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Brief History of Guitar

Updated on January 15, 2019
Guitar Wizard profile image

Music school owner, recording artist, guitarist, composer, performer & educator. My goal is to make good music, make and keep good friends.

Guitar Then and Now

Starting with the twanging of a string on a bow, predecessors of the guitar went through many transformations. In ancient times there were three types of stringed instruments with countless variations: the harp, the lyre and the lute as they are called today. Of the three, the lute was the closest to the guitar. By the 15th century several instruments were vying for popularity, notable the lute and the six-string vihuella - but by the 16th century these finally gave way to the four-string guitar because of its smaller, lighter construction, and the ease in which it could be tuned.

By the end of the century a fifth string had been added, and by the end of the 18th century a sixth string. The Spanish guitar makers were the most influential, and their instruments were among the most popular in the world.

Throughout its history, the guitar has been looked upon from great disdain to loving adoration. It has represented upper class virtue or lower class vulgarity. The guitar has been the instrument of angels or the tool of the devil, and has risen from the gutters and the peasants, the poor and the underprivileged to the courts of Kings and Queens and back down again.

In today's society this contrast coexists with the respected classical guitarist on one hand to the "sex, drugs and rock & roll" attitude of many guitar wielding rock bands on the other. It has become the medium of self expression whether it was Andres Segovia executing beautiful melodies to hushed reverent crowds in concert halls, or Jimi Hendrix smashing his screaming, burning, feedback guitar at rock festivals. As well, it has become the most popular instrument in the world rivaled only by the piano.

The First Electric Guitar

Electric guitar plays a prominent role in so much contemporary music of the last 80+ years. It all started with its invention in 1931 by George Beauchamp, Paul Barth and Harry Watson of the National Guitar Corporation (later renamed Rickenbacker in 1934). This first electric guitar nicknamed the frying pan became commercially available in 1932.

Charlie Christian is often credited as the first jazz guitarist to record with an electric guitar while playing with Benny Goodman in 1939. Up to this point guitars in big band orchestras functioned as background rhythm instruments because they simply could not be heard in any other context. Christian was an amazing soloist who opened the doors to the possibilties of the guitar being an accepted jazz solo instrument and influences guitarists to this day.


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