Historical Overview of the Guitar

Historical Overview of the Guitar

One of the popular western musical instruments to learn is the guitar. Indeed, it is one of the most versatile instruments to play with, either in a group or individually. Here we look at how this musical instrument originated and how long ago does its history trace back to.

Origin of the Guitar

Historical Overview of the Guitar
Photo by Louis Hansel from Unsplash

As a musical instrument, it belongs to the family of chordophones. However, it is distinct in the way it is made as well as how it is tuned by teachers and professionals. Today there are several online teacher abroad vacancies if you wish to share your knowledge and passion for the guitar all over the world.

Traditionally a guitar is made of wood. It is strung with steel or nylon strings. If we look at the history of guitar, it has come a long way from when it originated. Today there are several forms of this instrument. Indeed, modern inventors have changed the shape of the guitar over several decades of time.

From Ancient Mesopotamia to Europe (4000-1500 BC)

Historical Overview of the Guitar

The guitar's ancestry can be traced back an impressive 4,000 to 5,000 years. Origin of this instrument can be traced to ancient Rome. Around 300 BC, the Greeks adopted a stringed instrument called the kithara, considered the guitar's closest ancestor.  It was carried by the Greek conquerors to all the territories that they made their home in. Even after Rome fell this instrument remained in use and popular across Europe.

Traces of its history go back to the Mesopotamia region as well. This dates the origin of the instrument about four to five thousand years back. From here the simple stringed instrument made its journey to different parts of the world. Hence, Persia and the Middle East are also regions which remain associated with the root or history of origin of the guitar.

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The Guitar Takes Shape (1500s - 1800s)

Historical Overview of the Guitar

Besides the timeline to which we can trace back the origin of the guitar, there are additional historical factors that led to the development and evolution of this stringed instrument. Key aspects were:

    • The Vihuela: Vihuela was a Spanish guitar that played a prominent role in the Baroque and Renaissance movement. It was viewed as a rhythm helper, along with the violin; the latter remained one among the top two instruments to be used across Europe.
    • The Lute: The lute had a pear-shaped body and long neck. It influenced the guitar's design. Lutes existed in Mesopotamia as early as 3500 BC. During the Renaissance, lutes had 20 to 30 strings.
    • Spanish luthiers (guitar makers) started refining guitar design during this time. They developed the Baroque guitar. It featured a curved body, five strings, and moveable frets. This design led to the lute's decline between 1600 and 1750.
    • Antonio Torres Jurado is known as the guitarist and Spanish Luthier who developed the modern version of the acoustic guitar; the designs that he made are considered to be the basis on which the acoustic guitar is developed, even today.
  • Electric guitars were introduced in the thirties; it was the time when electromagnetism influenced the guitar design.
  • By the fifties several rock musicians popularized the use of electric guitars.
  • Today it is almost two thousand years since the guitar has been in existence.
  • Along with the piano, it is one of the two most popular instruments in the music world, even today.

How the Shape of the Guitar Came to Be?

The guitar's journey started with ancient instruments. It evolved and innovated over time. Learn about the key milestones that shaped this iconic instrument.

Ancient Inspiration: The Oud and the Lute (2000 BC - 711 AD)

The Oud and the Lute

The earliest shape of the guitar can be traced back to two ancient instruments, the lute and the oud. Bible stories have reference to Lamech, the sixth grandson of Adam and Eve, who designed the oud. After that the Moors introduced the oud in Southern Spain when they invaded this region in 711 AD.

The Lute's Influence (3500 BC - 16th Century)

After that, the lute was the main instrument that influenced the early guitar design. It passed from the Egyptians, the Greeks and then onto the Romans. Pictorial record of the same was found for the first time in between 3500 to 3200 BC. This was in the southern Mesopotamia region. The pictorial records showed short and long necked varieties.

Evidence of such records is to be found in museums across cities such as Britain, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. The records were preserved in papyrus and clay tablets.

