The guitar is a stringed instrument with a fretted fingerboard that typically contains six or twelve strings, has a rounded hourglass-shaped body, and is meant to be played horizontally against the body. Much beloved and played around the world, the guitar is an integral part of many genres and styles of music like blues, ragtime, and flamenco.
To find out who invented the guitar, we must understand who created the precursor instruments of the modern-day guitar. Historians do not all agree on the exact timeline or lineage of how the modern guitar came to be, so we will be presenting one of the most popular theories on how the guitar was invented.
This theory posits that the guitar’s ancestors are the stringed tanbur and oud of the Near East/Central Asia and that Italian luthier, Gaetano Vinaccia, made the first six-string guitar in 1779.
The Modern Guitar’s Ancestors
Historians believe that the tanbur is likely the common ancestor of all stringed instruments. The Kurdish/Persian tanbur originated at least 5,000 years ago. It has a long, straight neck with an oval or pear-shaped body and an arched or rounded back. Traditionally, animal intestine comprises the strings, and wood or dried animal hide creates the soundboard.
The oud is an ancient instrument whose use has been traced back to at least 3,500 years across Mesopotamian and North African civilizations. In Arabic, the word “oud” translates into English as “branch of wood”, which likely references the curved wooden ribs that make up the body of the pear-shaped oud.
By 1200 BC, the tanbur traveled via Egypt to Greek and Roman civilizations. By way of North Africa, travelers brought the oud to the Iberian Peninsula during the Moorish invasion of Spain in 711 AD. By the 12th century, these instruments then likely developed into the Moorish guitar and the Latin guitar.
The Moorish Guitar and the Latin Guitar
Historians believe that the oud and Persian tanbur inspired the creation of the Moorish guitar and Latin guitar. Many historians believe that the Moorish guitar’s roots are connected to the oud, while the Latin guitar was heavily influenced by the Persian tanbur. The Moorish guitar had a wider fretboard, multiple sound holes, and a rounded body similar to the oud, while the Latin guitar had a narrower neck, four double strings (four-course), flat back, and one soundhole.
Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance period in Europe, the body and design of the Latin guitar transformed into the guitar we know today.
The Baroque Guitar
During the 16th century in Spain, the Baroque guitar was invented, developed as a descendant of the Latin guitar. Like the Latin guitar, the Baroque guitar had double strings, but it contained an additional course of strings.
By the 17th century, the baroque guitar had become the most popular household stringed instrument across Southern and Western Europe. The baroque guitar was smaller and narrower than a modern acoustic guitar, but larger and fuller-bodied than the earlier, smaller four-course guitars. Some historians attribute the invention of the baroque guitar to Spanish poet, Vicente Espinel.
The Guitar Arrives in the Americas
Four and five-course guitars arrived in the Americas with the first waves of European settlers during the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout the Americas and Caribbean Islands, Indigenous people and West African people incorporated their music and culture into guitar playing, creating new, beautiful music.
The Early Six-String Guitar
Historians credit Italian luthier, Gaetano Vinaccia, with making the first six-string guitar in 1779. By the early 19th century, the six-string guitar had gained significant popularity across Europe. Southern and Western European immigrants to the Americas brought over these new guitars, and the six-string quickly became popularized, especially in the US.
Innovations of the 19th Century Guitar
By the 19th century, many six-string guitars were being built as single-course instruments. 19th-century guitars were built with shallower, broader bodies and thin soundboards. The fingerboard became slightly raised and the neck was designed to become more stable and strong.
Antonio Torres is credited during this time period for creating the classical guitar strung with three nylon/gut strings and three metal-spun silk strings.
Mid 19th Century to Early 20th Century American Guitar Playing and Culture
These single six-string guitars became culturally significant to many communities of Black people in the Southern US following emancipation in the mid 19th century. As emancipation brought greater freedom of movement, autonomy, and expression for Black communities across the Southern US, several genres of music emerged from Black musical expression that incorporated guitar playing.
We can trace the creation of the classic Mississippi Delta blues to six-string guitar playing among Black communities in the Mississippi Delta in the mid 19th century. Gospel incorporated guitar playing, and musicians like Scott Joplin popularized ragtime guitar playing across America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Playing guitar in the form of Jazz was invented and popularized by Black musicians in the early 20th century.
20th Century Mass Production of American Guitars
By 1900, guitars were being mass-produced in America in a sharp turn from the traditional building of guitars single-handedly by artisan luthiers or skilled amateur woodworkers. These factory-made steel-string acoustic guitars were affordable and accessible for much of the American population. They were made simply with steel strings, inexpensive woods, and finished with uncomplicated designs.
These steel string guitars performed well in loud, rowdy atmospheres and on street corners. Through urbanization and industrialization, working-class people across America could afford to pick up these mass-produced guitars.
Previously, the banjo had long been a favorite of working-class Americans, as it could be made fairly simply at home. The affordability of this new generation of factory assembled guitars saw the guitar overtaking the popularity of the banjo.
The Invention of the Electric Guitar
The birth of the electric guitar is often credited to Jazz player, Charlie Christian. In 1936, Christian began using his steel-string acoustic guitar with a pickup attached to the body. This would allow him to play loud solos in his musician group.
From Christian’s experiment with a pickup attached to the body of the guitar, musicians learned that the hollow body of the acoustic guitar produced a rather unpleasant feedback noise. Even so, many musicians who played in loud places appreciated the innovation of the pickup attachment and sought to improve upon the design.
To solve this problem of feedback, luthiers began working on developing solid-body guitars, and in 1949, Leo Fender released the Fender Esquire. Historians widely regard this guitar as the first solid-body guitar. By the 1960s, the bulk of features that we attribute to modern electric guitar had emerged and became nationally popularized for its unique and daring sounds.
For hundreds of years, the guitar has seen changes and innovations to its fingerboard, body, shape, size, tuning, style, and string/body materials that have produced new forms of musical expression and culture. It can be played rhythmically, melodically, or in a manner that defies traditional musical composition.
The next time you pick up your guitar, enjoy considering the generations of innovation that have created the instrument you’re holding in your hands. Strum a few chords, play a little melody, and tip your hat to the ingenuity of human expression.
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.