Where did the guitar originate? The guitar’s origins date back thousands of years in ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt, before it made its way to Europe. In Spain, the stringed instrument began its period of rebirth; it evolved and eventually became the classical modern guitar we know today.
Guitar, other than the piano, is one of the most popular and widely used musical instruments in the world today. For around four thousand years, this beloved stringed instrument has been enchanting people all over the world with the delightfully beautiful music it creates.
Have you ever wondered how the guitar came to be?
According to the mythology, the first guitar, called kithara (derived from the ancient Greek word κιθÎ¬ρα), was first created by Hermes, the messenger of gods. Although the kithara was mostly associated with Apollo, it was Hermes who made the ancient guitar fashioned out of tortoise shell and was said to be a difficult instrument to play.
But mythology aside, the journey of the very first guitar from its ancient beginnings to its modern form was a very long and colorful one.
The Ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt: The Guitar’s Ancestors
The guitar’s early beginnings can be traced back at least four millennia, taking the form of a bowl harp made of tortoise shell with silk strings. Its neck was bent and had calabashes as resonators. This prototype appeared in several places in Ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt.
● The Tanbur
A tanbur is a long-necked stringed instrument having a small egg- or pear-shaped body, an arched or round back, and a long, straight neck, generally with a soundboard made of wood or hide. It is basically the bowl harp described above but with a straightened-out neck, allowing the strings to be pressed down and create more notes.
The tanbur is seen in Egyptian tombs and wall paintings along with other early forms of wind and percussion instruments. Similar relics have also been unearthed from the ruins of ancient Mesopotamian and Persian cultures.
In modern times, the surviving prototype of this instrument can still be seen in various folk instruments, such as the tamburitsa of the Balkans and the bouzouki of Greeks.
● The Lute
Traveling from Arabian countries to Europe, the tanbur underwent an update—the addition of frets and a change in its proportions. The body became larger and more pear-shaped, and a shortened neck with the peghead bent at a 90-degree angle.
They called this prototype the lute, a derivative of the Arabic word al’ud meaning “the wood”, and also an echo of the instrument’s Spanish name laud. The vihuela of Spain is a close kin of this stringed instrument.
● The “-tars”
In central Asia and northern India, the earliest forms of the guitar can still be seen today in their mostly unchanged form. Its name usually ends in -tar, while the prefix indicates the number of its strings: dotar for two strings (from the modern Persian do, meaning “two”), setar or sitar for three strings (again, from the Persian se, meaning “three”), chartar for fours strings (by now you should know how this name was derived), and panchtar for five strings.
The four and five-stringed guitar ancestors made their way to Europe, where it evolved from single strings to pairs of string—or courses—that are tuned in unison. This means one or two (or more) neighboring strings are closely spaced relative to the other strings and often played as a single string. Each course is usually tuned in unison or an octave apart.
The four-course stringed instrument became known as chitarra in Spain; the chitarra was the dominant stringed instrument in most parts of Europe in the early years of the Renaissance age.
The chitarra was eventually replaced by the five-course stringed instrument called guitarra battente in Italy. The conventional tuning had already fixed on A, D, G, B, and E, just like the top five strings of the present-day guitar.
By the 17th Century, the Italian guitarra battente had an update: the sixth course of string.
Not long after that, a new stringing pattern emerged in Italy: the abolishment of the course-stringing system and the introduction of single strings per note. Soon, other instruments of this kind followed the trend, and by the beginning of the 19th century, the new form of what would become the modern-day guitar came forth.
Spain: The Birthplace of “Modern Classical” Guitars
Around 1850, a Spanish guitar maker named Antonio de Torres Jurado—known as “the most important Spanish guitar maker of the 19th century”—gave the previous guitar prototype a facelift and created the modern guitar as we know it.
Working from a shop he shared with a colleague in Seville, Antonio de Torres went on and reinvented the beloved six-stringed instrument. From the small, pear-shaped body, the guitar took its new form: larger with a more symmetrical hourglass shape that made it a lot easier to rest on one leg and play with ease and comfort. This new body dimension also improved the volume of the instrument.
This new guitar design by Torres proved to be so much more superior than its forerunner that it soon spread from Spain to the rest of the world. It completely changed the way the guitars were constructed, and his design became the standard; guitar makers copied his work, with some expert makers passing off the job as Torres’. Talk about dupes before dupes became popular!
With the continuous innovations in guitar construction, modern luthiers (those who make stringed instruments such as violin, cello, and guitar, of course) introduced some modern updates in the designs department. But all in all, it’s still pretty much the same Torres creation that emerged in that little shop in Calle de Cerrajería 7. His guitar is essentially unchanged, unchallenged, and unparalleled!
The USA: Home of Guitar Revolution
While the guitar design of Antonio de Torres Jurado became the standard of classical guitars, adventurous luthiers fiddled about with guitars and, with a few changes here and there, came up with electric guitars.
Led by Orville Gibson and Leo Fender, the guitars entered another exciting phase of their being. Steel strings, X-braced tops, the addition of pickups and amps plus electricity thrown into the mix completely revolutionized the guitars!
The evolution of guitar is one that is fascinating and amazing—just like the instrument is!
Without a doubt, the guitar is indeed an iconic instrument for any musical genre, be it jazz, blues, rock and roll, and pop, among many others. And through the passing of years, despite the changes in its shape, sound, and place in popular culture, one thing is certain: its essence as an instrument will continue to play a significant role in the music of the future.
Joyce Ann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies at New Era University. She especially enjoyed her journalism class and was nominated for Photojournalist of the Year. Joyce Anne loves music; she is a self-taught piano player. When she's not writing (or baking or watching documentaries), she's probably playing songs on the piano, mostly by ear.