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Stringed instruments have been used throughout history for thousands of years. It only makes sense that humankind would have a dominant stringed instrument playing an important role in modern music.
But what about the history of the guitar itself? How did the modern guitar come into existence?
All of your burning questions will be answered. Read on to learn where the guitar came from, who invented it, and how long the guitar has been used throughout history.
Table of Contents
Tracing The Guitar’s In History
The guitar’s exact moment of conception is difficult to pin down. This is because as centuries of time have passed since ancient times, many historical records have become lost.
By studying art and archeological finds, it has been discovered that stringed instruments had been used in Mesopotamia. This instrument was called the tanbur, which is in the lute family and dates back to over 5000 years ago. The tanbur is still widely used throughout Iran and Turkey, among other countries.
Archeology studies show that the bow harp, dated to over 4000 years ago, was used throughout Egypt. This discovery would help ethnomusicologists and history experts continue tracing the origins of stringed instruments.
What Was The First Ever Guitar?
Archeological evidence starts to pinpoint the likely instrumental grandparents of the guitar in Ancient Europe. There were two instruments primarily used which both had a resemblance to the modern guitar:
The lute is very similar to the guitar, most notably as it is a fretted instrument. It likely came from Egypt and found its way into Greek culture.
History shows that cultures have adopted foods, language, music, and other aspects of daily life from the immersion of one culture into another, be it through migration, trade, or war. This is primarily how certain things have found their way across the world.
Lutes had a curved back, a resonant body, and gut strings that were generally plucked with a quill feather, similar to today’s guitar pick. These came in a variety of different types, called 4-course and 5-course lutes, which featured a different number of string sets.
The oud, on the other hand, was a Moorish instrument that found its way throughout the European continent. This instrument had similarities to the lute with the exception that it did not have frets.
It is also around this time that the Kithara, a sort of gut-stringed harp instrument would also be widely used throughout Greece. It is thought that the guitar’s name is derived from Kithara due to its similar pronunciation.
Where Does The Guitar Come From Originally (Country Wise)?
During the Renaissance, the lute would undergo a number of evolutions involving large sets of strings. Some of these iterations had up to 30 strings, which is a little hard to imagine.
However, throughout the 1500s and 1600s, the lute would eventually become less popular due to its overcomplexity. The baroque guitar from Spain would end up taking its place.
The baroque guitar would make significant improvements on the lute, making it a far easier and more enjoyable instrument to play. These instruments had fewer strings as well as moveable frets which allowed for refined tuning.
However, while the baroque guitar was widely adopted, there would still be a number of important innovations to occur throughout history. These experimental designs would help to create the modern guitar, with many features finding their way to being commonplace in modern times.
When Was The 6 String Guitar Invented?
One more instrument, called the vihuela, was a crucial aspect in giving birth to the guitar as we know it today. This instrument featured many aspects of the modern guitar as we’ve known it, including a sound hole and a similar body shape.
Eventually, the vihuela would evolve throughout history into something even more akin to the modern guitar. Beginning in the 1790s, these instruments would start to have 12 strings in sets of 2 (known as a 6-course). This would all soon change into something resembling the modern guitar.
Who First Invented Guitar?
By the 1800s, Spain predominantly produced instruments that were very much like the guitar, but smaller in size. However, one instrument luthier would create what would eventually become the modern acoustic guitar.
This luthier’s name was Antonio de Torres Jurado. His creation has collectively come to be known as the Spanish classical guitar.
This instrument featured a unique fan bracing style that allowed the guitar to produce a rich and warm natural tone. The guitar also improved the hourglass design of the vihuela to be comfortable to play while still accentuating the resonance and projecting the tone of the guitar.
The wooden tuning pegs (often seen on guitar-styled instruments of this time) were also replaced with steel tuning machines on Antonio de Torres Jurado’s guitar. This is yet another staple feature of the modern guitar.
The Spanish classical guitar then became adopted by the mainstream music world through the efforts of Andres Segovia. This masterful musician exclusively used Antonio de Torres Jurado’s instrument and wrote music and transcriptions, developing the instrument’s musical catalog.
Around this time, many European immigrants were traveling with these instruments strung up with steel strings. This would ultimately further the guitar’s reach into the rest of the world, and play a fundamental role in the shift to modernism.
How Old Is The Guitar?
To properly answer the question about the age of the guitar, it is first important to make the distinction on which kind of guitar we are talking about. Many of the modern styles of guitars are evolutions of recent history.
However, we can trace Antonio de Torres Jurado’s first guitar instrument to the mid-1850s. This means that the first modern-style guitar is well over 170 years old. In the grand scheme of history, this is really not that long ago.
What about the guitars that are predominantly made today, such as acoustic and electric guitars?
History of the Modern Acoustic
As Spanish classical guitars made their way to the North American continent by way of immigrants in the 1850s, the instrument undoubtedly began to be used throughout society. Instrument makers began to create and improve on the design in their own ways.
