Like all stringed instruments, the guitar evolved from a simple hunting bow to a complex mechanism capable of amplifying sound by resonation. Nowadays, the guitar can also use electric circuitry to amplify its own sound, and guitarists can rely on a wide range of timbers and intensities inconceivable to primitive artists. Few performers, however, are aware of the antiquity of the legacy they hold in their hands.
In The Art and Times of the Guitar, Frederic Grunfeld explains that the guitar descends from the ancient lute, although it took its name from the cithara (Grunfeld, 33). Citharas had been an improvement from the bow, as they increased the number of strings, providing the possibility to play more than one note, and they were built using a turtle carapace as a resonator. However, as Grunfeld says, when the neck appeared in the lute, “it must have represented a major technological breakthrough in its time” (Grunfeld, 45). The cithara and lute were not in the same line of development but must be observed as independent instruments with their individual lines of evolution.
The guitar has been traced back to the year 2500 B.C., when, in Greece, the lute was known as pandoura. Just like the cithara, the harp, and the lyre, the lute had been imported from western Asia. It had an oval body (as derived from a turtle carapace), and as ancient bas-reliefs show, it was used for secular activities—all the religious ceremonies depicted in sculptures include harps and lyres instead.
A Hittite sculpture dated 1500 B.C. shows a man playing a fretted instrument whose top is clearly flat. Although it is very similar to a guitar, there is disagreement on whether it can be considered one. Paul Guy, in the online article “A Brief History of the Guitar,” sustains that this iconographical representation displays “all the essential features of a guitar.” On the other hand, Grunfeld points out that “the sound chest of this instrument is almost certainly covered with skin, and the neck, instead of stopping where it meets the body, pierces it like a spear and forms a small point at the base to which the strings are attached” (Grunfeld, 46). In any case, even Grunfeld admits that this instrument, if not a guitar, is certainly one of its main precursors.
Another type of lute was used in Egypt around 1500 B.C.: the nefer, which judging by wall paintings, was also used for secular activities. Nefers had an oval, long body and either two or three strings. The top of the body was covered with skin, and the neck was attached to it by several stitches.
Nefers were found in Egyptian tombs. It was also in Egypt that archaeologists found an instrument dating from A.D. 300 that reflects quite accurately the characteristics of a guitar: a flat back, a flat top, incurved sides, and a heel resembling that of the Spanish guitar. As Grunfleld explains, the Arabs in their conquest of North Africa might have taken this instrument to the south of Spain (Grunfeld, 51). Thus, the spread of stringed instruments from western Asia into Europe during the middle ages had two focuses: Greece, in conjunction with Rome, and Spain.
Sarcophagus reliefs in Roman tombs from approximately A.D. 200 show women playing the lute: despite the established position of the ancient cithara, the lute began finding its own way into Roman culture as a household instrument. It was here where the string family fidicula was created. Fidicula was the term to refer to any stringed instrument, and it gradually originated the words fiddle and vihuela among others. As Grunfeld argues, “[a]t what point the Spaniards arrived at the name and style of their famous guitarra is quite imposible to say; its beginnings might have appeared… sometime before the thirteenth century.” Grunfeld adds that Moorish culture certainly motivated art development in Spanish society and that there was a need for instruments and music. It was under Arabic influence that the Spanish adopted the term lute, which derives from al’ud, literally “the wood” (52-5). Another Arab contribution to the instrument were the frets, which as Harvey Turnbull points out in The Guitar: From the Renaissance to the Present Day, “were made of gut and tied round the neck” (Turnbull, 15).
By A.D. 1300, a wide variety of plucked string instruments were in use in Europe, all of different sizes and shapes: lutes, vihuelas, latin guitars, Moorish guitars, and the English guittern and citern. The lack of volume of the guittern and citern made them disappear gradually, and the instrument that became prominent was the vihuela. At first, the vihuela could have had anywhere from four to seven courses (either pairs of strings or single ones), and there was no standard tuning for it. There were also vihuelas of different sizes, and adding to the confusion, the term vihuela referred to both the family of stringed instruments and a specific instrument. However, by the end of the fifteenth century a standard was established. The vihuela adopted six courses (five double strings and one single string, the soprano), and its tuning was G, C, F, A, D, G, with the lowest pair of strings tuned at an octave. Turnbull relies on several paintings of that time to research on the vihuela’s shape, also quoting composer Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435 – 1511) describing the instrument. The historian certainly established that the vihuela was flat, curved inwards on its sides, smaller than the lute, and with a central rose on the hole, in other words, very similar to a current guitar but smaller.
