A thoroughly modern instrument with an ancient heritage, the guitar dates back some 500-plus years. If we take into account similar stringed instruments with similar designs, we can push that date back a few thousand years, but there is some scholarly disagreement over when the guitar emerged as an instrument distinct from the lute. In any case, stringed instrument historian Brandon Acker is here to walk us through some of the significant differences, with “seven checkpoints along the way of the history of the guitar,” he says above in a guest visit to Rob Scallon’s YouTube channel.
The guitar is part of the lute family, which dates back some “5,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia.” Similar instruments existed all over the ancient world. Which of these eventually becomes the guitar? That is a question, says Acker, for another day, but the first instrument actually identified as a guitar dates from around 1500. Acker doesn’t toe a strict musicological line and begins with an oud from around 700 CE, the bowl-like stringed instrument still played today in Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. Like nearly all guitar precursors, the oud has strings that run in courses, meaning they are doubled up in pitch as in a mandolin.
Strings would have been made of gut — sheep intestines, to be exact — not metal or nylon. The larger oud is not much different in shape and construction from the Renaissance lute, which Acker demonstrates next, showing how polyphony led to the advent of fingerpicking. (He plays a bit of English composer John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears” as an example.) We’re a long way from country and blues, but maybe not as far you might think. The lute was ideal both for solo accompaniment as an ensemble instrument in bands and helped usher in the era of secular song.
The lute set the course for other instruments to follow, such as the Renaissance guitar, the first instrument in the tour that resembles a modern guitar’s hourglass shape and straight headstock. Tuned like a ukulele (it is, in fact, the origin of ukulele tuning), the Renaissance guitars of Spain and Portugal also came in different sizes like the Polynesian version. A versatile instrument, it worked equally well for strumming easy chords or playing complex, fingerpicked melodies, sort of like… well, the modern guitar. Through a few changes in tuning, size, and number of strings, it doesn’t take us long to get there.
The guitar is so simple in construction it can be built with household items, and so old its ancestors predate most of the instruments in the orchestra. But it also revolutionized modern music and remains one of the primary compositional tools of singers and songwriters everywhere. Ever since Les Paul electrified the guitar, high-tech experimental designs pop up every few years, incorporating all kinds of keys, dials, buttons, and extra circuitry. But the instruments that stick around are still the most traditionally styled and easiest to learn and play. Acker’s survey of its history above gives us a better understanding of the instrument’s staying power.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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