December 13, 2023

The History of the Guitar

The guitar that we see musicians use today has a long history. From the very beginnings of human culture between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, to smoked out bars in the inner cities of today, from the court entertainers of the great dynasties of Europe, to young girls and boys practicing their favorite song in their bedrooms today – the guitar has a long and colorful past.

The first incarnation of the guitar is believed to have come from Babylon (modern day Iraq). Clay plaques dating from more than 2000 years before Christ have been found that depict naked figures strumming guitar-like instruments. The story of the guitar is then silent for nearly 2000 years until evidence of a Roman instrument was unearthed in a tomb. It was made completely from wood and has the same basic shape that classical guitars still have today.

In the Medieval period the guitar developed with a round bodied sound hole and a fat neck. It is not known whether this instrument is of French or German origin. Side by side with this creation was a straight sided instrument that was found in the tombs of ancient English churches.

It is believed that the basic aspects of design were brought to Europe from the East by Moors who invaded Spain in 711. It is unsurprising then that Spain was the place that the guitar began its most critical stage of development. The ‘Vihuela’ developed 12 steel frets and musicians began writing tablature for people to play. Also an instrument related to the guitar, the ‘Lute’, was associated with the oppressive regime of the Moors. So playing the guitar and the music related to the guitar become part of the culture of resistance. This in a sense would be a precursor to what guitar music would come to represent in the 20th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the guitar moved in full force into Europe. It is known that King Louis XIV played and loved the guitar. He and many members of the European nobility popularized the guitar and internationalized guitar playing and guitar music.

The 19th century saw a universal guitar adopted with the same basic tuning system we use today. Also in that century the guitar moved out from Europe to America and the rest of the world.

The 20th century saw the biggest explosion of acceptance and use in the history of the guitar. Mass media made musical expression something anyone could watch and enjoy. Also large dance halls and popular musicians created a need for louder guitars. So the electric guitar began its evolution from the resonators of 1927 to the magnetic pickups that adorn nearly all electric guitars today.

The guitar rode a wave of popularity and became to most recognizable and commonly used instrument in music. Also the guitar is an excellent instrument for writing songs and expressing oneself. The instrument has many faces in modern music – from singer song writers with an acoustic guitar to wild metal guitarists, blasting out on their electric guitars.

Guitars and the people who have played them have spanned thousands of years and many different cultures. It is an excellent rewarding instrument to play and learn with many subtle styles and characteristics.

Let’s leave it there for today…


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