The History of the Guitar

While the guitar may have gained the bulk of its popularity as a musical instrument during the modern era, guitar-like instruments have been in existence in numerous cultures throughout the world for more than five thousand years. With such an extensive history, it is virtually impossible to cover its entirety within the scope of this article. Instead, mentioning several significant developments within that lengthy history helps to paint a broad overview of the history of the guitar.

Acoustic Guitars… to Electric Guitars

The word “guitar” was brought into English as an adaptation of the Spanish word “guitarra,” which was, in turn, derived from the Greek “kithara.” Tracing the roots of the word further back into linguistic history, it seems to have been a combination of the Indo-European stem “guit-,” meaning music, and the root “-tar,” meaning chord or string. The root “-tar” is actually common to a number of languages, and can also be found in the word “sitar,” also a stringed musical instrument. Although the spelling and pronunciation differs between languages, these key elements are present in most words for “guitar” throughout history.

The earliest instruments that the modern eye and ear would recognize as a “normal” acoustic guitar date from about five hundred years ago, in the late Medieval or early Renaissance periods. Prior to this time, stringed instruments were in use throughout the world, but these early instruments are known primarily from visual depictions, not from the continued existence of music written for them. The majority of these depictions show simple stringed instruments, often lacking some of the parts that define a modern guitar. A number of these instruments have more in common with the lute than the guitar.

During the Renaissance, guitars were either four-course or five-course, meaning that they had four or five strings or sets of strings. In the case of those guitars with sets of strings, or courses, the pair of strings in a given course would generally be tuned to the same note or to two notes an octave apart. In this way, these Renaissance-era guitars were similar to a modern twelve string guitar, which has twelve strings placed in six courses, and each course is tuned similarly or in a complimentary fashion. The sound produced by these four-course and five-course guitars would have been a richer sound than that of a modern six-string guitar, because of the larger number of notes from the larger number of strings.

There is some uncertainty about the exact date of the earliest six-string guitar. The authenticity of six string guitars alleged to have been made prior to 1790 is often suspect, as many fakes have been discovered dating to this era. The early nineteenth century is generally accepted as the time period during which six string guitars began taking on their modern shape and dimensions. Thus for nearly two hundred years, luthiers, or guitar makers, have been producing versions of the modern acoustic guitar.

Manufacturing Guitars

The first electric guitar was not developed until the early twentieth century. George Beauchamp received the first patent for an electric guitar in 1936, and Beauchamp went on to co-found Rickenbacker, originally known as the Electro String Instrument Company, with Adolph Rickenbacher. The spelling of the company name differs from Rickenbacher’s given surname to distance himself from his German ancestry, which was seen as suspect during the world wars. Although Rickenbacker began producing electric guitars in the late 1930s, this brand received most of its fame in the 1960s, when John Lennon used a Rickenbacker guitar for the Beatles debut performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. George Harrison later bought a Rickenbacker guitar of his own, and the company later gave him one of their earliest twelve string electric guitars. Paul McCartney also used a Rickenbacker bass guitar for recording. The Beatles continued to use Rickenbacker guitars throughout their career, and made the instruments highly popular among other musicians of the era.

The Fender Musical Instruments Company and the Gibson Guitar Corporation were two other early electric guitar pioneers, both developing models in the early 1950s. Fender began with the Telecaster in 1950 and 1951, and the Fender Stratocaster debuted in 1954. Gibson began selling the Gibson Les Paul, based partially on assistance from jazz musician and guitar innovator Les Paul, in 1952. The majority of present day solid-body electric guitars are still based largely on these three early electric guitar designs.

Throughout the history of the guitar and related stringed instruments, an enormous number of individuals have made their mark on the way in which guitars were built, played, and perceived. Though some of these individuals are particularly well known, like the Beatles or Les Paul, the majority of these people are virtually invisible to most modern guitar fans. By looking at the entire history of the guitar, rather than just recent developments, largely confined to electric guitars, it is possible to see more of the contributions of earlier generations.

Guitar Timeline

Instruments similar to the guitar have been in existence for at least the last 5,000 years. Other instruments from ancient times, in the regions of central Asia, may have influenced the guitar. Ancient carvings and statues found in Iran depict instruments that are very comparable to the guitar. Despite the long history of the guitar and guitar-like instruments, the guitar proper was not mentioned in writing until the 14th century.

Research on the history of the guitar tends to make us believe that the original guitar had been created in Spain, and had three double pairs of strings along with one single string. By the 1500’s in Spain, the guitar was the equivalent for the middle and lower classes of the upper class instrument known as the vihuela, which was very similar to the guitar, but had six double courses.

The guitar became popular in parts of Europe other than Spain in the 1500’s and 1600’s, and in the late 1600’s, a fifth pair of strings was added underneath the sets already there. The transition into the more modern time in history of the guitar began in the mid-1700’s, when double pairs of guitar strings became single, and a sixth string was added above the five strings that were currently there, making the string set-up the way it is in today‘s guitars. The guitar was further modernized in the 1800’s with adjustments such as broadening the body, along with replacing the wooden tuning pegs with a more modern machine head.

The history of the guitar as we know it today continued into the 1990’s.  The electric guitar was created in the 1930’s, when it was designed for popular music, and was popularized in the 1940’s. The seven-string guitars and eight-string guitars were created in the 1990’s for a deeper, darker sound.