One of the most popular instruments in the world, the guitar has an interesting history that dates back to antiquity, including its popularity in folk music, country music, and rock n’ roll. While hundreds of varieties of guitars are available today, they all stem from just a few different designs that have been modified over time to suit various purposes and playing styles.
How old is the oldest existing acoustic guitar? The oldest existing acoustic guitar is more than 400 years old. It is a Renaissance guitar from 1581 made by Portuguese luthier Belchior Dias. Originally made in Lisbon, this oldest surviving guitar is currently in the Royal College of Music in London.
The Oldest Existing Acoustic Guitar
1581 Belchior Dias Renaissance Guitar
The oldest existing acoustic guitar is a Renaissance guitar made by Belchior Dias. Dias built this guitar in Lisbon in December 1581, making it more than 400 years old. The 1581 guitar formerly belonged to Sir George Donaldson (1845–1925), a renowned art dealer. He gifted it to the Royal College of Music in London, which is now on display.
Belchior Dias is a Portuguese luthier or maker of stringed musical instruments such as violins or guitars. Dias was probably related to, or possibly a son of, Diogo Dias, a citizen of Lisbon, who was appointed personal violeiro (guitar player) to King João III in a charter dated 24th March 1551.
Description of the 1581 Renaissance Guitar
Belchior Dias’ 1581 guitar is a small five-course Renaissance guitar with vaulted and fluted back. Its front is dated 1730, featuring the mustaches, decoration in ebony and boxwood around sound holes, and ebony edging and constructional details that were added later on. The bridge was also added later than the front and the mustaches.
There are three-part lines along with the centers of alternate staves. The line along the center of the middle stave continues up to the neck and peghead. The lines along the center of ribs continue along the neck to peghead sides. The neck and top block are carved in one piece from solid ebony. It has an ebony peghead, and the front is veneered with two pieces of tropical hardwood.
- Overall Length: 771mm
- Body Length: 362mm
- Width: upper bouts 165mm, middle bouts 146mm, lower bouts 199mm
- Height of ribs: at neck joint 39mm, at tail, minimum (lowest point of flute) 57mm; maximum 63mm
- String length: 553mm (with current bridge)
You can read more about the 1581 Belchior Dias Renaissance Guitar on the Royal College of Music website.
1590 Belchior Dias Baroque Guitar
Another one of the oldest surviving acoustic guitars is the anonymous 1590 five-course guitar made in Portugal. Like the 1581 Belchior Dias guitar, this 1590 guitar is also more than 400 years old. It may well be made either by Belchior Dias himself or another maker who was closely associated with Portuguese violeros at the time.
This 1590 baroque guitar formerly belonged to Robert Spencer. It is now in the collection of Frank and Leanne Koonce and is currently on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
According to the Musical Instrument Museum, this 1590 guitar is the oldest known example of the “fuller-sized” guitar (though it is much smaller and lighter than later versions). It includes five sets of gut strings in double courses and frets made of gut that are knotted around the neck, as is typical of early guitars. Friction tuning pegs and a fingerboard flush with the soundboard are also present in this instrument.
1581 Guitar vs 1590 Guitar
This 1590 guitar has a similar decorative design in purfling on the fingerboard and peghead as the 1581 guitar, making others believe that Belchior Dias also made this instrument.
The 1590 guitar has a slightly different shape and string configuration than the 1581 guitar. The value of the ratio of the string length to body volume of this instrument is almost two times lower than that of the 1581 guitar. The 1590 guitar is also larger.
Oldest Belchior Dias Instrument – Guitar or Vihuela?
The 1581 instrument was so firmly established as the earliest surviving guitar that experts never even questioned it for many years. Many references exist in numerous books, articles, and on the drawing released by the Royal College of Music in 1976 that this instrument is truly considered a guitar.
However, some experts disagree. They argue that the 1581 Belchior Dias instrument is, instead, a vihuela. For starters, a vihuela is a 15th-century fretted plucked Spanish string instrument, shaped like a guitar but tuned like a lute. Some experts argue that a vihuela is an entirely different instrument from a guitar.
In short, the 1581 Belchior Dias instrument may not be the oldest existing acoustic guitar because it is technically considered a vihuela.
The issue started when the E.0748 vihuela in Musée de la Musique in Paris was rediscovered. It had a similar vaulted and fluted back as the 1581 instrument, which prompted further research from experts.
Clearly, the 1581 instrument and the E.0748 vihuela are similar construction. They are from the same tradition, possibly from the same workshop. Experts then suggested that the 1581 Belchior Dias instrument may have been originally conceived as a six-course, eleven-string vihuela.
However, the 1581 instrument dates from when the five-course guitar was emerging.
It also resembles a larger anonymous guitar from 1590 (the one that might be made by Dias himself), which has a similar decorative design in purfling on the fingerboard and peghead.
To this day, experts have yet to reach a consensus on whether the 1581 instrument from Belchior Dias is indeed a guitar or a vihuela. The issue is clouded by a barrage of confusing instrument names and unclear historical data. Despite this, the instrument is usually recognized as a guitar.
The oldest surviving acoustic guitar in the world was built in 1581. Today, we are fortunate that it is preserved in a museum for anyone to see. Regardless of whether or not this instrument is considered a guitar, a slew of perplexing instrument names and ambiguous historical data should not prevent music fans from appreciating this important piece of musical history.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.