Experts seem to disagree on how many years we have to go back to find the earliest guitar in history. For this list, we decided to start off in 1590. Take a look at four of the oldest guitar-like instruments that have survived for centuries.
The Belchior Diaz vihuela
This historic guitar got the name of its maker and was created circa 1590. Portugal is the country of origin. Vihuelas are widely agreed upon to be the ultimate predecessors of our contemporary guitars.
But this is a very particular vihuela. Since it was crafted in Portugal rather than Spain, which is the birthland of the instrument, the Belchior Diaz vihuela has some differentiating features.
The frets in this vihuela are not made of metal. Instead, they are tied just like those in the ancient lutes. Because of the unparalleled historic value of this guitar-like stringed instrument, it has been the subject of meticulous preservation efforts.
The look and feel remain exactly the same as in the year it was crafted, though. The parchment rosette on the center is also believed to be original. This Portuguese classical guitar is displayed at the Musical Instrument Museum in the American city of Phoenix, Arizona.
The Matteo Sellas guitar
Just like the Belchior Diaz vihuela, this guitar carries the name of its craftsman, Matteo Sellas. It is believed to have been made in the period between 1630 and 1650 in the Italian city of Venice.
After being hugely popular in Spain, the interest around the latest string instruments started rapidly increasing in Italy and France and its success showed no signs of slowing down over the following centuries.
During that time, Italy became one of the top guitar manufacturing countries.
The Matteo Sellas guitar is at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum with its original peg block, bridge and rosette. Prior to this, though, those fittings were once removed to add five strings that would adapt the sound and playing style of the guitar to the changing musical tastes of the time.
The Sabionari guitar
Like the example above, the Sabionari guitar originates from Italy. It was created by Antonio Stradivari in the year 1679, making it the first instrument of the list to have an official recorded birth year.
You’re most likely aware that Antonio Stradivari and his relatives alike were primarily known for crafting violins. However, Stradivari did make some guitars, the most iconic being the Sabionari.
At some point during the late 1700s, Giovanni Sabionari bought the guitar from Stradivari descendants. That is how it got its name.
There are only four other known Stradivari guitars, although the Sabionari model is the only one that can still be played. Just like the Matteo Sellas, the guitar went through some alterations before being restored to its original form only in 2016.
The Joachim Tielke baroque guitar
Crafted by Tielke, one of the absolute best instrument manufacturers in history, this guitar dates back to sometime between 1695 and 1699 in the German city of Hamburg. Almost 200 of Tielke’s instruments can still be found today.
Staying true to the baroque style, this guitar has intricate ornamentation with white and black stripes on its back and laterals. The sound hole also features creative decoration.
Up until the second half of the 20th century, guitars had been constantly evolving.
Ancient guitars may have developed in different regions at the same time. In fact, the Greeks, the Persians and the Indians all had a name to define the stringed instrument.
When those inventions were brought to Europe, languages like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French introduced words in their lexis to refer to the guitar. To this day, all those languages, including English, preserve a similar sonority.
The acoustic guitar in Europe
Merchants from all over the world brought ancient guitars to Europe. The instruments were depicted in paintings and talked about in manuscripts. The earliest instrument that most experts seem to agree to describe as an actual guitar is the Spanish chitarra.
Chitarra music started being composed in the country by the 16th century. The instrument had four courses of adjacent strings.
The Baroque period introduced a guitar that was significantly easier to tune and to play. By this time, guitar music was already very popular across several countries in Europe. A multitude of models was crafted and countless guitar compositions were created.
Then, in the later years of the 18th century, Spain came up with yet another groundbreaking advancement in guitars. The new six-stringed instrument was called vihuela and was very similar to the modern guitar.
The contemporary acoustic guitar
When compared to today’s acoustic guitars, the only relevant differences in the stringed instruments of the 19th century were the smaller size and waist.
That was up until the Spanish musician Antonio de Torres Jurado designed the first contemporary acoustic guitar with the size, proportions and richness of sound we are accustomed to today.
By means of European immigrants, Torres’ creation made it to the USA, where players started using steel strings. To handle the added pressure of the steel, Christian Frederick Martin developed a flat top, X-braced acoustic guitar in the 1830s.
This model was perfectly suited for more vigorous strumming. That was when the classical style of playing began to be replaced.
Years later, the archtop guitar became a sensation among rock, jazz and country musicians because of its louder and energetic sound.
Both of these contemporary designs stood the test of time and are still impressively relevant in music, even with the advent of the fabulous electric guitar.
The guitar is the ultimate musical instrument of our time. It revolutionized the most varied genres during the 20th century. The evolution of what we know as a guitar has stemmed from ancient stringed instruments. Medieval Spain was where the modern guitar started to gain shape.
The history of string instruments goes back to Mesopotamia and Babylon. The word guitar comes from the Greek term kithara. Most experts agree that the two instruments that contributed the most to the development of the modern guitar were the lute and the oud.