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The Birth of the Baroque Guitar (15th-18th Century)

Historical Overview of the Guitar

Renaissance is a period when the lute design changed. There were lutes that had 20 or even 30 strings. By the 15th or the 16th century Spanish musicians started to work on the present day guitar form. They developed the curved shape that most people are familiar with. This design was known as the Baroque guitar design. This instrument then replaced lute among the musicians. This transition took place between 1600 and 1750.

After this there were refinements in the design. For instance, five courses of the gut strings were introduced. Also the moveable frets were introduced in its design. These changes made the instrument easy to play.

Design Refinements and the Hourglass Figure (16th-18th Century)

There are several similarities between the vihuela and the guitar. For instance, it is said that the hourglass contour of the guitar was inspired by the vihuela. The latter was popular before the guitar, especially in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain. From early times the mariachi bands used to use vihuela and its different versions.

The Spanish Guitar Takes Shape (18th Century)

Historical Overview of the Guitar

If we trace the evolution of the Spanish guitar, the modern form was definite and in use by 1790. The guitar had the modern body design as well as six string courses. However, the first versions were smaller in size.

By the mid 1800 Antonio de Torres Jurado had made changes to the guitar design. He created the modern guitar style after which all modern versions followed. Many consider him as one of the most important figures in inventing the guitar.

The Genius of Antonio de Torres Jurado (19th Century)

The guitar that Antonio designed had a broad body, thin belly and curved out in the waist region. The tuning pegs were wooden before. Antonio replaced the same with machined heads. His approach to the fan braces and body design was innovative. That is, he placed wooden struts inside the guitar body. This is what lent the rich, distinctive sound to emanate from the instrument.

Around this time the Europeans who immigrated to America introduced the steel stringed version. Here the guitar underwent certain changes in its shape. That is, the flat top was invented as well as the arch top. As a result the electric guitar came into being.

Modern Guitar and its Design Variations

The modern guitar family features diverse instruments. Each has a unique sound and playing style.

Flat Top Guitars


An American of German origin, Christian Frederick Martin introduced the design characteristic of the flat top. This remains a distinctive feature of the modern acoustic guitar even today. Martin made the change by introducing X bracing in place of the fan bracing. This helped the handle of the guitar body to bear the weight of the steel strings.

With the steep strings the flat top required guitarists to use picks and change the style of playing often. Hence, this created a difference in the melodies that came out of the different instruments. For instance, melodies that came out of classic guitars were delicate and precise. On the other hand, picks and steel strings created music that was chord driven and bright. The pick guard was introduced as well, which is a distinct feature of flat tops.

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Arch Top Guitars


The arch top guitar design is usually attributed to Orville Gibson. This particular design features an arched top, back, adjustable bridge and F-holes. The adjustable bridge helps increase volume and tone in the instrument.

The guitar design created by Gibson made these instruments similar to cellos. That is, they produced louder sounds. These guitars quickly became popular among country and jazz musicians.

Electric Guitars

Historical Overview of the Guitar

When it comes to the electric guitar, George Beauchamp, along with Adolph Rickenbacker, won the patent for the design. This was in 1931. There were several others who were working on the electric version at the same time. For instance, Gibson Les Paul and Leo Fender electric guitar designs are solid and popular even today.

Types of Guitar

Here we take a close look at the three main categories of guitar available.

1. Acoustic Guitars

This category of guitar is usually made of steel strings and plucked by a plectrum. It comprises a wooden body, a round sound hole as well as a carved chamber made of tone wood that is either laminated or solid. Sound board of acoustic guitars has bracing support.

Historical Overview of the Guitar

This also makes a difference in the tones that emanate from the instrument. Laminated acoustic guitars are more affordable. However, they might not be as durable as solid wooden versions. Tone wood is another feature that determines the tonal flavor. For instance, darker wood usually emanates warmer sounds.

There are types of acoustic guitars as per sizes and shapes. For instance, the standard version is usually a 6 string instrument. There are many travel sizes, popularized by singers such as Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. Concert guitars are closer to classical guitars. They are larger in size than parlor guitars but they can vary in sizes as well. Though 6 string guitars are standard, there are 12 string acoustic guitars available as well.

