From Oud to Electric: A Brief History of the Guitar

May 19, 2015

A few weeks ago we took a brief look at the history of musical notations. And while nearly the whole of human history is a lot to cover in a single-serving sized blog, we got a decent impression of the broader strokes of what eventually became the musical notations we know and use today. As they say, knowledge is power, so hopefully knowing a little about the staves and clefs and notes helped ease some of the intimidation that many who can’t yet read music feel when they begin. Ultimately, the goal is to pique your interest and perhaps spark some inspiration to try music lessons for yourself. So, to further that goal, while keeping with our general theme of the history of music, this week we’re going to talk about the history of one of western music’s most enduring and popular instruments: the guitar.

Though the lineage of the modern guitar is difficult to nail down for sure, we do know that stringed, guitar-like instruments have been built and played by humans for over 4000 years. Instruments called bowl harps featured tortoise shells and calabashes for resonators, a long, bent stick standing in for a neck, and one or more strings, usually made from silk or animal gut. Tanburs probably rose from the early bowl harps, as the neck was straightened to allow the strings to the pressed against it. These early plucking instruments (strumming was still a long way off) have been found in the tombs and paintings of many of the world’s most influential and ancient cultures, including Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian. It is also interesting to point out that while these early instruments were the precursors to many other varieties and styles of music making devices to come through the centuries, many of them have survived to the modern era virtually unchanged. Bowl harps and tanburs are still used as folk instruments in regions of Turkey, the Balkans, Iran, Afghanistan, and Greece.

As generations came and went, music, and how it was made changed, and in came the lute. Often thought of as the “father” of the guitar, the lute is thought to have evolved from an Arabic instrument known as an “oud.” It had a short, almond shaped body, a short neck, and no frets, and it was introduced to Europe in the 8th century when the Moors conquered Spain. The Spanish peninsula quickly became a hub for art and culture in the Islamic world, and many prominent musicians flocked to the area to take part. One such person, Ziryab, had trained with masters in Baghdad before being exiled to Spain in 833 AD. After making the trek, Ziryab opened one of the first music schools in the area, and added a fifth string to his oud. By the time the 11th century had rolled around, Muslim controlled Spain had become a centre for musical instrument manufacturing. Trade brought their instruments out to the rest of Europe, where the oud was altered further, becoming the lute. With its pear shaped body with a highly vaulted back, short neck, and strange, sharply angled peg head, it quickly became a favourite of Renaissance era troubadours. The lute shares a lot of similarities with modern guitars, but there were still a number of important touches missing. For example, lutes do not have the noticeably pinched waist guitars have, nor do they have the treble strings. Close to becoming a guitar, but not quite, it would take another instrument, developed in Spain during the 15th century, to bring these features to the party.

If the lute is the “father” of the guitar, then the vihuela is the “mother.” Smaller than a lute, and sporting a flat back, a slightly pinched waist, and six double-strings made from gut and meant to be strummed, the vihuela was the most guitar-like instrument to yet be created. For about one hundred years musicians experimented with the vihuela, strumming with the fingers, using a plectrum (an early kind of pick), and even developing a style of music using a bow, which would eventually go on to encourage the development f the viol and other instruments like it. But like the lute before it, the vihuela’s popularity began to decline in the 16th century, until someone had an idea.

We will never know just who the mastermind was, but someone in 16th century Spain had the idea to combine elements of the lute and the vihuela into a new kind of string instrument. The new contraption had a body shape similar to a vihuela, but was sized more like a lute, featured a neck that was more like the vihuela’s, and had six strings, a combination of both bass and treble. Still a relatively new instrument, and lacking most of the complexity it would have in the future, these early guitars were still fairly crude until the latter part of the 18th century. It was then that the first instances of what we could rightfully call the modern guitar started to pop up around Europe.

Technology is arguably the greatest influence on the development of the modern guitar. While the 16th century saw the creation of an extremely guitar-like instrument, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the machine head was invented. The old style wooden peg box used to hold an tune the strings was tossed aside in favour of new techniques. Craftsmen started carving their guitar heads, and even though they aren’t carved anymore, makers still follow the tradition of leaving their mark on the headstock. Soon Guitar makers Jose Pages and Josef Benedid would begin adding fan-shaped struts to the inside of the body to amplify sound. This technique was quickly popularized and picked up by other makers. It was also during the late part of the 1700s that the “floating arm technique” came about. Before, performers would rest their little finger of their right hand on the sound board, a style that had survived since the lute. The final, finishing touches to the modern guitar came from a man named Antonio de Torres Jurado. Antonio again increased the size of the guitar’s body, while also improving on the fan shape of the internal struts. He also increased the distance between the bridge and the nut. Up until this point the guitar’s sound had always been drowned out by other instruments, but Antonio’s tinkering resulted in a new guitar that could be played with an orchestra.

Recent history has seen the most of the guitar’s improvements. First, catgut strings were replaced with metal and nylon strings, and the classical guitar was further modified to make it louder. The early part of the 20th century even saw attempts to electrify the instrument. With the first amps coming out near the end of the 1930s, electric guitars took off in popularity. Leo Fender, a name any guitar enthusiast should know, created the first electric guitars, which had hollow bodies. Although they looked great, and sounded even better, these hollow bodies were inconvenient on stage, as the sound from the amps had a tendency to vibrate the body too much, creating feedback. Check out some videos of the old greats, like the late B.B. King, and you’ll notice they often stuffed their guitars with a towel to help with this vibration. A little later Les Paul entered the scene, and created a hard-body electric guitar called “the log,” solving the vibration feedback problem, and ushering in the age of the electric guitar.

Guitars have come a long way from the tortoise shell bowl harps used by our earliest civilizations. As as they have grown and changed, so has their popularity, making them arguably the most popular instrument in the Western world for both young and old. The styles of music they are an intricate part of are as wide and varied as the artwork that adorn performers’ guitars. If the guitar can change so much into what it is today, you can pick it up an learn it. Take advantage of the popularity guitars enjoy: there probably is no instrument easier to find music lessons for. You never know, guitar lessons may be the only thing between you and the next innovation in this instrument’s enigmatic history.