A Brief History of the Guitar
by Paul Guy
The guitar is an ancient and noble instrument, whose
history can be traced back over 4000 years. Many theories have
been advanced about the instrument's ancestry. It has often been
claimed that the guitar is a development of the lute, or even of
the ancient Greek kithara. Research done by Dr. Michael Kasha in
the 1960's showed these claims to be without merit. He showed
that the lute is a result of a separate line of development,
sharing common ancestors with the guitar, but having had no
influence on its evolution. The influence in the opposite
direction is undeniable, however - the guitar's immediate
forefathers were a major influence on the development of the
fretted lute from the fretless oud which the Moors brought with
them to to Spain.
"evidence" for the kithara theory is the similarity between the
greek word "kithara" and the Spanish word "quitarra". It is hard
to imagine how the guitar could have evolved from the kithara,
which was a completely different type of instrument - namely a
square-framed lap harp, or "lyre". (Right)
It would also be passing strange if a square-framed seven-string
lap harp had given its name to the early Spanish 4-string
"quitarra". Dr. Kasha turns the question around and asks where
the Greeks got the name "kithara", and points out that the
earliest Greek kitharas had only 4 strings when they were
introduced from abroad. He surmises that the Greeks hellenified
the old Persian name for a 4-stringed instrument, "chartar". (See
The earliest stringed instruments known to archaeologists
are bowl harps and tanburs. Since prehistory people
have made bowl harps using tortoise shells and calabashes as
resonators, with a bent stick for a neck and one or more gut or
silk strings. The world's museums contain many such "harps" from
the ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian civilisations.
Around 2500 - 2000 CE more advanced harps, such as the opulently
carved 11-stringed instrument with gold decoration found in Queen
Shub-Ad's tomb, started to appear.
"Queen Shub-Ad's harp" (from the Royal Cemetery in
A tanbur is defined as "a long-necked stringed
instrument with a small egg- or pear-shaped body, with an arched
or round back, usually with a soundboard of wood or hide, and a
long, straight neck". The tanbur probably developed from the bowl
harp as the neck was straightened out to allow the string/s to be
pressed down to create more notes. Tomb paintings and stone
carvings in Egypt testify to the fact that harps and tanburs
(together with flutes and percussion instruments) were being
played in ensemble 3500 - 4000 years ago.
Egyptian wall painting, Thebes, 1420 BCE
Archaeologists have also found many similar relics in the
ruins of the ancient Persian and Mesopotamian cultures. Many of
these instruments have survived into modern times in almost
unchanged form, as witness the folk instruments of the region
like the Turkish saz, Balkan tamburitsa, Iranian setar, Afghan
panchtar and Greek bouzouki.
The oldest preserved guitar-like instrument
At 3500 years old, this is the ultimate vintage guitar! It
belonged to the Egyptian singer Har-Mose. He was buried with his
tanbur close to the tomb of his employer, Sen-Mut, architect to
Queen Hatshepsut, who was crowned in 1503 BCE. Sen-Mut (who, it
is suspected, was far more than just chief minister and architect
to the queen) built Hatshepsuts beautiful mortuary temple, which
stands on the banks of the Nile to this day.
Har-Moses instrument had three strings and a plectrum
suspended from the neck by a cord. The soundbox was made of
beautifully polished cedarwood and had a rawhide "soundboard". It
can be seen today at the Archaeological Museum in Cairo.
What is a guitar, anyway?
distinguish guitars from other members of the tanbur family, we
need to define what a guitar is. Dr. Kasha defines a guitar as
having "a long, fretted neck, flat wooden soundboard, ribs, and a
flat back, most often with incurved sides" .
The oldest known iconographical representation of an instrument
displaying all the essential features of a guitar is a stone
carving at Alaca Huyuk in Turkey, of a 3300 year old Hittite
"guitar" with "a long fretted neck, flat top, probably flat back,
and with strikingly incurved sides".
The Lute (Al'ud, Oud)
The Moors brought the oud to Spain. The tanbur had taken
another line of development in the Arabian countries, changing in
its proportions and remaining fretless.
The Europeans added frets to the oud and called it a
"lute" - this derives from the Arabic "Al'ud"
(literally "the wood"), via the Spanish name "laud".
A lute or oud is defined as a "short-necked instrument with many
strings, a large pear-shaped body with highly vaulted back, and
an elaborate, sharply angled peghead".
Renaissance lute by Arthur Robb
Click on the picture to go to Art's website.
