The History and Origins of The Guitar

Playing guitar

Music is a vital part of most cultural expression, and no other musical instrument has contributed to music development through the Age of Enlightenment as much as the guitar. But what makes the guitar an iconic symbol of the 20th Century musical genres like rock, jazz, and blues?

Though much of the guitar's history is unclear, the instrument has been a part of human life for centuries. The advent of the electric guitar later contributed to the creation of almost every other modern musical genre.

Early History

Images of stringed instruments have been found in carvings that are more than 3000 years old during the Mesopotamian and Babylon Empire periods. The modern word 'guitar' comes from the ancient Greek instrument 'kithara' that was initially made from tortoise shells.

The first-ever kithara had a wooden soundboard and box-shaped body with two hollow arms connected by a crossbar extending from the resonator. It originally had three strings joined at the crossbar, running to its lower end and passing over a bridge on the soundboard. Later versions had as many as 12 strings. The strings were played with a plectrum, the early version of the modern guitar pick.

History of the Shape of Guitars

The history of the guitar is generally associated with two instruments, the lute, and the oud, which precede written history. The lute generally had a curved back and was available in several shapes and sizes. The first-ever pictorial record of a lute-like stringed instrument was found in 3500 to 3200 BCE in Southern Mesopotamia – Iraq.

The image portrays a crouched female on a boat while the position of her hands on the stringed instrument indicates she's playing it.

Long and short varieties of stringed instruments appeared in pictorial records throughout Egyptian and Mesopotamian history.

Evolution of the Guitar

The lute significantly evolved by the end of the Renaissance. Most of the lutes had 20 or 30 strings but the lute-like shape faded in popularity. By the 15th and 16th centuries, musicians began to favor instruments with a more curved shape that we now refer to as guitars.

These guitars, then known as Baroque guitars, replaced the lute as the most popular stringed instrument for musicians from 1600-1750. More refinements such as moveable frets and five courses of guts strings made them easier to play.

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