Guitars are part of everyday life for a lot of visitors to this website, and rightly so: they rock. We spend a lot of time picking and strumming, but how many of us have looked into where our beloved guitar was born? So we’re going to take you back – waaay back – to the early days of the instrument we all love.
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As with most historical subjects, it’s very difficult to get any definite facts – a lot of it is speculation and educated guesswork. However, it seems that basic stringed instruments have been used for several thousand years.
Things first got interesting, though, in the 14th century BC, when the Hittites developed a four-string guitar-style instrument with soft, curved sides, much like the Fender Stratocasters of today (well, not that much like them, but you get the picture…). At around about the same time, the Greeks and Romans developed the Cithara, a similar instrument that ultimately gave its name to the guitar.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years to around 1200 – 1300 AD, and there were two clear types of guitar: the guitarra Latina, featuring a narrow neck and soundhole much like today’s acoustic guitars, and the guitarra Morisca or “Moorish guitar”, with a wide fingerboard, several sound holes and a rounded back.
By the 15th century, these two types had pretty much morphed into one instrument called the vihuela, which featured 8-strings, as well as a neck and frets much like today’s acoustic guitars. This and the lute were all the rage in the Portuguese and Spanish courts of the time. Not quite guitars, and presumably not capable of the scorching electric guitar riffs we would expect nowadays, but not a million miles off.
However, the lute was pretty tricky to tune (especially in the absence of digital guitar tuners) so soon gave way to what were known as five course guitars, featuring nine strings: a single top string and 4 pairs of other strings. This was an extremely playable and versatile instrument, and may have contributed to the guitar as an instrument gaining quickly in popularity.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that acoustic guitars started featuring the 6 strings we’re now used to, and some guitars started featuring ebony or rosewood fingerboards (as they often still do), tuning pegs, and a raised neck. This instrument would have looked and played a lot more like the classical guitars we still play today.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Antonio Torres Jurado, a luthier, Spanish guitarist, and general all-round dude, implemented fanned struts under the soundboard, a wider neck, and a generally larger body. This meant the instrument had far more volume, projection and bass response, meaning it could hold its own with other, previously louder, instruments, and could easily entertain a room full of rowdy drunks (as acoustic guitars still do today).
Since this time, classical guitars have barely changed, with only subtle improvements having been made to the design, and the acoustic guitar is still one of the most popular instruments in the world. It’s when some crazy cat tried to electrify the thing that things took a step forward and the electric guitar was invented, but that’s a whole different story…