The vihuela was very well established in Spain throughout the sixteenth century. The first musicians who composed for the instrument, creating its own idiom rather than using it for vocal accompaniment, were Narváez, Milán, Fuen Llana, and Mudarra. In 1535 Milán published the first work for vihuela, a series of short pieces entitled The Teacher, and Narváez, who used to improvise complex counterpoint, followed him with his Variations. In turn Mudarra published Tres libros de musica en cifras para vihuela (Three Music Books for Vihuela), written on tablature, and he was also the teacher of several nobles—a sign of the instrument’s high status.
Meanwhile, another instrument was becoming standard: the four-course guitar, whose tuning was the same as that of the vihuela but without the sixth and first courses: C, F, A, D. Grunfeld explains that eventually the courses were transposed up a major second, to D, G, B, and E respectively, creating the tuning for the four highest strings on the modern guitar (Grunfeld, 75). The four-course guitar was considered inferior to the vihuela; however, it became the popular instrument among the masses. Grunfeld says that “it was customary to keep a guitar hanging in a barber shop so that a costumer waiting to be shaved could strum away the time until his turn came” (Grunfeld, 78).
The instrument that spread throughout Europe was the four-course guitar, not the six-course vihuela. Offering considerably fewer challenges than music for eleven-course lute, the guitar was quickly adopted in France and subsequently Germany and Italy, where the lute had been prevalent. In fact, the first music publication for guitar appeared in 1552 in France, not in Spain, and it was entitled Le Premier Livre de Chansons, Gaillardes, Pavannes, Branfles, Almandes, Fantaifies, reduitz en tablature de Guiterne, by Guillame Morlaye. The lute, Grunfeld reports, “had become overloaded with strings—up to two dozen in extreme cases—which had the annoying tendency to go limp at the slightest provocation. As one French wag put it, ‘One can always see the lutenists tuning up, but one never hears them play’” (109). In addition, Grunfeld points out the guitar’s attractive effect on women as another reason for its success. This effect, according to him, is due to the guitar’s shape: “its outline is simply the classic admiring gesture of a man delineating the form of woman” (Grunfeld, 6). A sex symbol or not, the guitar gradually bacome a noble instrument in Europe by the middle of the seventeenth century.
The next stage in the evolution of the guitar was the addition of the fifth course tuned to A. This innovation has been attributed to the Spanish poet Vicente Espinel (1551 – 1624) by several sources quoted by both Turnbull and Grunfeld: Lope de Vega (1562 – 1635), Nicolas Doizi de Velazco (1590-1659), and Juan Bermudo (c. 1510 – 1565). Since guitarist Juan Bermudo had written about five-course guitars before Espinel was born, Grunfeld discredits these sources, asserting that “Espinel no more originated the idea than Elvis Presley invented the electric guitar,” giving him credit only for popularizing the invention (Grunfeld, 98). Furthermore, the sources quoted by the historians referred to Espinel’s addition of the prima (first string), not the quinta (fifth string), and the addition in question is that of a lower course.
However, Turnbull found a solution to these contradictions. He admitted that five-course guitars existed before Espinel, but he points out that the tuning to A was not standard until later during the sixteenth century. (It is important to remember that stringed instruments were not as standard as now, and that there were several variations of each one.) Besides, Turnbull observed that in an Italian manuscript in the British Museum (Sloane 2686), the courses of a guitar are numbered from the lowest to the highest pitch, as in the inverse of modern practice. This observation ratifies that Espinel might well have been responsible for the tuning A, D, G, B, E. Turnbull also demonstrated that Bermudo was referring to a second type of five-course guitar, which was tuned G, C, E, A, D, a configuration very similar to a vihuela’s tuning (Turnbull, 12-14). Additionally, Turnbull comments that “[t]he association of Espinel with a form of accompanied monody, Spanish sonatas, lends further support, as the quinta instrument was ideal for this” (Turnbull, 14). Espinel’s standard was what became known in Italy as “the Spanish Guitar,” and paintings from approximately the end of the sixteenth century evidence that, even in Spain, it rose to incredible popularity, replacing the vihuela.