2. Classical Guitars

Historical Overview of the Guitar

These usually belong to the acoustic guitar family. They are usually made with nylon strings. Also, they might not have a truss rod and have a larger heel. The body weight of guitars are lighter and they have a softer resonance. One example of a classical guitar is the flamenco. These come with a thinner wooden top, usually made of Cypress wood.

Besides flamenco players there are several folk and jazz music players who opt for guitars with nylon strings. This helps them create a softer tone. These are also smaller in size. Hence, classical guitars are better choices for children. Also, nylon strings are softer on the fingers of children. Hence, parents would prefer such instruments for their children to start with when learning to play the guitar. However, classical guitars often have a wider fretboard. This can make chord shapes difficult to form.

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3. Electric Guitars

Historical Overview of the Guitar

This is the third category of guitar, invented in the thirties. Such guitars usually have a body of solid wood but have a slimmer design. These guitars usually have several scale lengths and varying shapes. All electric guitars require additional amplification. Hence, one needs to buy an electric guitar with an amplifier in order to make their music be heard.

There are usually one or several pickups in electric guitars. That is because metal string vibrations need to be converted into electric signals. There are knobs on the instrument as well as on the amplifier by which one can control tone as well as volume of the sound.

There are mainly two types of electric guitars:

Solid-Body Electric Guitars

Historical Overview of the Guitar

These guitars are essential in rock and roll. They offer great versatility. You can use them for lead playing, rhythm playing, and various musical styles.

Semi-Hollow Body Electric Guitars

Semi-Hollow Body Electric Guitars

Blues and jazz guitarists prefer these instruments. They provide the warmth of an acoustic guitar. They also offer the tonal flexibility of an electric.

While the solid body dominates, the electric guitar family is diverse. Let's explore additional electric guitar variations:

  • 6 string guitars are the most popular, iconic of rock and roll music. Each decade has seen a certain type of electric guitar evolve. Since the fifties the six string guitar has been most popular.
  • 7, 8, 9 or multiple string guitars are played in the hard rock or metal genre of music. These extra strings help enhance the bass of the music. They also help add depth and texture to rhythm patterns. For instance, the 7th string is usually tuned into B. If there is an 8th string then it is tuned into F and so forth.
  • 12 string versions are also available in electric guitars, similar to acoustic ones. Here every string has a pair. That is, there are pairs for E, A, D, G, their lower and higher octaves.
  • Baritone guitars have larger bodies and longer lengths of scales. These are usually preferred by guitarists of heavy music. These instruments emanate a chunky tone.
  • When it comes to shape, the S shape of the Fender Stratocaster is most popular. The other popular type is the T-style. It is named after Fender Telecaster and has a proprietary design. The other category is called offset. This set comprises electric guitars that have different shapes, apart from the standard types.


As it is apparent, guitar is one musical instrument that has evolved greatly since its invention. Indeed, the original musical instruments that inspired its design might not have lasted but the guitar continues to remain popular. That is also due to the great versatility of this instrument. Many inventors have changed and modified its strings, body construction and shape as per their musical requirements.

The perpetuity of the guitar’s attractiveness and adaptability throughout time and space is a witness to its rich history. From its early beginnings in ancient civilizations, through its transformation in medieval Europe, it exists now in various forms that are seen today, having always been an outlet for music expression and innovation. Its movement tracks changes that have come as culture and technology shifted highlighting it not only as a form of amusement but also as a way of generating social change and moderating artistic experiments.

Even as it fuses with new technologies and genres, the guitar retains its place in the hearts of fans all over the world. Whether in the hands of classical maestros, jazz virtuosos or rock legends, or bedroom players who just strum their chords for their own enjoyment, this heritage is built from a wide range of influences and varied creativity. The future looks dynamic enough to motivate musicians across generations just like the past has done; thus it holds promise to inspire both musicians and audiences alike.

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