The History of the Guitar: Where Did it Come From?

The guitar seems like one of those instruments that has been around forever and has been universally popular and there are many great guitars available today.

A short history of music in the last century will show guitars, either acoustic or electric, jazz, rock or blues, making some kind of impact. However, the rise of guitar music in the mid-20th century clearly wasn’t the birth of the instrument.

How long have our ancestors been playing guitars and how did they develop into the instruments we love today?

Where & When Was the First Guitar Seen?

A statue playing a lute

The origin of the guitar kind of depends on where you want to start and your interpretation of the word guitar.

There are some that will say that the modern guitar as we know it came from its ancestors in the form of the European lute and the Moorish Oud.

These instruments were mostly in use in Europe around the 8th century.

This later developed into the Latin Guitar and the Moorish guitar in the 1200s. As the centuries progressed, it clearly became its own instrument and set apart from the lute. References in current culture were made regarding the “guitar” or “guitarra”.

However, this history cuts the lifespan of the guitar a little short here. That is the birth of the modern guitar.

Yet, in its most simple form, the guitar really is an instrument that conforms to a certain look. There are strings along a flat soundboard and fretted neck, most often with curved sides.

These curved sides would clearly develop and become more curvaceous and interesting as the centuries progress, but it all began with a range of other instruments. In fact, this description matches the instruments used by the Babylonians.

Any stringed instrument of ancient civilizations is related to the guitar in some way. The Babylonian one is just the one we have clear proof of.

Regardless of the true origin, these European guitars evolved to resemble models that are more familiar today.

The Development of the Guitar

By the middle of the 16th century, Europe had pretty much given up on the lute as an old-fashioned instrument and turned to the five-course baroque guitar.

This model was widely used in Spain and made its way through central Europe, influencing the music of the time. Naturally, this baroque guitar would later develop into the models we know as the flamenco guitar. It is a simple evolution of a Spanish style into a more suitable, modern instrument.

These options often have just the five or four courses of strings in a much smaller body. Then there is the Classical guitar, also known as the Spanish guitar that is used in more classical recitals.

A guitar leaning against an old car

On the other side of this acoustic guitar, an old-fashioned idea that has developed into a modern instrument that guitarists cannot be without.

The acoustic approach of the five string flamenco or classical guitar doesn’t work for modern music. Songwriters need a bolder, bigger 6-string approach for increase musically – preferably one that they don’t have to play sitting down.

The acoustic guitar is still with us, but modern guitars are developing in vast ways with effects and electronics.

The rise of the electric guitar signaled a massive opportunity for new musical styles and ways for guitarists to express themselves.

These simple electromagnetic pick-ups make such a difference for the sound produced and the amplification of the music. It has transformed genres, such as rock and blues music, and more modern punk, grunge and garage rock scenes would have never existed.

This is now the most popular option in guitar for professionals and bands, and the styles and shapes have developed to suit the sound of the bands. Some fans were once amazed by additions like whammy bars or 12-string options. However, this all seems tame by today’s standards.

Modern guitars can do pretty much anything if the effects and electronics can be hooked up correctly. As a result, there are many different bands and artists trying new things with tone, reverb, Kaoss pads and more.

We have reached a point where customized guitars are on a whole new level and it is interesting to see what people will come up with next. However, there is still a limit to this creativity. If a guitar has a flat soundboard, a fretted neck, a curved body but no physical strings, is it still a guitar?

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have huge respect for all the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and enjoy the occasional whiskey or two...

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