The guitar still had to undergo further changes, and the next step was the addition of the sixth course. The first publication for six-course guitar appeared in 1780: Obra para guitarra de seis órdenes (Music for Six-Course Guitar), by Antonio Ballesteros. Turnball identifies several publications from the early nineteenth century that hint at an overlap between the addition of the sixth string and the abandonment of double courses, unable to find out which came first. However, he establishes that the reasons for these developments were both musical and practical. Quoting Federico Moretti’s 1799 work, Principios para tocar la guitarra de seis órdenes (Principles to Play the Six-Course Guitar), he summarizes the reasons for the preference of single strings:
With this method [double courses], it is rare to play accurately (juste) and to hear the harmony in all its purity, as (the sounds of) the two strings [of the lower courses, tuned at an octave] strike the ear in such a way that the higher sounds are heard before the lower… Besides… one can rarely find strings for the unison g’s and b’s that are of the same size and perfectly true (Turnbull, 63).
Thomas Heck’s comments on the advantages of a sixth string are also quoted:
Was this not the minimum improvement necessary to achieve the roots I, IV, and V in the lowest three strings (in several keys), while at the same time allowing for triadic, melodic, and ornamental use of the upper three strings? The low E completed the double octave with the first string, e’, as well, thereby giving the classic guitar a kind of perfection which the five-course guitar resisted for about 200 years (Turnbull, 64).
Another constructional improvement of this period is the fan-strutting, a set of wood stripes strategically placed on the inner side of the guitar’s top to improve resonation.
The classical guitar, as known today, was first designed by luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817 – 1892). His main contributions were an increase in the size of the body, the widening of the fingerboard to 5 centimeters, the lengthening of the strings to 65 centimeters, and a relocation of the wood stripes of the fan-strutting system to a diagonal position, which allowed the board to vibrate more freely. Finally, the latest major improvement in classical guitar construction happened in 1946, when nylon was first used in the manufacture of strings.
Of the transitional guitars that appeared in the nineteenth century, one deserves mention for its uniqueness. Frustrated at the impossibility to tune the guitar properly, and attempting to free the guitar from tempered tuning, General T. Perronet Thompson, a British Parliamentary also involved in music, designed the enharmonic guitar. The frets for this instrument are moveable, and they are short, affecting one string only. They can be placed on any of the fingerboard’s holes, whose positions divide the octave into fifty-three equal parts for every string. This arrangement enables a musician to prepare the fingerboard for a given key and play in perfect tuning. The enharmonic guitar is also designed to add a few frets that do not belong to the selected key, to take a piece’s modulations into account.
The obvious disadvantage of this guitar, and the reason why it did not survive, is its impracticality. Playing on the enharmonic guitar would have required planning in advance, limitation in modulations, and a long setup time. However, considering current technological advancements, nowadays it is possible to devise a guitar whose fret configuration could be changed by electronic pedals. As the piece modulates, the performer could select a new key much in the same manner in which he selects timbres.
This envision would not be possible without the well-known applications that electricity has had in music and guitar—a breakthrough that occurred in America. Grunfeld has traced the American guitar to its earliest days, and as he reports, it was being imported into the new world already in the sixteenth century. Missionaries who converted Native Americans to Christianity also spread the guitar among them, and by the middle of the seventeenth century the guitar was ubiquitous in Spanish American colonies (Grunfeld, 242). At the same time, “[c]olonial and revolutionary America was well supplied with English-made guitars,” (Grunfeld, 238) and after New Mexico became part of the United States, many of its traditions, including the use of Spanish guitars, maintained themselves (Grunfeld, 248).
On the other hand, American music has been influenced by African traditions. African slaves were not allowed to build their percussion instruments but were permitted to construct their stringed instruments, and their customs included playing on the banjar, whose name was later transformed into banjo, an instrument that followed its own line of evolution since the beginning of stringed instruments in Western Asia. As European and African traditions met, they influenced one another. Homemade guitars and banjoes, sometimes built from soapboxes, began appearing within the popular masses. These improvised instruments, which would play an important role in cultural crosspollination, would vary in shapes and sizes without any standards, and since they offered the possibility to articulate and emulate a human voice, they became popular among the Negroes: by using a bottle as a slide or bending the strings, it is possible to cover the microtones, thus avoiding the rigid alternative between major and minor modes, which plays no part in African traditions. Eventually, “[t]he guitar, being easier to make and manage, gradually superseded the banjo among Southern Negroes” (Grunfeld, 235), who brought the guitar into the hills sometime after 1900.
