What Is the History of the Guitar?

The history of the guitar encompasses ancient stringed precursors and culminates in the electrification of the modern six-string design in the 1930s.

Feb 23, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

history of the guitar


While the precise origins of the guitar are unknown, it is undeniable that the guitar, be it classical, steel string, or electric, has been a major influence on the sound of modern musicAlthough a popular solo instrument in its own right, the guitar also features as a primary instrument in diverse genres spanning Blues, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Punk, Reggae, and more. Modern music as we know it would be almost inconceivable without the indispensable sound of the modern guitar. 


Roots of the Modern Guitar


The roots of the modern guitar can most accurately be traced to the lute family, a group of stringed instruments “composed of a body and a neck which serves as a handle and as a means for stretching the strings beyond the body.” Originating in ancient Mesopotamia (3100 BC), the first lutes were pierced, long-necked instruments with a stick neck inserted into a hollow turtle shell. Over time, short-necked versions appeared in Central Asia and Northern India, eventually finding their way to Europe through ancient Greece and Rome. 


In 711, when the Moors conquered Andalucia they introduced another variant of the lute family – the Oud, a fretless, short-necked lute with a pear-shaped wooden body. Amidst the cultural amalgam of 8th-century Andalucia, the region emerged as a center of musical innovation. First came the Vihuela, a flat-backed lute, and then the rise of the Baroque Guitar, which eventually surpassed the lute family to become the most popular instrument of its kind in Europe. 


Romantic and Modern Classical Guitars

An original modern classical “Spanish” guitar, by Antonio de Torres, Source: Wikimedia Commons

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By the mid-nineteenth century, early forms of the modern classical guitar were beginning to take shape. Both in terms of new styles of playing and new methods of construction. During the early romantic period, ladder-braced guitars offered a bright and intimate tone, with a substantial portion of their tonal energy concentrated in the overtones. 


This characteristic reflected the playing style prevalent in the “romantic” period of guitar music (1780-1850). Early romantic guitars featured six strings, that were single as opposed to doubled, and inlaid, brass frets rather than tied gut frets. 


After 1850, the modern classical “Spanish” style demanded a stronger fundamental tone, leading to the adoption of the “fan brace” system. In this regard, the guitars crafted by Antonio de Torres were highly significant. Torres’ implementation of fan bracing was so superior to other makers, that his guitars were widely imitated and copied the world over. 


Strings: from Catgut to Steel and Nylon

A modern flat top acoustic with steel strings, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Historically, the predominant material used for stringed instruments was known as “catgut”. In reality, the guts belonged to cows and sheep (the term is most probably an abbreviation of “cattlegut”). Besides strings, catgut was also used to make tennis racquets and surgical sutures. In terms of production, the intestines were cleaned and steeped in water, before being sanitized and drawn out. Carefully selected strands were then intertwined to create a string, which was then dried and polished. Although initially developed for the piano, steel guitar strings emerged as an alternative to catgut around 1900. Besides offering a louder, brighter sound, steel strings also proved more durable, easier to tune, and cheaper. 


Classical “Spanish” guitarists continued to use catgut until approximately World War Two when the demand for catgut to make surgical sutures increased exponentially. In response, Nylon strings were introduced as a more economical and resilient alternative that endures to this day. 


Modern Steel String Acoustics

A section of the original Martin guitar workshop, note the iconic X brace design, far right, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The inception of the modern “flat top” steel string acoustic guitar is widely credited to German-American guitar maker Christian Frederik Martin (1883). Martin’s innovation was to replace the traditional “fan brace” found in classical guitars with an “X brace” design, specifically engineered to withstand the tension and stress of modern steel strings. 


Martin’s design was closely intertwined with a distinct “American” style of playing. The prevalence of picks increased, as steel strings encouraged the production of bright, chord-driven music – as opposed to the delegated picked melodies characteristic of classical guitar. A second design – the “archtop” – by Orville Gibson further shifted the landscape of modern guitar playing. Coupled with an adjustable bridge and f-hole, Gibson’s archtop design drew inspiration from the body of a Cello, resulting in enhanced volume and tone. The Gibson L-5 “archtop” gained rapid acceptance among Jazz and Country musicians in particular. 


The Modern Electric Guitar

Les Paul and Mary Ford, pictured with a Gibson Les Paul (1954), Source: Wikimedia Commons


While early experiments with the electric amplification of stringed instruments commenced in the early 1900s, the first commercially marketed electric guitar was the Rickenbacker Electro A-22, otherwise known as the “frying pan.” The breakthrough was the electromagnetic pickup, utilizing coils wound around a magnet to generate an electromagnetic field capable of capturing the vibrations of guitar strings for subsequent amplification. 


In the 1930s, early electric guitars were produced by Audiovox, Epiphone, and Gibson. Les Paul’s experimental creation of the first solid-body guitar was a significant milestone. In homage to his efforts and contributions to Jazz, country, and blues, Gibson’s solid-body “Les Paul” was introduced in 1952. 


Responding to the call for louder, cheaper, more durable guitars, Leo Fender completed a prototype for his trademark thin solid-body electric with a “fast” neck in 1948. The Prototype became the Fender Telecaster, one of the most popular electric guitars in history to this day.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.