It is said that Christian Frederick Martin, of Martin Guitars, created the very first acoustic guitar as we know it today. In fact, history shows that soldiers actually played Martin guitars during the American Civil War of the 1860s.
Martin chose to use X-bracing architecture to construct the body of the guitar. This greatly improved the overall stability of the body, allowing it to withstand the tension caused by steel strings, as these strings were quickly replacing gut strings.
The pickguard came to be in existence around this time as well, as the strings would have to be plucked harder than gut strings. Because of this small change, a new playing style would emerge that could be both melodic and chord-based.
History of the Archtop
Orville Gibson is often accredited for creating the first archtop-style guitar around the 1890s. This style of guitar was built similarly to Martin’s flat-top acoustic, with a few unique differences.
The biggest difference was that the topside and backside of the body were both curved (or arched) to allow more space inside of the guitar. This could be thought of as being similar to violins, violas, and cellos.
In 1924, Gibson implemented another feature of the classical stringed instrument family and put F-holes in the guitar, rather than a standard soundhole. This, in addition to the arch-chambered body, gave the guitar a rich resonant tone with more volume.
Other modern features on Gibson’s archtop guitars included:
- Elevated pickguard
- Adjustable bridge
- Floating tailpiece
- Elevated fretboard
Eventually, archtop guitars would be widely adopted by jazz guitarists for their unique sound. This helped to cement the archtop guitar as an iconic and fundamental instrument in jazz history.
History of Electric Guitars
As would be expected with the rise of modern-based electronic technology, guitars eventually found themselves being electrified. This would ultimately prove to be fundamental in creating the guitars we regularly use today.
The very first patent for an electric guitar pickup was filed in 1931. Guitar builder George Beauchamp worked diligently on creating a prototype electric guitar at his home in Santa Ana, California.
To look at Beauchamp’s life from afar, it would seem that his whole life was a one-way road to destiny in creating the first patented electric guitar. He had been a guitarist that frequently played live in Los Angeles, California, and quickly saw a need for a louder guitar.
His first initial phase at a louder guitar began in the 1920s. This involved using the cone of a gramophone phonograph.
The cone was pointed at the audience to project the guitar’s tone. The experiment was a failure in application but did pave the way for something that would work.
After much experimentation, his first successful prototype was officially created on his dining room table. This guitar would have much of the technology used in electric guitars of modern times.
This electric guitar had two magnetic pickups made of a wire coil wrapped around pole pieces. This design allowed the magnetic vibrations of the steel strings to be received by the pole pieces, which in turn could then be sent to a speaker.
George Beauchamp would eventually find his way into the guitar industry, partnering with Adolph Rickenbacker to bring the guitar into the mainstream. The partners filed for the first patent and began producing electric guitars using the technology.
The Other Side Of The Story
While the first patent for the electric guitar pickup was indeed filed by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker, it is a little-known fact that an American inventor had actually discovered the technology sooner. This man’s name was Paul Tutmarc.
Paul Tutmarc had been a musician who regularly performed live and had a friend, Art Stimpson, who enjoyed taking electronic devices apart to learn how they worked. One day, Stimpson was looking at the microphone from a telephone.
Stimpson was curious about how a magnetic coil was used to receive the sound of a voice and relay it to the other person on the telephone line. This caught Tutmarc’s attention and he began to toy with the idea of using the microphone to develop his own guitar pickup.
The microphone was placed in Paul Tutmarc’s classical guitar, which was then connected to a radio. Tutmarc and Stimpson were witnesses to the first time in human history that the acoustic guitar was electrified and amplified for all to hear.
The partners immediately understood the gravity of their discovery but had a disagreement on what to do with it. Tutmarc thought it best to file a patent, while Stimpson thought it best to sell the discovery to a large company.
By a simple twist of fate, Tutmarc was given advice from his attorneys that the pickup design likely wasn’t a profitable one. The patent was never filed.
In turn, Stimpson went shopping the design around to other guitar manufacturers in hopes of striking a deal. In 1933, Tutmarc became aware of a company producing electric guitars using his technology.
After doing some investigation, Tutmarc discovered that the company had filed a patent for the guitar and pickup combination, with none other but Art Stimpson’s name on the application. That company would later be known as Rickenbacker guitars, which was co-founded by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker.
This ultimately has caused the name of Paul Tutmarc to not be as widely known as it deserves to be. He did, however, create the very first electric bass guitar as early as 1935.
Evolution of the Electric Guitar
Humanity has a history of continually improving upon the inventions already being used, and the electric guitar is no exception. In fact, two people have had a very important role in creating what we know as the electric guitar today.
You will likely recognize these names, as they were very influential in modern music, whether it be for their inventions or the music they made. There is a reason why these names are remembered fondly, as guitarists owe respect to the fact that the modern guitar would not be the same without their tireless efforts.
