A guitar is a popular musical instrument that makes sound by the playing of its (typically) six strings with the sound being projected either acoustically or through electrical amplification (for an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar, respectively). It is typically played by strumming or plucking the strings with the right hand while fretting the strings with the left hand
Nobody really knows where the earliest origins of the guitar lie. As long ago as 1400BC the Hittites were playing a stringed instrument with a long neck and a body with a waist. Whether or not this was the direct ancestor of today’s guitar we have no way of knowing.
We do know that during the 15th century, a guitar-like instrument was developed in Spain called the vihuela or viola da mano. This was played by genteel folk. There was also a similar instrument (but with a different tuning) called the guiterra or ghiterne, which was played by the common people. By about 1550, the two had merged into one instrument. It had eight strings, tuned as four pairs (or courses). By the end of the century a fifth course had been added. It had also become popular abroad, where it came to be known as the Spanish guitar. King Henry VIII’s inventory of instruments included four gitterons or Spanish vialles.
One of the great advantages the guitar had over the lute was that it was easier to play. People of mediocre musical talent seized upon it and quickly learned to strum a few chords, much to the disgust of those who thought they had more cultured tastes. Samuel Pepys, for example, was “mightily troubled that all that pains should have been taken over so bad an instrument”. Another commentator thought that “its sounds are related to the kettle, and it always seems to whine”. The guitar, however, had come to stay, and its popularity grew throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Around 1800, the five courses were replaced by six single strings, tuned the way we are familiar with today. Up to this time, guitars had very narrow bodies and were also rather quiet. When the piano was introduced, the guitar went into rapid decline, but new developments were just around the corner.
About 1840, a Spanish carpenter named Antonio de Torres began making guitars. He revolutionized the sound of the guitar by giving his instruments a much larger body than had previously been used. He also devised a pattern of fanstruts which were glued under the soundboard, both strengthening it and enhancing its tone. He had an inborn sensitivity to the acoustic properties of the wood he was working with. Although much of his wood came from old furniture which he dismantled, few makers since have been able to equal the beautiful tone, sonority and character of his instruments. Although some modern makers have devised new patterns of strutting, Torres’ design still forms the basis of most fanstrutting used to this day, and many people look up to him as the undisputed master of guitar makers.
Knowing and appreciating the history of the guitar may not be essential to being a great guitarist. For some, it may not even be of interest. But, I’ve always believed that understanding and being familiar with the history of music, and its musicians, gives one a broader perspective, and a more comprehensive philosophy on what it means to be a musician.
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