The guitar is a musical instrument that has the power to make people into cultural icons, recognized and admired by millions of people. Although the guitar that most people are familiar with is a relatively new invention, stringed instruments like the guitar have been around for thousands of years. When they eventually developed into the acoustic guitar
and finally the electric guitar
, the instrument skyrocketed out of obscurity to become one of the most influential instruments ever created.
Like the history of the guitar, the history of the word “guitar” can be traced very far back as well. The word for “guitar” in many languages is quite similar to our own English version, such as the Italian “chitarra”, the French “guiterre”, and the Spanish “guitarra.” These are Latin languages, and if you trace the roots “guit” and “tar” back to Latin they mean “music” and “string” respectively. So, surprisingly enough, the word “guitar” really means music from strings. If the word is traced back even farther, you come to the “citar” which is the Anglicized version of the Persian word “sehtar.” The root “seh” meant three and “tar” meant string; this is appropriate, because Persian citars typically had three strings.
If the name for these instruments was established in Ancient Persia, then there is no better place to look for the world’s earliest guitars than that geographical location: the Middle East. The area known as Mesopotamia was a “neighbor” to what would later become the Persian Empire. In Mesopotamian cities such as Babylon, instruments “played an important and essential role in religious ritual”. Four thousand year old statues have been uncovered of Babylonians playing stringed instruments that resembled the guitar. Mesopotamian civilization declined as the Persian Empire rose, and these instruments lived on. Other ancient civilizations that used guitar-like instruments were the Ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and several others from the Eastern Hemisphere.
The Ancient Egyptians were fond of the music produced from stringed instruments. They played a “bow-shaped harp” as far back as 2,500 B.C. These harps, along with jewels and works of art, have been found in tombs of several Pharaohs and other prominent Egyptians. They “believed in life-after-death” and wanted to enjoy music and “worldly goods” in the afterlife. Their harps, like the modern guitar, were designed with six strings that could be tuned to different notes. Around 1600 B.C., more complex models were designed to allow the strings to be pressed down onto the neck of the instrument. This was without a doubt one of the great advancements in the history of stringed instruments; it allowed the player to play several other notes in different pitches instead of just whichever notes the strings were tuned to. The result was much more complex and beautiful compositions.
Three hundred years later, the Hittites, who were located north of the Babylonians, took this concept one step further and added frets to the neck. Frets are raised pieces of metal on the neck of the instrument. Some instruments even sported frets made of the intestines of animals. The Hittites are credited with “the first representation of a fretted instrument”. Regardless of their composition, frets are crucially important because they are perfectly positioned to achieve a precise note when the string is pushed onto that fret and plucked. Without them, achieving the correct note was much more difficult, unless the player was extremely skilled and accurate. After a while, the majority of necked stringed instruments came to include frets, but there was still a minority that did not. Slowly but surely, these instruments evolved over the centuries; each of them with slightly different parts, shapes and numbers of strings. This evolution can be observed in the carvings and paintings found in the tombs of Ancient Egyptians, and it continued well into the next millennium.
The first appearance of necked stringed instruments in Europe was around 200 A.D. The lute is one of the oldest of these types and has many similarities to the guitar. Both the lute and the guitar are necked stringed instruments, but the lute has a sound box that is shaped like a small circular bowl, while the guitar has a larger sound box with sides and a flattened back. Although many of the stringed instruments used over the previous centuries are described as “guitar-like”, most of them were actually more similar to the lute. Several Roman caskets from that time have been uncovered with carvings of instruments that resemble the guitar. Numerous works of art from the 9th Century depict men, angels and various human-like beasts gathered together and playing stringed instruments, as they started to become more popular in Europe during this time.
Between this medieval period and the Renaissance that followed is when noticeable advancements were made in the design of these instruments; it was during this era that they became what “the modern eye and ear would recognize as a ‘normal’ acoustic guitar”. As these instruments were developing and evolving into what would become the modern guitar, Spain strayed away from that path and, in the 16th Century, they developed their own unique guitar-like instrument. This instrument was called the vihuela, and as many Spaniards migrated to Mexico, the vihuela also found a home there too. The vihuela was considerably longer than the other guitars of the period, and was designed with either four strings or six sets of paired strings . Lutes and other guitars have also featured varied numbers of pairs of strings. It was not uncommon to see three, four, five, or six pairs of strings; that’s up to twelve strings! When strings are paired together, they both produce a note. The result of twice as many notes being heard at a time is a very rich and complex sound, compared to the simpler sound of single stringed guitars. While Spain was enjoying its vihuela, the rest of Europe was transitioning from the use of a typical four double-stringed guitar to a five double-string guitar.
During the 17th Century, “the number of composers for the instrument, along with guitarists and guitar makers, grew to staggering proportions.” The guitar was enjoyed all over, including the “homes of wealthy families” and even “the courts of monarchs”. King Louis XIV of France was a guitar player and he even “regarded it as his favorite instrument.” Whenever he wasn’t playing it himself, he was listening to his own personal “band of musicians” that followed him “though the halls of his sumptuous palace... diligently playing as they proceeded”. From the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt to the Kings of France and other European Monarchs, it is clear that stringed music was fit for a king. By the end of that century, Germany had joined the ranks of Italy, France, and Spain with regards to guitar popularity.
Throughout the next century, guitars underwent several changes as people tried to find the best design. By then, there was an absurd amount of different types of guitars and sadly, the instrument slowly lost popularity. Bellow calls this time period “the lull before a storm” and explains that “the various trends taken by the guitar in the preceding centuries can, in retrospect, be viewed as so many roads and byways that led to one destination – the six single string guitar”. Gaetano Vinaccia is believed by many to be the first person to use six single strings on a guitar, although some have been credited before him; it is debatable. The important thing is that the six string guitar – the modern acoustic guitar – became universally accepted.
