Who Invented The Guitar?
When we mention the word “guitar”, it conjures up different images for different people. It could be the image of frenzied playing of a rock band or the seasoned plucking of classical guitarists. The guitar has come a long way over centuries and has established itself as a major part of the music culture. However, one question that left unanswered is who invented the guitar? Today, let’s find out.
The Origin Story Of The Guitar
While some people have argued that the guitar originated in Spain, some have placed its origin story in Egypt. This is because the oldest existing guitar-like instrument comes from Ancient Egypt.
It is said to have been used by a singer, Har-Mose to entertain the Egyptian Queen, Hatshepsut. This guitar is currently displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
The word “guitar” is from the Spanish word, “Guitarra”. There are three major types of guitar, classical guitar, acoustic guitar, and electric guitars. Each of these types has its varying subtypes.
However, before we jump right into the origin story of other guitar types, we have to give you a chronological explanation of how guitars came to be in existence. The humble beginning started in the form of the Lute. The lute made its way into Europe between the 6th and 9th centuries.
It had passed from Egypt to Greece. From there, it went down to the Byzantine Empire in Rome. Then the Romans introduced it to Europe. It had a curved back, came in a variety of shapes and sizes and was usually strummed with a quill feather. It was quite popular for centuries.
The lute showed up in Spain as “The Oud”. The Moors invasion of Southern Spain in 711AD came along with the introduction of the Oud. The Oud did not have frets but had a rounded body like the lute.
The neck was also smaller. The lute and the oud were the popular musical instruments of the European Middle Ages. The next evolution in the guitar origin story is the Baroque Guitar and Spanish Vihuela.
Towards the end of the Renaissance, the lute had evolved into having twenty or thirty strings. However, people’s excitement about the musical instrument had waned. The lute was replaced by the Baroque guitar. It is one of the predecessors of modern-day classical guitar. It reigned in Europe from 1600 to 1750.
The vihuela surfaced in the 15th and 16th centuries in Spain. This fretted instrument had the familiar curve of the modern guitar but was tuned like a lute. However, around the 1790s, the Spanish guitar, Vihuela was standardized as to type. It had six courses of strings, which we all know, is like the modern guitar of today. This jumpstarted new innovation concerning the modern guitar.
So Who Made These Guitars?
The invention of the guitar can’t be credited to a single person. As they were improved versions of formerly used string musical instruments that were mentioned above. However, if we narrow the guitar down based on type, we can pin their inventions on certain talented individuals. Now, let start with the Classical guitar.
The invention of the classical guitar also referred to as nylon-string guitar or Spanish guitar served as the advent of the modern guitar in history. The classical guitar was invented by a Spanish luthier and musician, Antonio de Torres, in the 1800s.
He was born in Spain in the year 1817. Even though he has not been given the credit he deserves in modern times, his invention gave rise to all the modern guitar we have today. Antonio reshaped and made a larger version of the Vihuela by giving it a more hourglass figure.
This involved broadening its body, increasing its waist curve, thinning its belly, and extending the length of the strings. He also replaced the catgut with nylon. The new invention strung with 3 gut and 3 metal-sun silk strings and he replaced the wooden tuning pegs with a machine head. This resulted in a guitar with a distinct thick sound.
The classical guitar became popular as other guitar makers started manufacturing guitars by adopting Antonio de Torres modifications. The classical guitar gained more prominence when Andres Segovia, a famous Spanish guitarist made Antonio’s invention a concert instrument.
This move displayed the expressive and technical potential of the classical guitar. He also created several musical compositions by taking classical compositions from Bach and transcribing them onto the classical guitar. These compositions are now classified as classical guitar music.
Another figure that helped popularize the classical guitar was Francisco Tarrega who composed the famous “Capricho Arabe”. Other famous musicians that composed symphonies with the classical guitar as the lead instrument include Joaquin Turina, Federico Moreno, Manuel de Falla, and Joaquin Rodrigo.
Over the years, many musical styles have been played using the classical guitar. Julian Bream who was Segovia’s student took a different approach towards playing the classical guitar. He combined jazz elements with classical guitar music. David Russell is another accomplished guitarist who combined folk and Celtic musical elements with classical style, using the classical guitar.
Due to the spread of the classical guitar, most European immigrants took the steel-stringed version of the reinvented Spanish guitar along with them to America. This action propelled the origin of the guitar further in history.
This is because this move initiated the birth of acoustic guitar. Unlike the classical guitar, we would be acknowledging two invention stories of the acoustic guitar, the flat top, and the archtop acoustic guitars.
The Flat Top Acoustic Guitar
The flat-top acoustic guitar was invented by Christian Frederick Martin. He was a German-born American Luthier. His invention was made in the United States in the 1830s. due to the excessive tension on the strings of Antonio Torres’ fan-braced guitar, Frederick Martin decided to invent an X-braced guitar body.
