A history of the guitar: from the 16th century to now

The guitar is one of the most recognisable and versatile instruments used in Western music. Found in almost every genre from classical to rock, its origins date back all the way to ancient times. Read on to find out more about this popular instrument. You might have owned your guitar for a few years, maybe even a decade or more. But how far back does the guitar really date?

Origins of the guitar

There is no defining moment when the guitar as we know it was invented. Even its origins are difficult to trace thanks to a lack of records and research. Historians have suggested the first instruments to bear a striking resemblance to the modern-day guitar appeared in 12th century Spain. Whilst some have argued that the modern guitar is a descendent of the medieval lute or even the Greek kithara, some historians have disputed this fact and suggested that the instrument came from a different source. The word ‘guitar’ is likely derived from the Spanish name ‘Guitarra Latina’, which was used to refer to chordophones, the instruments most commonly associated with the guitar.

The most significant development towards designing the modern-day guitar came in the 16th century. ‘Guitars’ were split into two varieties – the lute, a rounded medieval instrument that produced little volume, and the vihuela, whose design looked much closer to the one we know today.

The shape had something of a ‘waist’ to it and the strings were designed to be strummed, rather than plucked. While these early instruments were popular, they were not the most useful in a band setting and composers often ignored them in favour of louder and more stylised instruments.

Different shapes and styles of guitar

The development

The design of the modern guitar is attributed to a Spaniard named Antonio Torres Jurado. In around the 18th century, Jurado looked at the two guitar prototypes that were being used and decided that, if he could combine the best elements of each, it would elevate the instrument to a whole new level. He increased the body size of the instrument and lengthened the neck. Because the strings often caused the instrument to collapse on itself thanks to tension and pressure, he used wooden reinforcements to secure it together, ensuring it could withstand being played. With these changes, the guitar suddenly improved in both volume and projection, casting out a louder, more well-rounded sound that has become synonymous with the instrument today.

Musicians across France, Spain, Italy and Portugal also made changes to the new design of the guitar, improving its structure and sound quality to produce an instrument that was lighter but could withstand more complex playing.

However, the guitar remained an unpopular choice for composers and musicians the world over. It was often seen as an inferior instrument to the orchestral options used by the major musical figures at the time and classical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. Though Jurado’s design – which we now consider to be the classical guitar – made the instrument sleeker and more comfortable for the player, it did not help the popularity of the instrument. 

Guitars in the Twentieth Century

A major turning point for the popularity of the guitar came in the dawn of the 1900s. The guitar had earned a reputation for being an instrument you could easily learn how to play and as it spread across the globe, more people tried their hand at the instrument. The old strings were swapped out for steel or nylon synthetic ones which were more comfortable on the fingers and in some cases produced a more distinctive sound. The classic guitar that Jurado had pioneered just centuries before was developed once again to create the acoustic guitar, which was louder than its predecessor.

Many people had tried to electrify the guitar, but it wouldn’t be until the 1930s that guitar pioneers Leo Fender and Les Paul began developing the acoustic guitar for electric purposes. The very first electric guitars started to appear at the end of the 1930s with just one major design flaw – they were hollow. This caused vibration and feedback when they were plugged into amplifiers. So, Leo Fender created a durable, hard-body guitar that is still made and distributed to this day.

Fender also developed two different models of guitar that could be used for multiple genres- the Telecaster and the Stratocaster. He is also credited with helping to develop the electric bass, which was derived from the traditional guitar design.

In more recent years, guitars have become lighter, sleeker, customisable and even more durable. Some designs have even become iconic staples of music and rock culture- see Slash’s Gibson Les Paul, Eric Clapton’s classic Fender Stratocaster, Springsteen’s Fender Esquire or AC/DC’s Angus Young’s classic Gibson SG.