Whether it be a heavy Warlock, a fancy Flying V, a classic Stratocaster, or a plain old acoustic: everyone knows what a guitar is. But not many know where the instrument came from.
It is amazing how we can all be so familiar with something and not know its history or its origin. Let me fill you in, and take you on a trip through the history and evolution of the guitar. You will be introduced to the great-grandfathers of all stringed instruments and shown how they developed into what we recognize as a guitar today.
Anyone who thinks the guitar is an American or modern invention is wrong. Anyone who thinks that the guitar is a hundred, two hundred, or even a thousand years old is also mistaken. Actually, most musical historians believe that the guitar was born at least 4,000 years ago, although no one really knows for sure. The oldest evidence of the existence of the guitar dates back to 1900 or 1800 BCE. It was found in Babylonia on clay plaques, which depict nude figures playing instruments that bear a general resemblance to the guitar. Of course, this is far too early for us to expect it to look exactly like the guitars of today, but it did have strings and a distinctly differentiated body and neck.
Around the same time in Egypt, the only plucked instrument was a bow-shaped harp. A little later on, however, there was a new development: a necked instrument with carefully marked frets, possibly made of gut, wound around the neck. An instrument was also found in an Egyptian tomb dating back to around 30 BCE to 400 CE. The sides had deeper curves than the older instruments and the back had become completely flat instead of curving upward to meet the soundboard. The two surfaces, back and front, were attached to each other with strips of wood that form the sides of the sound box—much like today’s guitars.
Meanwhile, in Rome, the instrument had been growing and developing more and more into the basic guitar shape. The Romans began to construct the entire instrument out of wood, even the soundboard, which was previously made with rawhide. This made the instrument firmer because the materials were stronger.
The first known European stringed instrument dates back to the third century. It had a round sound box that tapers into a wide neck, similar to the lute. A second instrument had also been invented, called the Carolingian instrument, getting its name from the era during which it was conceived. It was a rectangular shaped instrument with strings. Finally, another instrument developed side-by-side with the Carolingian and its straight sides were starting to give way to slight curves.
The only evidence historians have of the existence of guitars before the sixteenth century is based on artwork, and the only real instruments discovered were from the 1700s or later.
Moving into the seventeenth century, the guitar was becoming popular and particularly valued by the nobility. In France, King Louis XIV played the guitar and apparently regarded it as his favourite instrument. The number of composers, guitarists, and guitar-makers grew rapidly during that time.
By the eighteenth century, Germany had become increasingly active in this particular musical field. It too accumulated an impressive number of guitarists and composers, especially as baroque music reached its peak. Meanwhile, in France, the guitar had attained the status of an instrument par excellence by the nobility. Soon after, the French revolution caused many nobles to be exiled and, surprisingly, the guitar actually became more popular as the general public adopted the instrument.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the guitar really reached the peak of its development, rising in all its glory to shine not only in every part of Europe, but also on the American continent. In the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution brought about great change. With improved means of transportation like railways, musicians were able to travel more widely than before. This led to concert tours that gave artists the opportunity to play for bigger audiences.
The guitar has been known in the New World from as early as the sixteenth century, when Spanish colonists sold guitars to the Aztecs. Portuguese artists also helped the guitar’s popularity, particularly in South America. Their activities led to the deep involvement of the guitar in the folk music of many countries.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the guitar fully reached its potential. The extraordinary technological progress and the development of mass media communications contributed to the global exposure of the instrument.
Consequently, more people are given the opportunity to participate in and around the guitar: such as musicians, composers, listeners, and those of us who just enjoy picking out a tune for our own enjoyment.
As we near the end of our journey through the guitar’s history, landing in the twenty-first century, there isn’t much more to say. You now know where the instrument came from and how it has developed into what it is today. Guitar-makers have built on each other’s knowledge and experience over the centuries, steadily improving the quality of the instrument. From the Babylonians through the classical world and into the new world, we have seen the guitar evolve as an instrument revered by millions of people over the course of 4,000 years. Indeed the guitar has earned respect from people all over the world and from all walks of life.