History of the acoustic guitar

January 27, 2017

Here we will give a brief history of the acoustic guitar. Where did the acoustic guitar come from? From which ancient instruments did it evolve?

The lute

luteIt seems the origin of the lute – an instrument used in a great variety of instrumental music from the medieval (5th to the 15th century CE) to the late Baroque (1600 to 1750) eras – is not generally agreed upon by musicologists, but the lute arguably dates back to classical antiquity, the times of ancient Greece and Rome.

The gittern

The gittern was the most significant stringed instrument of the late medieval period. Enjoyed by all levels of society, the gittern was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute.

gitternGitterns were perhaps the first remotely guitar-like instruments created during the Middle Ages with a round back like that of a lute. The gittern was a relatively small, gut-strung, round-backed instrument that first appears in literature and images in Western Europe during the 13th century. More comparative guitar-shaped instruments were not seen until the Renaissance era where the body and size began to evolve into something closer to the familiar acoustic guitar contours.

The gittern was also called the guitarra in Spain, guiterne or guiterre in France, the chitarra in Italy, and the quintern in Germany.

The vihuela

The vihuela was the earliest string instrument relating directly to the modern acoustic guitar; it is a guitar-shaped string instrument from 15th and 16th century Spain, Portugal, and Italy, usually with five or six doubled strings. There were several different types and/or playing methods re: the vihuela:

  • Vihuela de mano: 5 or 6 courses played with the fingers
  • Vihuela de penola: Played with a plectrum
  • Vihuela de arco: Played with a bow (ancestor of the viola da gamba)

wall of acoustic guitarsThe guitar’s roots go way back to 15th-century Malaga in Spain. Its engineering, with just four strings at the time, was pioneered by a Spanish black man. Thereafter, the instrument went through the Baroque and Classical periods before evolving into the six-stringed, modern-day guitar.

The word guitar comes from the Portugese word guitarra derived from the Greek word kitharra referring to one of the Greek islands, Cythera, which was thought to be the birthplace of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

During the 17th century, Italy stood at the center of guitar world; the Spanish guitar making began to flourish in the late 18th century following the addition of the sixth string. The guitar finally became a widely known musical instrument during the 19th century, thanks in large part to the vastly improved communication and transportation of that era. Guitar music was especially popular in Spain where Antonio de Torres developed the Spanish guitar in its modern form.

Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892), a Spanish guitarist and luthier (maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars), was “the most important Spanish guitar maker of the 19th century,” according to Vintage Guitar magazine. It is with Antonio’s designs that the first recognizable-as-modern classical guitars are to be seen, with most of today’s acoustic guitars being derivatives of his designs.

Today’s steel-string acoustic guitars were developed in America during the early 20th century when European emigrants were flooding into America.

Two types of guitar construction evolved:

  • Flat-top guitar: A flat top guitar is a type of guitar body model which has a flat top (as opposed to an arch top). The term flat top is usually used to refer to the most popular type of steel-string acoustic guitars; however, electric guitars such as the Fender Stratocaster, the Fender Telecaster, and the Gibson Les Paul Junior and Special can be described as flat top. (Wikipedia)
  • Archtop guitar: An archtop guitar is a hollow steel-stringed acoustic or semi-acoustic guitar with a full body and a distinctive arched top, whose sound is particularly popular with jazz, Rockabilly, psychobilly, and blues guitarists. (Wikipedia)

Gibson and Martin were the first two dominant American acoustic guitar makers.

Resources: History of the acoustic guitar

gittern

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