The History of the Guitar: See the Evolution of the Guitar in 7 Instruments

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Kei­th Richards Demon­strates His Famous 5‑String Tech­nique (Used on Clas­sic Stones Songs Like “Start Me Up,” “Honky Tonk Women” & More)

What Gui­tars Were Like 400 Years Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the 9 String Baroque Gui­tar

The His­to­ry of the Gui­tar & Gui­tar Leg­ends: From 1929 to 1979

The His­to­ry of Rock Mapped Out on the Cir­cuit Board of a Gui­tar Ampli­fi­er: 1400 Musi­cians, Song­writ­ers & Pro­duc­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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