Acoustic Guitar History
The guitar has multiple stories from different cultures as to its beginnings. It could be Turkey or Greece where it was first strummed or perhaps Persia. It depends on who you ask. Different variations of stringed instruments are found all over the world.
The First Guitars
The lute and oud, ancient stringed instruments are sometimes said to be the first guitars. Some say no, guitars came later. They had short necks and rounded bodies and that is the area of dispute. Later guitar-like instruments which have longer necks and flat bodies are considered by some to be the first guitars.
The Oldest Surviving Guitar
The oldest surviving guitar-like instrument is a tanbur from Egypt which was in use around 1500 BC. It was owned by a guitarist named Har-Mose. The tanbur had only three strings and had a long neck and a pear-shaped sound box. There are ancient carvings with this type of guitar-like instrument depicted in them. The most amazing representation of a guitar-like instrument was found in a 3300-year-old- Hittite carving discovered in Turkey.
Different Variations of Guitars
It is possible that different variations of the actual instrument may have developed at the same time in different parts of the world. However, their names eventually got together under the word, tar, which means “string” in Persian. Look at these different stringed instruments of ancient days:
- Kithara from Greece
- Chartar from Persia
- Sitar from India
- Gittern from Europe in the late Middle Ages.
- From there we have names like guitarra, chitarra, and guiterre in Spain, Italy, and France.
Merchants and sailors from the east brought their instruments to Europe. We find variations of the four-stringed chartar from Persia in carvings and illuminated manuscripts all over Europe dating from ancient Rome to the Middle Ages.
Early Guitar Music
The earliest guitar music that we know of was written for the four-stringed chitarra in Spain in the 16th century. The chitarra had four courses of string rather than four single strings. (A course of strings is two or more strings that are closely spaced relative to the other strings and are typically played as a single string). The Italian version of the same chitarra during the same time period had five courses. They had frets too, most usually eight frets after the body.
Guitar Styles and Designs
- Many guitar styles were a five-string-course with movable frets by the Baroque period. During this time the repertoire of music for the five-stringed guitars grew rapidly. There were master luthiers all over Europe who were producing guitars. Two famous ones were Joakim Theilke in Germany and Stradivari in Italy. There is a guitar produced by Stradivari in the National Museum of Music in South Dakota.
- The six-course vihuela a mano guitar from Spain was the main guitar that was popular in Spain in the late 18th century. There is a book on guitars from Spain in 1799 that describes the standard Spanish guitar. It says that it had 17 frets and six courses with a more pronounced waist.
- The contemporary acoustic guitar evolved from guitars that immigrants brought over with them. Guitars from the 18th century look similar to guitars that musicians play today but they were a bit smaller in overall size and they had a smaller waist.
- The beginning of guitars played today comes from the design of the 19th-century musician, Antonio de Torres Jurado. He adjusted the overall shape of the body as he made it larger. He also gave the guitar a more defined waist. He replaced the commonly used wooden pegs with mechanical pegs. He used fan bracing within the body of the guitar and this turned out to be one of his best innovations.
- With all of these changes, the guitar produced a louder, thicker and richer sound than previous guitars were capable of producing. Because of the improved sound, luthiers from all over Europe copied his new design. It was the design of Torres that came to the United States with European immigrants.
- Guitars in the states were usually strung with steel strings. These put a great deal of pressure on the guitar body, even though it had fan bracing. Then German-born American luthier Christian Frederick Martin, designer of the flat top guitar designed an X-brace in the 1830s. With the X-brace the guitar could handle the extra tension from the strong vibrations made by the steel strings. Hence, Martin guitars that are most popular today, came to be
- Martin’s design with its tight steel strings worked better with a pick rather than with finger picking. Chord-based music began to replace the Spanish style classical guitar with its lovely gentle precision.
- Finally, acoustic guitars are most popular with the flat top design. However, the archtop guitar with its adjustable bridge and sound holes produced an even louder and livelier sound. This design is attributed to Orville Gibson, the father of the Gibson guitar that is popular with guitarists today. Because of its stronger and louder sound, the archtop guitar is favored by musicians in the genres of country music, jazz music, big band sound, and rockabilly music.
Today, acoustic guitars are still the central instrument in popular contemporary music. Even since the electric guitar was later introduced, the acoustic guitar has held its own. Its sound is still the most preferred by guitarists of this day.
Here are two Martin Acoustic guitars, from the Pennsylvania company, that recently came on the market:
- The GPCPA4 Series has a cut-away Grand Performance body with a solid spruce top. It has scalloped hybrid X-bracing and siris sides and back. For extra tone, it has a center wedge of East Indian rosewood in the back. It has a Richlite fingerboard and a hardwood neck.
- The GPCPA5K is also a cutaway Grand Performance guitar that has a solid spruce top. This model features an environmentally safe friendly HPL (high-pressure laminate) back and sides with a lovely Koa wood pattern and a smart looking brown Stratabond neck with a Richlite fingerboard.
Both have the famous Martin high-quality sound and beautiful appearance. These two are the latest and greatest in the continuing history of acoustic guitars.