The lute was an instrument with a lot of different sizes and shapes. Essentially, it had a curved back and up to five courses. Its origin dates back to the Egyptians. Throughout the centuries, it passed to other civilizations and ended up being introduced in Europe.
The European lute was the version closest to the present-day guitar.
This was an Arabic instrument that the Moors brought to Spain by the time of their invasion. Soon, the Moors noticed that the oud shared common features with European ancient instruments.
The oud had a rounded body, a small neck and no frets. The mark that the instrument and the style of playing it left in Spain was arguably the starting point for modern Western guitar playing.
The next centuries
By the Renaissance, the European lute had evolved and had up to 30 strings. It eventually lost its momentum and was replaced by the Baroque guitar, an advancement that was easier to play and to tune.
In Spain, instruments with frets and shapes that resembled those of the modern guitar started appearing during the 15th century. With time, a curved instrument with a hole in the body in front of which the strings were strummed was developed in the country.
The creation was called vihuela and is one of the closest cousins of the guitar. By the end of the 18th century, vihuelas with six strings finally kicked off the fast evolution from classical to modern guitars.
The first ever modern guitar
By the beginning of the 19th century, guitars were already extremely similar to the ones we play today. However, they were significantly smaller in size. It was Antonio de Torres Jurado, a Spanish Musician, who in the middle of the 1800s started designing and creating the guitar that would come to originate all the other modern guitars in history.
Finally, all the features were lining up, since this time around guitars got bigger in size.
The body was broadened, the curve was increased, the belly was thinned and the wood in the tuning pegs was replaced by machine heads. This new design gave Torres Jurado’s guitar a rich, articulate and resounding tone.
You certainly know this description all too well. That is because this was the very first modern guitar in music history.
Another Spanish musician, Andres Segovia, introduced the new guitar in live concerts and created the compositions which sound we now define as classical guitar music.
European immigrants took the modern guitar to America, and the rest is the astounding history of acoustic and electric guitars.
Follow New Music Fridays as we will continue the history with those two.
Leo Fender and Les Paul rightfully deserve all the credit for the proliferation of the modern electric guitar in the second half of the 20th century. But in fact, two other men should be credited for the actual invention of the electric guitar.
In 1890, a naval officer named George Breed submitted a patent for a new instrument that utilized wire strings and a magnetic pickup. Even though it was small, this guitar design required some complicated circuitry and battery operation that made it very heavy.
George Beauchamp enters the story a few decades later. His new guitar design worked impeccably. It was known as the frying pan Hawaiian guitar.
The need for an electric guitar stemmed from the fact that the instruments used to play jazz and Hawaiian music in the 1920s were totally muting the sound of the acoustic guitar.
The Frying Pan
Beauchamp came to develop his frying pan-like guitar after studying Breed’s ideas with his partner Paul Barth. After building the pickup, they called another craftsman to build the wooden neck and body.
The first electric guitar in history was born, known now as the 1931 frying pan.
The team behind it was able to collaborate with people who helped them mass produce the frying pan under the name Rickenbacker A-22. Even despite the great depression, a new version with an aluminum body was developed.
Soon enough, the frying pan was being played in live jazz shows and recordings. Its momentum stretched into the early 50s up until the iconic Les Paul’s model came to be created and shake up the music world.
History has produced hundreds of incredibly gifted guitarists. Here are the thoughts of three of them to keep you inspired.
The legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix once said that music is always true, it doesn’t lie. Any change that needs to happen in the world is possible through the power of music.
It’s only fitting that Hendrix talked about the truth in music. Even though he was not one of the most technically skilled guitarists, he was one of the most truthful and natural. That is why he is known as one of the best musicians to ever walk this earth.
He was the personification of his music, not just an artist playing. And as with any human, Hendrix was flawed and layered. So, his music couldn’t have been technically faultless. Creatively, though, it definitely was.
The iconic member of The Rolling Stones said that music is an absolute basic necessity. For him, it was so essential that it was only behind nourishment, air and warmth.
This urge to feeling the music as an ultimate condition for living is truly reflected in Richards’ work. He created some of the best melodies and lyrics in history. He was never afraid to innovate, which is a huge factor to the longevity and success of his band.
It’s no wonder that people are willing to pay a lot to see Richards, either solo or with the Stones. When he plays, he is fulfilling the crowd’s need for music.
The revered musician thinks he has some share of the responsibility to keep music alive and thriving. He wants to preserve the tradition of the blues and feels like that is an immensely honorable task to carry on his shoulders.
With his simplicity and honesty, Clapton revolutionized music and become one of the most influential figures in rock. He achieves the remarkable feat of writing and producing music that is always both innovative and rooted in tradition.
All three of these legends defined what it is to grab a guitar and create magic.