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  • Sofia Dickie

The Guitar - A History

There's something about the guitar that speaks to many people, musicians or not. Even those who don't play an instrument, often have a favourite guitar solo or even guitarist. But what history stands behind this instrument? And how is it, that the guitar became the most iconic instrument of the 20th century music genres?


The guitar we know today is only a couple hundred years old, but its predecessors date back thousands of years. Over 3000 year old Carvings of string instruments were found from Mesopotamia and the Babylonian empire. The word "guitar" probably originated from the Ancient Greek word kithara.


There are a number of instruments that were similar and around in those times. But historians seem to agree that the European lute and the Arabic oud, had the main influence on the development of the modern day guitar.


The Ancestors


The Oud



The Arabic oud came to Europe through North Africa, when the Moors invaded Souther Spain in 711AD and again by returning crusaders in the 13th century. The most distinctive features are its rounded, pear shaped body and short, fretless neck. The instrument and also the Arab musical style left its mark on medieval music in Europe.


The Lute



The lute developed from the oud. It had a similar shape and came in a variety of sizes. It was often strummed with a quill feather. It started off like the oud, with 4 strings but by the 14th century, the string had become pairs, or courses. By the 15th century a 5th course was added, the plectrum was replaced by playing with the fingers and movable frets were added to the fingerboard. A sixth course was added in the 16th century which is when the classic form of the lute was established and its popularity kicked off with the music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.


The Vihuela


This instrument developed in Spain from the lute and had an hourglass shape to its body. It is considered the final predecessor, very much resembling, the modern guitar, though still featuring the 6 courses (12 strings).



The Modern Guitar


Antonio de Torres, a Spanish musician of the 19th century, began making guitars that would give rise to all modern guitars. He discovered the optimal shape that would not compromise on weight and still give it the sound that can fill concert halls in addition to adding a machined head.


The Modern Acoustic Guitar


The most popular acoustic guitar today is the flat top guitar, first built almost 200 years ago by Christian Frederick Martin in the US. The use of modern steel string demanded a body that could handle the extra stress, which is why he created an x-braced guitar body as opposed to the Torres Spanish style of fan braced guitars.


The archtop acoustic guitar is credited to Orville Gibson, a design that was intended to enhance power and tone. These guitars were soon adopted to modern genres, like Jazz and country musicians. They are also the predecessors of the electric guitar.


The Electric Guitar


Despite the steel strings and design improvements that allowed "more power", modern genres of music simply found that the guitar did not produce a loud enough tone for their styles. That is one of the reasons the big brass instruments became more prominent in Jazz music and the guitar was a secondary rhythm instruments in ensembles.


Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp found a solution to amplify the sound of the guitar in 1932. They developed an electromagnetic device that was able to convert the vibrations of the strings into a clear and resonant sound. It resulted in the first amplified guitar known as the "Frying Pan Guitar".


Les Paul style solid body guitar

In 1940 Les Paul made the first solid bodied guitar, but still retaining the Epiphone body for the sake of appearance.


Leo Fender, developed the first successful solid-body guitar with a single electromagnet, known as the "Fender Esquire". This one developed in to the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision Bass, Jazz bass and more.


In 1951Gibson released the next generation, a guitar that could be played either as a steel stringed acoustic or plugged into an amplifier.


From then on the electric guitar had become its own thing and countless genres adopted it as a main instrument. It became the most iconic instrument in Rock'n'Roll of course, as well as popular music in general.


The rest, folks, is history, as they say!





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