The flat-top guitar had a larger body size, a narrower neck compared to the classical guitar and stronger inner structure design. This worked out well as his invention was able to handle the extra stress caused by modern steel strings of the classical guitar.
With these new changes came a new style of playing. When playing the acoustic guitar, a pick had to be used. The need for picks led to the invention of a pickguard. It goes without saying that this new playing style changed the type of music played. The acoustic guitar gave way to a chord-driven type of music as opposed to delicate compositions played on the classical guitar.
The Arch Top Acoustic Guitar
The archtop acoustic guitar was invented by Orville Gibson. He created this guitar in the 1890s in his back-room shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was spurred on with the discovery that if the guitar was patterned after existing archtop instruments like the cello and violin, the bridge of the guitar will not exert torque on the top of the guitar.
This enabled it to vibrate with more freedom and produce louder notes in the process. This resulted in an acoustic guitar with an arched top, adjustable bridge, and violin-like sound holes. The interesting part about the archtop acoustic guitar is that it was hand-carved into its arched shape using spruce or light woods like cedar and redwood. This requires patience and a huge amount of expertise.
Gibson’s modifications were soon adopted by famous luthiers like Epiphone and Gretsch, John D’Angelico and Jimmy D’Aquisto.
Archtop acoustic guitars were used by jazz and country musicians and were later used by big bands and swing bands.
Speaking generally about the acoustic guitar, a lot of famous and talented guitarists have picked it over the classical guitar. Some of them include Tommy Emmanuel, Mike Dawes, Andy Mckee, Richard Thompson, and many others. Also, out of the two acoustic guitars, the flat-top acoustic guitar remains the most popular and preferred form of acoustic guitar.
The Electric Guitars
The electric guitar was introduced into the musical world in the 1930s in the United States. While few people have argued that Les Paul qualifies to be credited as the inventor of the electric guitar because he made his first attempt, this has been ignored by most.
This is because his invention was a failure. The widely accepted inventors of the electric guitars are George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker. The dynamic duo made up of a musician, Beauchamp, and an electrical engineer, Rickenbacker was the first to successfully create a commercially viable modern amplifiable electric guitar with a good sound quality that could be used in any professional music setting.
The need for an electric guitar arose due to the fact that modern musicians found the guitar to be too quiet for their varying musical styles despite the several modifications that had been made to the steel-stringed guitar.
This guitar failed to rise to the occasion with the introduction of jazz music, so it was relegated while brass musical instruments and the saxophones rose to prominence. There were several attempts to amplify the classical guitar using microphones and telephone transmitters but this did nothing to help the situation.
However, the story changed when George Beauchamp, who had already designed a crude electric guitar in his house, met Adolph Rickenbacker at the Dopyera Brothers in Los Angeles. They decided to come together to create an electric guitar. Together, they were able to create an electromagnetic device which converts the vibrations of regular guitar strings into a resonant sound.
By electrifying the Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar, the Hawaiian bands were the first to play the new electric guitars. From there, the new invention made its way into the western swing and jazz bands. And soon enough, other manufactures like Gibson, AudioVox, Dobro, Vega, Epiphone adopted this latest modification in the late 1930s.
The invention story of the electric guitar does not stop here. To put an end to the negative feedbacks on traditional hollow-bodied guitar formerly used, a solid body electric guitar was introduced. Rickenbacker (name of the company founded by Beauchamp and Adolf Rickenbacker) created a model f electric guitar using bakelite in 1935. Another company called Vivi-Tone came up with a solid body electric guitar in 1934 by placing a single sheet of plywood over a wooden body.
However, in 1940, Les Paul created a functionally solid guitar using 4 x 4 wood posts and an Epiphone acoustic archtop. The invention is called the Log Guitar. Due to this extraordinary invention, Les Paul is credited as the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and it does not seem like this recognition is going to change any time soon.
This was followed by Leo Fender’s invention, the Fender Squire, in 1946. His invention made a record as the first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar with a single electromagnet. As years passed by, the Fender Squire developed into Telecaster, the Stratocaster, Precision Bass, and many others.
The next improvement in the evolution of the electric guitar came in 1951 through Gibson Brands Inc, formerly Gibson Guitar Corporation.
The company created a guitar that could be played as a regular acoustic guitar or played as an electric guitar by plugging it into an amplifier. This changed the game and by 1955, the electric guitar had led to the creation of several genres of music.
The electric guitar has gained prominence in the rock and roll world. This is quite obvious as there is no popular rock or jazz band that hasn’t shown a preference for the electric guitar. Some of the popular songs that used an electric guitar include Cream’s Sunshine of your love, Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll, Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child, Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit and several others
With several innovations and continuous modifications, the guitar has come a long way in retaining itself as one of the most iconic instruments in the musical world.