A brief history of the guitar, including the instrument’s ancestors and the main figures in its development. Today, the guitar is one of the most (if not the most) popular and widely played instruments in the world. However, as this potted history of the guitar shows, this was not always the case.
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The Guitar’s Ancestors
Throughout history there have been many stringed instruments that resemble the modern guitar, either in how they were played or in their physical attributes. However, the modern classical guitar’s direct ancestors are the vihuela and the lute.
The vihuela, also known as the viola da mano, was played in Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. The instrument had six courses (double strings) and like the modern guitar was tuned in fourths (although the third string of the vihuela was tuned a semitone lower than that of a modern guitar, to an F sharp). Music for the vihuela was notated mainly in tablature, and composers for the instrument included Luis de Milan and Luis de Nárvaez. Transcriptions of their music, and that of other vihuela composers, are often performed by classical guitarists today. There are only three vihuelas still in existence.
The lute, played in Europe from the middle ages, originally had either four or five courses and was played with a plectrum. Use of the fingertips to sound the notes developed in the late 15th century, as players developed their technique to perform the polyphonic music of the time. As playing styles developed, so did the instrument itself, with more courses being added, and the necks being widened or elongated. By the end of the sixteenth century a variety of instruments were in use, some of which had up to 14 courses (28 strings!), and some being up to six feet in length. Like the vihuela, most of the music composed for the lute was written in tablature.
Prominent composers for the instrument include Francesco da Milano and Dowland from the renaissance period, de Visee from the baroque period, and the early eighteenth century composers Bach and Weiss.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the popularity and affordability of keyboard instruments and orchestral music led to a wane in interest in the lute. Only recently (in historical terms) has there been a revival of interest in the instrument, led by players such as Julian Bream.
The Golden Age of the Classical Guitar
The six-string guitar appeared in the late eighteenth century, and the ‘golden-age’ of the classical guitar also began at this time. Instruments of this period were smaller and more slender than the modern guitar, but were tuned in the same way. Guitar methods (how-to-play manuals) written by the guitarist-composers of the time (most notably by the Spanish Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado) form the basis of modern guitar technique. This period of popularity for the guitar continued up to the mid-nineteenth century, and during this time composers such as Sor, Aguado and the Italian Mauro Giuliani produced a large amount of music for the instrument. However, perhaps due to the lack a compositions written by the established ‘great composers’ (neither Schubert nor Berlioz, whilst being accomplished guitarists themselves, produced any notable works for the instrument), and perhaps due to the use of the instrument by folk musicians, the guitar failed to become properly regarded as a ‘serious’ instrument. Interest in the instrument lessened after the mid-nineteenth century.
The Classical Guitar resurgence
The resurgence of the classical guitar, and the instrument’s rise to become one of the most widely played in the world today, is in a large part due to Spanish guitarist-composer Francisco Tarrega (1854-1909) and luthier Antonio de Torres. Tarrega added hugely to the instrument’s repertoire with original pieces and transcriptions and with his music and performances created ‘respectability’ for the instrument. Torres formed the basis for the design and construction of the modern classical guitar, creating instruments which were reliable and audible in a concert situation.
However, despite the work of Tarrega and Torres, without Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, the guitar still may not have gained the respectability that it enjoys today. Segovia, through constant touring and concert-giving, and by requesting and receiving commissions from the day’s foremost composers, is responsible for securing the guitar’s place as a serious instrument.
Classical Guitar Today
The modern classical guitar, as well as having inherited music written for both the vihuela and the lute, has also inspired a large repertoire of its own. Music has been composed for the instrument from the classical period onwards, and amongst this are many famous and instantly recognisable works. The guitar is a very portable instrument, and quiet enough to be practised in the flats and shared spaces many of us live in today. Despite this, the modern instrument is capable of a wide range of expression and of concert performances, and is relatively cheap to buy. Other attractions of the instrument are the ease with which a beginner can strum a few chords or pick a famous melody, and the huge array of teaching material currently available. Of course, many classical guitarists started playing electric or steel-strung acoustic guitars, and the use of the guitar in virtually every form of music mean that its popularity is assured.
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Steel-String Acoustic Guitars
Steel-string guitars came into use in America around the beginning of the twentieth century. They were used primarily by guitarists in folk ensembles needing an instrument that could be heard over the voices and other louder instruments such as banjos and fiddles. Acoustic guitars were generally bigger and more solidly built, to withstand the strain of the metal strings. Early acoustic guitar makers include Martin and Gibson, and both companies still manufacture guitars today.
The steel-strung acoustic guitar was still too quiet to compete with the big bands of the early nineteenth century, and guitarists wanted louder instruments to prevent their playing from being lost in the sound produced by the ever-larger orchestras and brass sections. Several attempts were made at amplifying the guitar, and in the 1930’s a method of amplifying the vibration of the guitar strings using magnetic pickups was invented. The electric guitar was born. One of the first companies specialising in electronically amplified instruments was Rickenbacker, and other companies, in particular Gibson, were quick to follow. Guitarists in jazz bands could now be heard, and the instrument began to be used not just for rhythmic accompaniment, but also for lead improvisation. Charlie Christian was the one of the first guitarists to become known for using the electric guitar, and is now regarded as being a pioneer of the instrument. From this point onwards, the use of the electric guitar in all forms of popular music has continually grown, and the instrument has become one of the staple parts in rock and popular music line-ups.