Two of the most renowned blues guitarists of the early twentieth century were Robert Johnson and Huddie Ledbetter. Early jazz did not feature guitarists too much because wind and percussion instruments would be considerably louder. Nonetheless, Eddie Lang deserves being mentioned as an unamplified guitar player, as he managed to find a sustainable role within a combo: he would accompany a soloist with lines instead of chords, creating a counter-melody for an improvised melody. Listening to saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer’s 1927 recording of “Singing the Blues,” we can recognize Lang’s ability to improvise an accompanying line without disrupting the soloist’s creation.
In jazz, the guitar came to the fore mainly after the invention of its electric version. The first electric guitar, called The Frying Pan, was built in 1931 by George Beauchamp. However, as National Public Radio reports on its website, Beauchamp did not obtain his patent until 1937, when other companies were already manufacturing the instrument.
Electric guitars need steel strings to work, as metal pieces and magnets affect each other by physical laws. The motion of the guitar’s steel strings alters the magnetic field of a nearby magnet called the pick-up, and the variations of the magnetic field, in turn, induce electrical current in a metallic cable connected to the magnet. Thus, the current going through the cable is an exact representation of the strings’ vibrations, and therefore of the sound. The other end of the cable is connected to another circular magnet, called the speaker, that has a metallic piece suspended in its center. Affected by the current in the cable, the speaker’s magnetic field varies, so the central metallic piece is pushed back and forth according to the magnet’s varying force. This process translates the electric representation of the strings’ vibration, the current, back into motion. Finally, a cone is attached to the metal piece, moving along with it and pushing the air back and forth. Thus, the cone generates sound waves identical to those of the original source. Additionally, between both ends, the electric signal goes through a circuit specifically designed to amplify it, called an amplifier, making the speaker’s sound waves more intense than they originally were.
The electric guitar was first adopted by Hawaiian music performers, as its tone was suitable for their style, and slowly, electric guitars found their way into jazz and rock and roll. With the assistance of electric devices that would increase the instrument’s volume, jazz guitarists no longer needed to struggle to be heard in the bandstand. This change had two main consequences. First, the guitar began assuming the role of the soloist. Up until then, guitarists had mostly been assigned the role of time-keepers, as there was little else they could have done competing against loud horns. On the other hand, guitarists’ technique evolved. Without the need to pluck a string for every single note, guitar players were able to sound loud enough while playing more legato lines. Gradually, thus, the guitar was able to adopt jazz vocabulary form other instruments, articulating in a similar way to a saxophone’s flexible phrasing. The first prominent electric guitar soloist in jazz was Charlie Christian, one of the creators of be-bop along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and mainly, Charlie Parker. Still, during the swing era, many electric guitar players would continue to perform primarily as time-keepers, such as the famous Freddie Green, whose name defines an accompaniment in which one chord is played on every beat.
Since electricity became greatly responsible for the guitar’s volume level, the guitar’s resonant hollow body stopped being essential, and the solid-body version of the electric guitar was born. In fact, The Frying Pan was already a solid-body guitar. The difference in tone, however, between a solid-body and a hollow-body guitar would be considerable, and thus solid-body guitars did not replace hollow-body ones but simply became an alternative, mostly used in rock.
Nowadays, most guitar aficionados and professionals take for granted that they can enjoy six strings sounding in a jazz standard by Duke Ellington, a baroque piece by Bach, or Jimmy Hendrix’s best licks. However, these privileges would not be possible had history not evolved in the direction it took. Certainly, guitarists will have to be attentive at new possibilities that might arise, as they expand and continue to explore a heritage four thousand years old.
- Grunfeld, Frederic. The Art and Times of the Guitar: An Illustrated History. 1969. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.
- Guy, Paul. “A Brief History of the Guitar.” Guitar Handbook. 16 December 2009. 9 May 2010. http://www.guyguitars.com/eng/handbook/BriefHistory.html
- National Public Radio. “The Electric Guitar, Present at the Creation.” National Public Radio: News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts. 12 August 2002. 14 May 2010. http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/electricguitar/
- Turnbull, Harvey. The Guitar: From the Renaissance to the Present Day. 1974. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
- Trumbauer, Frank. “Singing the Blues.” 1927. Pearson Education, 2009.