The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time

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One of the most popular musical instruments in the world, the guitar has an extensive history. The guitar has taken many shapes, sizes, and names over the years, dating back to the early sixteenth century in its current form, and as early as ancient Egypt in previous forms.

The first guitar-like instrument is over 3,500 years old and was discovered in the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut in the Valley of Kings. Progressing into new forms throughout Ancient Greek and medieval periods, the guitar has had a significant impact on the development of musical instruments throughout history.

But, with such a long-spanning history, where exactly did the name ‘guitar’ come from and what does it mean? Here is brief research on history of the guitar name.

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Guitar History: Naming the Musical Instrument

The musical instrument is said to have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. With various uses throughout history and many likenesses in ancient documentation, there is some contention surrounding the instrument origin and where its name comes from.

The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time
Ouds – Cantigas de Santa Maria (1257–83)
The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time
Syrian oud made by Abdo Nahat in 1921

Ancient civilisations

Some believe the oud to be the first version of the guitar. With between ten and twelve strings, no frets, a short neck, three sound holes, and a round body, the oud was a common instrument in Ancient Egyptian civilization. The oldest remaining ancestor of the guitar is over 3,500 years old and was used to entertain Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 B.C.).

Despite its origins in Ancient Egypt, the name of the guitar seems to have no links to its ancestor’s title. According to the MI College of Contemporary Music, the word ‘guitar’ stems from the ancient Greek word ‘κιθάρα’ (kithara).

Ancient mythology associates Hermes as the creator of the instrument from a tortoiseshell. Apollo has often been depicted holding a guitar-like instrument. The ancient Greek instrument is believed to have had a wooden soundboard and box-shaped body with two hollow arms protruding. Hermes’ guitar originally had three strings and later twelve.

Others believe the word ‘guitar’ derives from the ancient Sanskrit word ‘tar’, meaning string, with a prefix to determine the total number of strings. Archaeological finds have identified several string musical instrument in Central Asia that remain, to this day, largely unchanged.

The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time
Francesco Canova da Milano
The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time

Medieval times

During the Middle Ages, string instruments grew in popularity and were frequently used to entertain royalty and nobility in the high court. Stringed instruments like the lute, harp, chittarone, cittern, rebec, dulcimer, gittern, viol, and clavichord all made an appearance throughout Medieval Europe.

Part of the large family of plucked-string instruments, including the mandoline-like citole, the lute has similarities to the modern guitar albeit with just four or five strings. Known in Spanish as the ‘guitarra latina’, many believe the name guitar takes inspiration from its Spanish forebear. Closely related to the vihuela, the medieval lute was most popular in Spain with interest quickly spreading throughout France, England, and Germany.

READ MORE: Why Does The Guitar Have 6 Strings?

The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time
Matteo Sellas (1630–50)

The Renaissance: 15th and 16th century Spain

During 15th and 16th century Spain, we encounter the Spanish-style guitar of unknown origin. The guitar-like instrument developed even further. Thought to be a descendent of the gittern, lyre, and lute, taking inspiration from each variant, the Spanish Renaissance guitar is the first incarnation of the guitar as we know it.

Unlike previous forms, the Spanish lute started to take the shape of the modern-day guitar as we know it. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the string instrument gained increasing popularity and was used to accompany both dances and vocal music.

READ MORE: Why Are Acoustic Guitars Shaped the Way They Are?

The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time
Photo by Brett Sayles
The Origins of the Guitar: Tracing Its History Through Time
Photo by Azad Azahari

Mid-18th century and beyond: the modern Guitar (New Gear and new instrument)

During the eighteenth century, the piano and other instruments grew in popularity, forcing the guitar to take a backseat. Antonio de Torres had other plans. A Spanish guitarist and guitar maker of the 19th century, the shape, style, and form of the modern guitar are attributed entirely to Torres. Now the guitar appeared to take a new direction making an important step on guitar history. Now the instrument was formed as we know it today.

In an attempt to reinvigorate the love and passion for the instrument, Torres completely redesigned the musical instrument. Increasing the guitar’s body size with a figure-of-eight-figure that hosts a soundboard over 20% larger than previous forms, Torres designed the guitar as we now know it in the twenty-first century. Evolving into a six-string instrument, we owe the modern guitar largely to Torres’ innovation.

The long and short

With variations of the stringed instruments in Ancient Greece, Asia, Egypt, and Babylon, the guitar has been a firm part of society for thousands of years. Although the origin of the name is not yet agreed upon, there are clear associations with the Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and Spanish names for the instrument.

Despite its long history and changing form throughout the years, one thing is for sure: stringed instruments have been part of civilization for hundreds of years. And the best part? The guitar will likely continue to take on new forms and shapes as time goes by, providing musical enjoyment for years to come in many song to come.

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