It is hard to see how the guitar - with "a long, fretted
neck, flat wooden soundboard, ribs, and a flat back, most often
with incurved sides" - could possibly have evolved from the lute,
with its "short neck with many strings, large pear-shaped body
with highly vaulted back, and elaborate, sharply angled
The name "guitar" comes from the ancient Sanskrit word
for "string" - "tar". (This is the language from which the
languages of central Asia and northern India developed.) Many
stringed folk instruments exist in Central Asia to this day which
have been used in almost unchanged form for several thousand years,
as shown by archeological finds in the area. Many have names that
end in "tar", with a prefix indicating the number of
two = Sanskrit "dvi" - modern Persian "do" -
dotar, two-string instrument found in Turkestan
three = Sanskrit "tri" - modern Persian "se" -
setar, 3-string instrument, found in Persia (Iran),
(cf. sitar, India, elaborately developed,
four = Sanskrit "chatur" - modern Persian "char"
chartar, 4-string instrument, Persia (most commonly known
as "tar" in modern usage)
(cf. quitarra, early Spanish 4-string guitar,
modern Arabic qithara, Italian chitarra,
five = Sanskrit "pancha" - modern Persian "panj"
panchtar, 5 strings, Afghanistan
The Indian sitar almost certainly took its name from
the Persian setar, but over the centuries the Indians
developed it into a completely new instrument, following their
own aesthetic and cultural ideals.
Tanburs and harps spread around the ancient world with
travellers, merchants and seamen. The four-stringed Persian
chartar (note the narrow waist!) arrived in Spain, where
it changed somewhat in form and construction, acquired pairs of
unison-tuned strings instead of single strings and became known
as the quitarra or chitarra.
From four-, to five-, to six-string guitar
As we have seen, the guitar's ancestors came to Europe from Egypt
and Mesopotamia. These early instruments had, most often, four
strings - as we have seen above, the word "guitar" is derived
from the Old Persian "chartar", which, in direct translation,
means "four strings". Many such instruments, and variations with
from three to five strings, can be seen in mediaeval illustrated
manuscripts, and carved in stone in churches and cathedrals, from
Roman times through till the Middle Ages. Right: Roman "guitar",
c:a 200 CE.
Mediaeval psalter, c:a 900 CE.
Angel with guitar, St. Stephen's church, 1591.
By the beginning of the Renaissance, the four-course (4
unison-tuned pairs of strings) guitar had become dominant, at
least in most of Europe. (Sometimes a single first string was
used.) The earliest known music for the four-course "chitarra"
was written in 16th century Spain. The five-course guitarra
battente (left) first appeared in Italy at around the same time,
and gradually replaced the four-course instrument. The standard
tuning had already settled at A, D, G, B, E, like the top five
strings of the modern guitar.
In common with lutes, early guitars seldom had necks with
more than 8 frets free of the body, but as the guitar evolved,
this increased first to 10 and then to 12 frets to the
5-course guitar by Antonio Stradivarius, 1680
A sixth course of strings was added to the Italian
"guitarra battente" in the 17th century, and guitar makers all
over Europe followed the trend. The six-course arrangement
gradually gave way to six single strings, and again it seems that
the Italians were the driving force. (The six-string guitar can
thus be said to be a development of the twelve-string, rather
than vice versa, as is usually assumed.)
In the transition from five courses to six single strings,
it seems that at least some existing five-course instruments were
modified to the new stringing pattern. This was a fairly simple
task, as it only entailed replacing (or re-working) the nut and
bridge, and plugging four of the tuning peg holes. An incredibly
ornate guitar by the German master from Hamburg, Joakim Thielke
(1641 - 1719), was altered in this way. (Note that this
instrument has only 8 frets free of the body.)
At the beginning of the 19th century one can see the modern
guitar beginning to take shape. Bodies were still fairly small
6-string guitar by George Louis Panormo, 1832
The modern "classical" guitar took its present form when
the Spanish maker Antonio Torres increased the size of the body,
altered its proportions, and introduced the revolutionary "fan"
top bracing pattern, in around 1850. His design radically
improved the volume, tone and projection of the instrument, and
very soon became the accepted construction standard. It has
remained essentially unchanged, and unchallenged, to this
Guitar by Antonio Torres Jurado, 1859
Steel-string and electric guitars
At around the same time that Torres started making his
breakthrough fan-braced guitars in Spain, German immigrants to
the USA - among them Christian Fredrich Martin - had begun making
guitars with X-braced tops. Steel strings first became widely
available in around 1900. Steel strings offered the promise of
much louder guitars, but the increased tension was too much for
the Torres-style fan-braced top. A beefed-up X-brace proved equal
to the job, and quickly became the industry standard for the
flat-top steel string guitar.
At the end of the 19th century Orville Gibson was building
archtop guitars with oval sound holes. He married the
steel-string guitar with a body constructed more like a cello,
where the bridge exerts no torque on the top, only pressure
straight down. This allows the top to vibrate more freely, and
thus produce more volume. In the early 1920's designer Lloyd Loar
joined Gibson, and refined the archtop "jazz" guitar into its now
familiar form with f-holes, floating bridge and cello-type
The electric guitar was born when pickups were added to
Hawaiian and "jazz" guitars in the late 1920's, but met with
little success before 1936, when Gibson introduced the ES150
model, which Charlie Christian made famous.
With the advent of amplification it became possible to do
away with the soundbox altogether. In the late 1930's and early
1940's several actors were experimenting along these lines, and
controversy still exists as to whether Les Paul, Leo Fender, Paul
Bigsby or O.W. Appleton constructed the very first solid-body
guitar. Be that as it may, the solid-body electric guitar was
here to stay.