The acoustic guitar works just like every other guitar that preceded it. The sounds of the vibrating strings travel through the sound hole and into the sound box, which is the large hollow body, where they are amplified. The modern acoustic has one large sound hole behind the strings, but older guitars had up to five small holes. Guitars had gone through several changes over the centuries and now the times of uncertainty were finally over. A permanent design combined with “machinery capable of mass production” opened up many possibilities for the guitar. The future of the guitar was bright in the 1800’s. For the next hundred years, there were a few changes and improvements in guitar design, but none of them were major. By the 20th Century, the six string guitar was gaining more popularity all the time.
In the 1920’s and 30’s Jazz and Dance bands were on the rise. Many of them featured guitarists playing alongside saxophones, trumpets, harmonicas, pianos and other instruments. Bands such as The Valencians, The Roy Fox Band, the Marius B. Winter Orchestra and others did “gigs” at cafés, restaurants, and clubs. As communication and transportation options improved, “more opportunities were created to arouse interest in the guitar”. Cars and trains allowed bands to travel to different cities and radio broadcasting allowed them to reach an even wider audience. Radio broadcasting brought about another great development for the guitar. The acoustic guitar was a phenomenal thing, but unfortunately it could only be played so loud; sometimes the sound of other instruments overpowered it. After “the development of electrical amplification in 1920s by the radio industry” people could attempt at making “an amplified instrument”. They wanted to create an electric guitar.
The electric guitar is different than any of its predecessors because instead of naturally amplifying the vibrations of the strings, the electric guitar uses what is called a pickup to convert the vibrations of the strings into an electrical signal. The signal is sent to an amplifier, which is a big speaker that “generates the final sound”. The electrical signals can be modified in many ways before being heard and many effects can be achieved but the most important one is that a much louder sound can be made. Going from an acoustic guitar to an electric was not an easy task; it took several decades, design changes, and brilliant people to create what we know today as the electric guitar. Electric guitars are fairly complicated compared their acoustic counterparts, so it is important to understand the concepts of an electric guitar before going over their relatively short yet enthralling history.
It was in 1932 that Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp created “the first commercially-successful electric guitar.” They called it the “Frying Pan”. Indeed, this was a monumental step in the progression of the electric guitar. However, the Frying Pan was awkward to play and did not gain enough attention; electric guitars still had a long way to go. Other electric guitars were made called “hollow-body” electrics. They were hollow like an acoustic guitar and had basic pickups. The two problem with them were that they produced “annoying feedback” when played loudly and they were not cheap to make. A decade after the debut of the Frying Pan, renowned guitarist Les Paul built a semi-solid body electric that he called the “log”. It was another great step, but, it still had hollow parts and its design would not work for mass production. Guitar enthusiasts everywhere wanted a solid body guitar.
In 1950, Leo Fender
finally delivered what everyone had been waiting for: the solid-body electric guitar. It was named the Broadcaster: most likely as an allusion to the electric amplification techniques explored by radio broadcasters that made electric guitars possible. Either way, this name was short lived, as it was renamed to the Telecaster in the following year. Leo’s company, Fender, started mass producing them, and released newer models every year, such as the Stratocaster, which was released in 1954. The Telecaster and the Stratocaster were Fender’s most popular models and they are still being made today. In 1952, the Gibson
Guitar Company jumped on the solid-body bandwagon and also started mass producing electric guitars. Les Paul worked for Gibson, and they named their first model after him. Although the product was revolutionary, most people did not know this at the time, and business was sometimes tough.
In order to become a successful business you need to sell a lot of products. That is why Fender, Gibson, and other guitar companies had television commercials, printed advertisements, and several salesmen trying to spread the word and get more people interested. Those tactics helped but it was nothing compared to the attention received from celebrity endorsements. Some popular artists who were known for their guitar playing skills supported Fender, such as Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, and of course, Jimi Hendrix, who played a Fender Stratocaster at Woodstock. A Fender salesman once said, “When guys like that came along, we couldn’t make enough guitars. As a matter of fact, I think Jimi Hendrix caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all of the Fender salesmen put together”. The Beatles, Santana, Jimmy Page, Bob Marley, BB King and countless others were on the opposite side of the fence, supporting Gibson guitars. An especially notable Gibson guitarist was Elvis, also known as “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
There is always the debate of which is the best guitar company. Someone who worries about this is not seeing the bigger picture; although these famous musicians may have favored one brand over another, the important thing is that they were drawing an unprecedented amount of attention to the guitar. Regardless of the brand name, the electric guitar became remarkably popular in all kinds of music such as Reggae, Blues, Country, Metal, Jazz, Pop, Rock ‘n’ Roll and countless others. Great guitarists from all genres have made incredible music which inspired countless thousands of people to purchase their own guitars and learn how to play them, including myself. Soon enough, bands started appear with more electric guitars than other instruments. Before long, most bands only had guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer.
Whether it is electric or not, it is clear that no other instrument can rival the popularity and musical potential of the guitar. This is not by chance, but from the culmination of thousands of years of trial and error that produced the modern day acoustic guitar. In less than one century that acoustic guitar evolved into the extraordinary instrument known as the electric guitar. It was a century full of creativity and inspiration “that defies comparison with any other in the past. All the other proceeding centuries can be scanned as from a peak”. The popularity of the guitar has increased exponentially ever since its introduction; it can be found all over television, the radio, magazines, in schools, and in the homes of millions of people. The guitar has redefined the face of music as we know it and it is here to stay.
Countless people from all different backgrounds learn how to play guitar every year.
The sound of a guitar is enjoyed by many for it's beautiful and dynamic sound.