When you look at guitar history, you’ll realize how far this ancient instrument has come. There are as many theories about where the instrument actually originated from as there are people with their own theories. The history of the guitar is over 4,000 years long! Knowing the history of the guitar is important for any musician. You should know as much about your instrument as your instrument will learn about you. Knowing this history can also help you choose the right guitar for your playing style. Here is some of the history.
While some people claim that the guitar is a refined version of a lute, this was later revealed to be false. Dr. Michael Kasha revealed that the lute is part of a different line of development. They both share common ancestors but have had no influence on each other’s development. Was the guitar created from inspiration from lap harps instead? It seems unlikely, but let’s look into it.
The first stringed instruments (that archeologists have discovered so far) are bowl harps and tanburs. These bowl harps were created with tortoise shells, silk strings, and a bent stick. You can see these in some museums today. They were used in Sumeria, Babylon, and Egypt before 2,500 CE.
Later, these harps became more intricate and even made of gold with 11 strings. These are tanburs. These likely evolved from bowl harps. They have straightened neck, which allowed the player to press the strings down to allow for more notes to be played. Egyptian paintings show these instruments being used with others in ensembles.
The oldest guitar is about 3,500 years old from Egypt. It was found in the tomb of Har-Mose, who is assumed to have been its owner. This guitar has three strings and a flat neck. The sound box is round and made from cedar wood. Egypt wasn’t the only culture creating guitar-like instruments at that time.
To decode which early instruments were actually linked to the development of the modern guitar, this instrument needs to be clearly defined. We can thank Dr. Kasha for clearly defining that all guitars have a long, fretted neck, a flat soundboard made of wood, a flat back, and incurved sides. Then, we can look at evidence like stone carvings, paintings, and actually ancient artifacts to discern when and where these instruments originated.
That brings us to the oldest known image of a guitar in the form of a stone carving from Alaca Huyuk in Turkey. It depicts a person holding an instrument that matches Dr. Kasha’s description. This image was carbon dated and found to be 3,300 years old. This image could help give us more insight as to where the instrument originated. This is further evidence that the guitar wasn’t inspired by the lute, which has a short neck, rounded back and doesn’t have incurved sides.
The word guitar actually comes from ancient Sanskrit. Tar is the Sanskrit word for string. There are many “tar” instruments that have been around for thousands of years. Each of these instruments has a prefix that tells you how many strings that variation has. Dotars have two strings, Sitars have three, and Chatar have four strings.
Later these “tars” would make their way to Europe, where it underwent more transformation and variations. Most variations included guitars with three to five strings. They can be seen depicted in many medieval manuscripts, sculpture, and architecture.
When the beginning of the Renaissance rolled in, a new type of guitar became popular. This guitar had four sets of strings tuned in unison. The frets also began to grow longer. Where they once had 8 frets, they now had between 10 and twelve. In Italy, during the 16th century, people started using five-string guitars and settled on the same basic tuning we use today.
Italians continued as the driving force in the refinement of the instruments. In the 17th century, they introduced the six string guitar. By the beginning of the nineteenth century is when guitars really took the modern shape we recognize today. Spanish musicians honed the very first classical guitars, which became the standard. When steel strings were introduced, you would probably not be able to tell the difference between vintage and modern models while choosing an acoustic guitar. These allowed the guitars to make more noise and fueled the creative fire that allowed musicians to create new types of music.