kithara is the resemblance of the words “kithara” (Greek) and “quitarra” (Spanish). Moreover, it’s hard to imagine how the kithara could have developed in the guitar, since it was an entirely different instrument type, being a square-framed lyre or lap harp.
The earliest string instruments archeologists have found are tanburs and bowl harps. Since the ancients have made bowl harps from calabashes and tortoise shells, as resonators, with a bent stick as a neck, and one or more silk or intestine strings. There are a lot of such “harps” from ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Sumerian civilizations in the museums.
A tanbur is determined as a long-necked string instrument with a small pear- or egg-shaped body and a round or arched back, normally with a hide or wood soundboard, and a straight, long neck. Perhaps, it evolved from the bowl harp as it straightened out to allow pressing down the strings for the creation of more notes. Egyptian tomb paintings testify that tanburs and harps come from about 4000 years ago.
The Guitar We Know
To tell guitars from other tanbur family instruments, we have to define the guitar first. It has a long, fretted neck, ribs, flat wood soundboard, and a flat back, most frequently with concaved sides. The oldest representative of the kind is a stone thread of a 3300 years old Hittite instrument with a long, fretted neck, flat top, perhaps flat back, and with very concave sides found at Alaca Huyuk, Turkey.
The Lute (Oud, Al’ud)
Oud was brought to Spain by the Moors. In the Arabian countries, the tanbur took another direction, remaining fretless, changing the proportions. In European culture, the oud was added with frets and called a “lute,” which springs from the Arabic “Al’ud.” It is defined as a short-necked instrument with a lot of strings, a large pear-shaped body with very salient back, and a sharply angled, elaborate peg head.
The word “guitar” springs from the ancient word “string” – “tar” – in Sanskrit. A lot of Central Asian folklore string instruments have made it through the years and are still being used in almost the same form for about a thousand years, as evidenced by archeological findings.
Harps and tanburs were spread around the world by travellers, seamen, and merchants. The four-string Persian chartar got to Spain, where it has gone through several form and construction changes, gained pairs of strings tuned in unison, and later was called “chitarra” or “quitarra.”
A Long Way from Four- to Six-String Guitar
So, the guitar forefathers came to Europe from Mesopotamia and Egypt, more often, than not, it had four strings. Similar instruments, and their five-string variations, are mentioned in lots of illustrated medieval manuscripts and stone carvings in cathedrals and churches, from Roman to Medieval times.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, most of Europe was dominated by the four-course guitar (four pairs of strings tuned in unison). The oldest music written for the four-course “chitarra” known to us comes from 16th century, from Spain. The five-course chitarra battente appeared in Italy at about the same era, and bit by bit replaced the four-course guitar.
Chitarra battente was added with a sixth course of strings in the 17th century. It was a popular trend followed by guitar smiths all over Europe. This principle slowly developed into six single strings, where the Italians were the ones to take the lead again.
At the beginning, of the 19th century, modern guitars started to acquire a new shape. However, the instruments still had very small and narrow bodies.
In 1850’s, a Spanish guitar smith, Antonio Torres, increased the size of the instrument’s body, changed the proportions, and added the revolutionary “fan” top bracing model. Torres’s design drastically bettered the volume, projection, and tone of the guitar. Very soon, it became accepted as the instrument’s construction standard. This is how the modern classical guitar became the way we know it today.
Popular Guitars of Today
German immigrants to the USA had started to make guitars with X-braced tops at about the same time Torres begun making his trend. In the 1900’s, steel strings became broadly obtainable. They provided louder sounds, but the Torres-kind guitars couldn’t stand the increased tension. A strengthened X-brace induced by the Germans proved to be durable and it quickly became the standard for the steel string flat-top guitars.
Orville Gibson was a man, who created archtop guitars with oval sound holes, at the end of the 19th century. He combined a cello-like body with the still string guitar. This allowed freer vibration of the top and produced greater volume. In the beginning of 1920’s, Gibson was joined by Lloyd Loar, who improved the archtop guitar, providing it with f-holes, cello-type tailpiece, and floating bridge.
In the late 1920’s, when jazz and Hawaiian guitars were added with pickups, the electric guitar was born. It didn’t make much success till 1936, when Gibson presented the ES150 model, which was made famous by Charlie Christian.
With the arrival of sound amplification, it became possible to finish with the sound box all at once. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, several guitar smiths were experimenting with the construction and equipment. It is still not clear whether Leo Fender, Les Paul, O.W. Appleton, or Paul Bigsby made the very first solid-body guitar. However, the electric guitar as we know it made it to these days and is here to stay.