The guitar is perhaps one of the most recognized musical instrument apart from the piano. What many people don’t realize is that this symbol of rock and roll has been around for over 4000 years, in some form or another.
Origins The first real guitar-like item to be discovered was the tanbur. One of these was found in Egypt, near Queen Hatshepsut‘s tomb. The tanbur was built of polished cedar and had a soundboard made of leather. Though featuring just three strings, it resembles a crude guitar. The tanbur can be seen in the Archeological Museum in Cairo and is about 3,500 years old.
Shortly after the tanbur was popular in Egypt, the lute was developed in Europe. This instrument was made up of a rounded body with short neck.
Many inventions throughout history utilized the basic idea of a soundbox body, long fretted neck and varying numbers of strings. That includes the sitar, setar, and the char, a four-stringed musical device that was renamed ‘chitarra’ or ‘guitarra’ when it reached Spain.
Early Guitars The original versions were rather stumpy in appearance, with just eight frets above the soundbox and most had only four strings. These were popular in the 16th century, but by the following century, the instruments had evolved to have six strings and 12 frets along the neck.
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During the 1800s, the guitar was in the same form we see it today, only smaller in size. The shape of the body was curved. In the 1850s, a Spanish instrument builder named Antonio Torres took the initiative to create a larger body, changed the proportions, and invented the top bracing pattern that gives today’s guitars more volume, in a fan shape. However, just a few years later, a German by the name of Christian Frederich Martin designed a version with an X brace. When steel strings began to appear in 1900, the older, fan-shaped brace was unable to stand up to the tension provided by the steel strings.
Altering a Classic Once the basic form was established, people began to come up with their own versions. Orville Gibson developed an arched top guitar with sound holes; Lloyd Loar altered that design further to create the jazz guitar with f-holes, cello tail and a floating bridge.
Then, in the 1920s, the electric guitar was built, without the need for a soundbox since it had electrical pickups. This form didn’t become famous for another couple of decades, but then some variations were made on this, as well.
The guitar has a long and varied history. Still, it has fascinated people for centuries, and we probably haven’t seen the end of the variations on the basic form.
Like the physical appearance of the instrument, the style of how to play it also changed dramatically over time. In the old days, guitarists learned from each other directly. Lessons were expensive and in the old days only the nobles were able to be trained properly. Most people had to figure it out on their own, causing a large variety of styles to emerge. In our times, the Internet has changed the way we process information and allows us all to learn anything directly via video.
When it comes to learning guitar today, most young musicians move to online guitar lessons instead of a live tutor or coach. Does this slow down the invention of new styles? It does not, because people can now share their ideas faster and inspire others to build upon their work. This way, the guitar and all other instruments are seeing tremendous growth.