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What You Need To Know About The Guitar


The Guitar

The guitar is a stringed musical instrument that has a fretted fingerboard and typically six strings. It is basically classified as a chordophone because it produces sound by vibrating strings. Absolutely, the guitar is a versatile instrument with a beautiful body and soulful sound. The sound produced by the instrument is projected by acoustic means with the resonant chamber designed with the instrument. Also, the guitar’s sound can be amplified with the aid of an electronic sound pickup and an amplifier as we have it in electric guitar today.  

History Of A Guitar

Electric accostic guitar
Electric acoustic guitar

In actual fact, there is no written document that specifies with unrestricted certainty the fact about the actual origin of a guitar. However, the guitar’s evolution and root can be traced back to history as a plucked stringed instrument. Because instruments like the guitar have been in existence for about 5000 years ago. Again, a lot of ancient folk instruments all over the world are constructed with strings stretched over the fretboard which is the fundamental of a guitar. And with this, the origin of the guitar has many stories from different cultures depending on the individual points of reference.

Oud (or ūd) Link In History

Arabic Oud Musical Intsrument
Arabic Oud musical Instrument

Several old string instruments were linked with the evolution of the guitar. Specifically, the ancient Arabic stringed instrument called the oud (or ūd) and as well as the lute. In fact, it was generally accepted that the guitar would be connected to an Arabic string instrument known as oud (or ūd). Oud is a plectrum-played pair strings instrument with a relatively short-necked and bowl or pear-shaped back. It also has a fret-less fingerboard and tuning pegs that are set in the sides of the pegbox. All the same, this seems reasonable but the direct involvement of the oud as related to the development of a guitar cannot clearly be established. However, there is a belief that after the oud finds its way to Europe, frets were added to it by Europeans and they called it lute.

Guitarra Latina and The Guitarra Morisca in Guitar History

On the other hand, many believe that some string instruments have been in existence in Europe before the one from Arabic came in due to the invasion. This was further supported by the existence of Guitarra Latina and the Guitarra Morisca as two distinct types of instruments. These two instruments have some of the features of the modern guitar but with a slightly incurved body and bowl-like back.

The Guitarra Latina is a short-necked plucked instrument with probably different sizes and shapes. Though the Guitarra Latina is a common term used to describe a non-Arabic plucked stringed instrument. While Guitarra Morisca is used to describe the Middle Eastern long lutes that are related to the tanbur-tar-saz family. Actually, the Guitarra Latina was favoured in Spain because they never took to the lute. And lute was widely accepted across the continent.

Vihuela and The Four-Course Guitar Connection


With different references, the question about the main origin of a guitar remains unanswered with clarity. However, it is obvious that Arab in Europe specifically have an impact on Spanish musical culture. This impact marked the circulation of different types of plucked instruments into the social activity of Europe.

All the string instruments undergo a series of development to make them better. In detail, they were further developed in different ways to produce a superior version that is widely accepted. Some were favour while others that were not favour came to naught. That was the process until the evolution of the vihuela and the four-course guitar during the renaissance period. These two instruments later become the significant ancestors of the modern guitar.

The Guitar in the Renaissance Period

In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there were many transformations and the existence of guitar-like instruments. However, it was during this period that the actual transition of the instrument from one structure to another structure was truly established. Specifically, the transformation from the vihuela and the four-course guitar to the modern guitar.

The vihuela is a Spanish name for the 15th and 16th centuries instrument that looks like a guitar. The vihuela is known in Italy as the “viola da mano” and came with six double-strings made of gut. The four-course guitar is different and similar to the vihuela. The former came with 10 frets and much smaller than the vihuela. The two instruments are branches of the guitar evolutionary tree as claimed by some historians. In the first place, the two instruments are said to have a significant influence on the evolution of the baroque guitar.

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In the case of vihuela, the three types of the vihuela in existence were named according to their playing systems. The first one is vihuela de mano that came with 6 or 5 courses and normally played with the fingers. The second is vihuela de Penola which is typically played with a plectrum. Lastly, vihuela de arco is played with the bow. However, the da mano version gradually became most widely accepted over the others.

During this period, a smaller version of vihuela de mano is commonly used for folk music. And the larger version that has 5 to 7 courses of strings and usually tuned in a like manner to the lute in G – C – F – A – D’ – G’ was used for the art music. And by the sixteenth century, the structural construction of vihuela was very similar to the baroque guitar that supplanted it. Luis de Milán was among the great composers for the vihuela and also the virtuoso Miguel de Fuenllano. In particular, Miguel de Fuenllano arranged vocal works for the guitar and wrote several original compositions for the vihuela.

The Guitar in the Baroque Period

Baroque Guitar
Baroque Guitar – Matteo Seelos – före 1653 – Photo by Olav Nyhus

Early versions of the guitar came into sight during the early stage of the Baroque period which is around 1600–1750. A little is known about the construction details of vihuela or the earlier (baroque) guitar. This is due to the inadequate numbers of instruments that survive the era. Notwithstanding, the two have a thin bar of wood like that of a lute for the bridge as well as the movable gut frets around their neck.

According to different histories, the earlier instrument was believed to be made from wood and natural fiber called catgut. The catgut serves as the string and it is derived from the fiber found in the intestine of animals. It also adopted moveable gut frets which were tied on its fingerboard. The typical baroque guitar has a shape that is very similar to the modern guitar shape. But the instrument is quite slim with a subtler “waist” compared to the modern guitar.

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During the whole of the Baroque period, virtually all guitars were furnished with five pairs (5 courses) of gut strings. Typically, these pairs of gut strings were tuned to A – D – G – B – E’ on the instrument.  The body shape of the instrument has remained the same since the sixteenth century. But the position of its pegs was later changed gradually in the seventeenth century. The construction of the instrument changed from lateral tuning pegs to a board in which the tuning pegs were organized perpendicularly to the table.

