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Brief History of Guitars

The history of guitars is rich with cultural influence that has shaped the design and sound of the instrument we are familiar with today.

The history of the guitar goes back to at least the 1200’s, where the term “guitar” could refer to many different instruments. All across Europe, the guitar became a favorite instrument for bards and musicians.

Numerous historical records, including paintings, and illustrated books give us a good idea of what instruments looked like through time, and all of the different designs that became labeled as guitars.

Today guitars are a conventional instrument that is frequently learned by individuals of all ages. Guitars are used to play a variety of different musical styles and genres that come from cultures across the globe.

The guitars we are used to seeing, are not what guitars looked like a few centuries ago. Modern guitars are made with very different materials and contain synthetic components that have changed the way they sound.

About Early Guitars

The earliest guitars were not made from the synthetic materials that we see today, and they did not use electricity or amplification equipment when played. Instead, the first guitars were made from wooden pieces, including a fretted neck, and flat soundboard.

Guitars used as early as the 1600’s, resemble the guitars that we commonly see today. Their shape and outward appearance are similar; however, there are some differences in the materials used and durability.

Early guitars are a type of chordophone, which is a group of instruments that were common across Europe starting around the 12th century. These kinds of devices would later become widely used in the Americas.

Where Can I See Older Style Guitars?

Museums are a great place to see older versions of the guitar, and to learn more about the history of guitars in general. A good example would be the Museau de la Musica de Barcelona in Spain, which houses an extensive collection of early to modern guitars.

If you’ve ever seen a mariachi band, then you’ve seen several different kinds of guitars. A typical mariachi band may contain smaller guitars called requinto, or ones as large as a cello, called guitarron.

Mexico is not the only country to have multiple different kinds of guitars. Columbia has a rich history of guitars in different sizes as well. Their small guitars are called bandola, and the medium-sized version is called a tiple. Columbia also has a history of musicians that play the full-sized classical guitar.

Early Instruments Described as Guitars

The word “guitar” was borrowed from the Spanish word “Guitarra” and adapted for English, German, and French. The Spanish word derives from Andalusian Arabic, and the Latin word “cithara” stems from Ancient Greek.

The word guitar has played a considerable part in the history of guitars and has also caused some confusion. Guitar has been used to refer to many different instruments that all belong to the chordophone group; however, these instruments are not all the same.

In 1200 there is historical evidence that shows two instruments referred to as guitars in Spain; however, they look visually different. In the 14th century, there is also evidence that the word guitar was used to describe the Spanish version of the guitar as well as the Latina version.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, the word guitar described a number of different instruments all across Europe. They came in different shapes, were built with different materials, and all sounded very different from each other.

Types of Guitars

When you look at guitars, they typically fall into two groups: acoustic and electric. There are further subcategories for each group. Acoustic guitars have been around for centuries longer than their electric versions, but each one has a place in our modern society.

Acoustic

Acoustic guitars describe a category that includes many different guitars that span across different cultures and countries. Classical guitar, Flamenco guitar, Harp guitar, Russian guitar, and Tenor guitar are all considered to be part of the acoustic group.

With an acoustic guitar, construction is going to be important. Changes to materials and construction methods can directly affect the sound quality of the instrument and may also affect the durability.

Cheaper guitars made with less expensive materials are not as durable in the long-term. The inexpensive materials also create a guitar that is like going to need more tuning and possibly more maintenance.

Expensive acoustic guitars don’t necessarily guarantee quality, but they are better made and include strong necks, well-crafted bodies, and a responsive soundboard.

Acoustic guitars can be tuned for different registers and different keys that will change the sound. It is also possible to change out the strings for different materials which will also alter how the instrument sounds when played.

Classical

Classical guitars are also referred to as Spanish guitars and conventionally will have nylon strings. The nylon strings offer a unique sound, and musicians commonly play in a seated position, without using a guitar pick.

Classical guitars have a wide and flat neck which offers the musician the ability to play patterns of different notes such as arpeggios, chords, and scales. The extra space allows their fingers to move without being crowded.

Classical guitars are similar to Flamenco guitars in their construction but have a different tone that is more robust. In Portugal, you may see a classical guitar that is strung with steel strings instead of the usual nylon. Steel strings offer a different sound and are common when used for playing specific styles of music.

Traditional mariachi bands from Mexico are an excellent example of different classical guitars that come in different sizes. Each size of the guitar has a unique sound to it when played and blending them can create profoundly layered music.

Columbia also has a tradition where four guitars play together as a quartet, and the guitars used will vary in size. It is also possible that guitar quartets will feature multiple full-sized classical guitars.

Electric

Electric guitars have only been around since the 1930’s, and they require other equipment to be played with excellent sound quality. Electric guitars have bodies that are hollow, semi-hollow, or even solid because their body is not what produces the sound like in an acoustic guitar.

Instead, using an amplifier connected to the guitar, a sound is produced by taking string vibrations and converting them into signals which is done by the electromagnetic pickups. The pickups then feed this signal into the amplifier via a cable or transmitter.

You can use several different electronic devices to change or alter the sound of an electric guitar, and these are used for stage performances. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, and R&B are all genres where electric guitars are commonly used with modifying devices.

It is also possible to use different pickups that will make an electric guitar sound more like an acoustic guitar. These pickups can be activated typically by switch or knob turning, and don’t require the musician to use a different guitar.

Hybrid guitars may contain both kinds of pickups, but this is not all that common. Some guitars will also have many necks, and creative string arrangements and these are also unusual features for guitars.

Construction

Guitars have been constructed out of wood for centuries, and strings have been made from a variety of animal parts, including hair. The neck of the guitar is where the most strain will take place as the strings pull on the thin piece of wood.

Modern guitar necks may be reinforced, but early versions were mostly layered pieces of sturdy wood. It’s not desirable for the neck of the guitar to bend, as this changes the pitch. Instruments are considered higher quality based on the neck’s resistance to bending.

Older guitars were hollow and constructed from a variety of different species of wood depending on the location. The body of the guitar is attached to the neck using an anchoring device like a bolt, or glue. Older guitar necks may have been anchored to the body by wooden or metal pegs.

The fingerboard or fretboard typically has thin metal frets that mark the neck and where a musician places their fingers. Early guitars may have used metal frets, or wooden frets, and possibly natural resin.

Early guitars were much more likely to be decorated with paint, wood, or other materials. Inlays of ivory were expensive but often used in pricier instruments. Early guitars also had inlays along the neck like newer guitars which help guide the musician on where to put their fingers.

A standard guitar will have six strings, but this can vary. Guitars can have four, seven, eight, nine, and up to eighteen strings today. Earlier guitars very likely had between four and eight strings, unless they were double strung, in which case they would have twelve.

Modern strings are made from metal or synthetic materials, but early guitars likely used animal or plant products. Modern steel strings can also be a mix of metals that include steel, bronze, or nickel. Steel strings likely weren’t widely available for guitars in the 1600’s, but by the 1700’s metal strings were used in both guitars and other string instruments.

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