Les Paul’s Contributions
Guitar phenom Les Paul was not only a highly skilled guitarist but was an avid tinkerer that followed his curiosities as well. When he was a teenager, Les Paul began to try various methods of amplifying his guitar.
One of these methods involved connecting his acoustic guitar to a transistor radio. He was able to achieve sound but desired much more from the result as it lacked quite a bit of resonance and was quite noisy.
Les Paul would go on to experiment further, creating a device that involved the microphone from a telephone wired to a radio. This in turn would be connected to a length of string stretched between railroad spikes on a length of railroad track.
This would give him a strong foundation for one of the most important inventions of all time: the solid-body guitar. Les Paul noticed in his railroad experiments that the stability of the track beneath the guitar string allowed the string to produce a longer sustain without any feedback when amplified, as was seen with chambered electric guitars.
In turn, Les Paul then took his successful railroad experiment and created what is known as the Log guitar. This was created with the same idea of giving stability beneath the string to allow for resonance and minimal feedback.
The Log guitar consisted of a 4×4 piece of pinewood with an attached neck from an Epiphone guitar. Pickups, a bridge, and a vibrola were then added to the slab of pine, which effectively produced the first wooden prototype of the railroad experiment.
After he put together the first iteration of the Log guitar, Les Paul then went to the Epiphone factory implemented his log guitar into an existing guitar. This involved removing the neck of a guitar, cutting the body in half, and attaching the Log in between the two halves of the original body.
This officially created the first prototype for a solid body guitar, with the construction methods still used today. In fact, Les Paul’s invention was adopted by the Gibson guitar company, officially creating the Les Paul guitar in 1952.
Today, the Gibson Les Paul is one of the most iconic guitars of all time. Aided much by the innumerable multitude of guitar virtuosos who used the guitar, the Gibson Les Paul has remained a highly sought-after guitar for its versatility and the wide range of tones it produces.
The Les Paul model would then be redesigned into what is known today as the SG. However, Paul wasn’t a big fan of the guitar and didn’t want his name on it. This would help to prompt the start of a larger amount of different styles of electric guitars on the market.
Leo Fender is perhaps best known for his innovative designs that helped to push the boundaries of the guitar into the modern stylings we know today. He was largely more of an engineer, as he did not actually play the guitar at all.
Leo Fender got his start working as a repairman working on radios. Eventually, after meeting some musicians, Fender started to create musical instruments in his repair shop.
This led to innovations such as the Fender Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster) in 1951, which was a solid body electric guitar. His first electric bass, the Precision bass, was also introduced in 1951.
The early 1950s were revolutionary times in modern music, with electric instruments finding their way into recordings. Many of Leo Fender’s innovations would be fundamental in producing the iconic sounds of many of these famous recordings.
As Leo Fender was initially a radio repairman, he began producing his own amplifier line. This helped to propel the electric guitar into the modern mainstream.
Fender guitars have played an important role in the shapes of guitar bodies. The company is responsible for introducing body styles that broke from tradition, and in turn, became a tradition of their own.
Why Is It Important To Know The History Of The Guitar?
As a guitarist, you are one individual in a very old tradition of stringed instrument players. Nearly as far back as documented time goes, music has been an aspect of every culture.
While you can certainly go about playing without knowing the history, understanding where the guitar comes from can put a lot into perspective. When you understand the guitar’s roots, the guitar becomes much harder to take for granted.
This is because it took thousands of years for the guitar we know and love to come into existence. One small change in the course of events could likely have altered the result into something far different from the modern guitar.
Musicians are notorious for looking back at older styles of music. By doing this, inspiration can be found in unforeseen places, imprinting the styles of modern playing.
As most inventions tend to be better versions of something in the past, it is important to look back and see where the guitar came from. Although time may seem to move slowly, it might be apparent that this is likely not the final iteration of the guitar as we know it.
The Future Of The Guitar
The guitar has enjoyed centuries of use as a primary instrument in the creation of music. The electric guitar will be nearing 100 years of existence in 2031.
No living human can likely predict what the guitar of the future will look like and how it will sound. However, we can pause to look at the rate of growth of technological advancements.
Computers have become incredibly important in everyday life, even in the world of music. What used to take up an entire room of computer parts to run a simple task has evolved to something that can fit in the palm of the hand.
This has opened doors for musicians in general. The guitar has even seen computer implementations with MIDI capabilities that can change the sound of the guitar into an infinite number of possibilities.
Over time, the guitar has started to slowly decline in popularity, with other instruments enjoying time in the spotlight. Will the guitar disappear as an ancient relic of the past, or will it simply evolve over time to meet the needs of the future?
In What Country Was The Guitar Invented? Final Thoughts
Guitarists owe a great amount of respect to the forefathers of the instrument itself. While the names of many of these forefathers have been lost to history, we can still hold reverence for their contributions.
What do you think future civilizations will think when they look back to the guitar from the modern times of today? Will it be yet another footnote in the lineage of an evolving instrument? Your involvement could help shape its long course.
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