The baroque guitar with five double course existence goes beyond the Baroque period to about 1800. Its design and playing style remained the same as well till that period. An Italian luthier and a craftsman of string instruments Antonio Stradivari is known to have made the guitars. Also, the French luthier Nicholas Alexandre Voboam II is recorded to be among the guitar makers of the Baroque period with 26 signed baroque guitars.

The Evolution in the Classical Period

Classical Guitar

During this period, the figure of plucked stringed instruments was greatly reduced as well as the bowed ones. In fact, the lute with its larger variants and the leading instrument of the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, nearly vanished. In spite of this, the guitar remained the fashionable instrument of that time. It spread from Spain to the rest of Europe and played a significant role in England, France, and Germany.

Then, the double strings that are known with the baroque guitar were replaced by single strings. This is generally accepted because the problem facing keeping both strings of a course in the old instrument has been solved. Also, the number of the strings also increased from five to six that are tuned to E – A – D – G – B – E’.  The movable gut frets on the finger-board known as the baroque guitar were replaced with the fixed metallic frets. Consequently, the new classical guitar became an easy tune as well as an easily played string instrument.

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As of 1800, the guitar is still only popular in Spain and Italy. By the time mentioned, both regions are really serious about guitar as an instrument. Despite the numbers of music written for the guitar at the time, the instrument remains limited to the critical mass. But with the composition of people like Federico Moretti, Fernando Ferandiere, Fernando Sor, and Dionisio Aguado the guitar popularity grows across Europe. For instance, Fernando Sor who is best known for writing solo classical guitar music took his music from Barcelona to Paris in 1813. He was known in Paris as a master composer and performer.

With the increase in guitar music and performance, the instrument in no time won the general favour and became a popular instrument across Europe. It had an edge over other string instruments and became a genuinely popular instrument because it’s simple and cheap. So it is not just an instrument for aristocratic amateurs but for anyone who loves singing and wants pleasant and easy accompaniment. To some extent, people started converting the invaluable old lutes in their reach to guitars, commonly in a most primitive fashion.

The Guitar in the Romantic Period

During the nineteenth century, the instrument progressively transformed from classical guitar to a stronger, heavier, and more powerful instrument. For instance, the metal screws were used to replace wooden tuning pegs. Moreover, the lower part of the instrument body was broadening. And the whole instrument was rebuilt into a more solid piece to permit it to resist the pull of the new heavier strings. The instrument was capable of withstanding the higher tension strings as a result of a new fan-strutting technique.

Again, the fingerboard was furnished with brass frets, and its length extended completely to the sound-hole. Several other substantial changes occurred in the construction of the instrument by the 1830s. For instance, the neck of the instrument becomes narrower and usually has fifteen to seventeen frets. The rose of preceding guitars vanished from the sound-hole, which was normally left open. Specifically, an open hole replaced the rosette of the older guitar types.

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Furthermore, the modern body shape of the instrument took place around 1850. This happened with the innovations of the great Spanish instrument maker of the 19th century Antonio de Torres Jurado. And many other changes and new inventions have happened after that. Antonio de Torres Jurado constructed a guitar with a wider body that symbolized the modern shape compared to the narrow bodies of the baroque guitar. Around the time that Antonio de Torres Jurado made his refined guitars known to the public, significant composers of that time turned to the instrument in abundance. At the same time, virtuoso guitarists started the public performance, bringing both the guitar and the music to a wide audience.

Romantic composers like Carl Maria von Weber wrote songs with guitar accompaniment also Louis-Hector Berlioz and his friend Niccolò Paganini. In particular, Niccolò Paganini composed some masterly chamber music for the guitar. And till now, the instrument is using by virtuoso to display breath-taking technical skill and a high level of playing typically achieved in Spain. For instance, a Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia attended this height with his expressive performances. He has a wide palette of tone, distinctive musical personality, phrasing and style.

Appearance In United States

Martin Acoustic Guitar
Martin Guitars CEO-9 Acoustic Guitar

As the classical guitar has been developed and widely accepted by serious musicians in Europe, the instrument also finds its way into the United States through the slave trade. The slave trade in the southern part of the United States in the early and middle of the nineteenth century. And as the slaves taken from Africa were little by little absorbed into the American culture, the acoustic guitar was also adopted.

Moreover, Christian Frederick Martin migrated from Germany to the United States in 1833. The German-born American luthier established a guitar making company C. F. Martin & Company by 1838 with the headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. He made his guitar with the knowledge gained from Johann Georg Stauffer who is an instrument maker in Vienna. Also, he employed Stauffer’s design in guitar making. And his instruments formed the foundation for the modern steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

After the American Civil War, the southern American adopted the Martin pattern of the instrument to create Gospel and blues music. And later became masters of the acoustic guitar by the early 20th century. On the other hand, the Torres classical guitar was partially common in the American west through Spanish influence coming through Mexico by the late 19th century. The guitar is used in American music life during the 19th century majorly by the middle class who did not have enough to buy a piano.

The Guitar in the Modern Period

Electric Guitar
Electric guitar

The major improvement that happened to the instrument is making it an electro-mechanical instrument. The evolution of the instrument into an electro-mechanical instrument was in 1936 when the electric guitar was invented in America. The invention replaced the sound-board of the acoustic guitar with electronic devices. However, the system of the instrument string vibration remains the same.

And with the help of these electronic devices, the normal tone produced by the string vibration is picked up and amplified to a stronger tone. This invention greatly affects the volume of the instrument and also made it possible to change the quality of the resulting tones. With electronic devices, the treatment of the guitar’s tone is far more flexible compared to the original instrument with the sound-box.

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