The guitar has captivated audiences for several centuries, with its wide range of sound and vast musical versatility, crossing many genres and time periods. Although simple in concept, the guitar continues to challenge musicians to gain mastery over this wonderful instrument and to, just maybe, write that next big hit. From J.S Bach to The Beatles, the guitar has played a huge role in shaping nearly every piece of music heard in the present. In this article we will explore the guitar’s rich history and the many roles it has filled over the years, along with a few of the men and women who helped to shape music.
The Early Origins
The earliest known appearance of a stringed instrument comes in the form of a Hittite stone carving dating from the 12th century BCE, this carving forms the roots of the guitar family tree. The guitar and other stringed instruments belong to a family called “chordophones”, relatives include the piano, the violin, the harp, and the sitar. Historians believe the guitar to have descended from two instruments; the oud and the lute. Upon viewing these instruments the similarities are immediately noticeable. However, it wasn’t until around the 12th century CE when the earliest guitars began to appear in Europe, in modern day Spain. In this time there were at least two variations of the guitar; “guitarra latina” and “guitarra moresca” or the Latin and Moorish guitar, however by the 14th century it became known simply as the guitar.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, the guitar’s notoriety and popularity had spread to much of the world, with aid from the Spanish Empire thorough conquest and trading. During the same time period the now obscure vihuela garnered a fair level of popularity in Spain and Italy, while the lute still dominated music in much of the rest of Europe. Many academics feel this lead to many developments in instrument design and construction on the guitar we see today. While closely related to the guitar, the vihuela would fall from favor after a brief stretch of popularity before the dawn of the 17th century, with the last surviving piece of music dating from 1576. Around the time of the vihuela’s extinction, the 5 stringed Baroque guitar began to overtake the lute in popularity in much of Europe, with the lute falling out use in most places by 1800.
As with most items predating the industrial era, each guitar was hand made, one at a time, by a skilled artisan known as a luthier. Strings were made from the intestines of slaughtered animals, gaining them the name gut strings or catgut (although cat intestines were not used for strings), in fact, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that steel strings were first introduced.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the introduction of the more familiar appearing flamenco and classical guitar. Their creation lead to greater exposure and popularity than had been previously seen for the guitar, coupled with more songs be written for the instrument. These would evolve into the what is now the modern acoustic guitar, setting the stage for further innovation and development as technology progressed. The electric guitar was invented in 1931, to produce enough sound to play over Big Band ensembles that were common at the time. By the 1950s the electric guitar had led to the creation of it’s most recognized genre, Rock and Roll, cementing the guitar in mainstream music up to the present.
Popularity of the Guitar
After hundreds of years of evolution the guitar took hold into the public’s conscious to stay with the rise of stars such as Les Paul, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Both electric and acoustic variants have seen much stage time in genres ranging from classical works to metal and everything in between. But why is this? The reasoning for this is simple to understand when several factors are considered. As loosely mentioned above, the guitar’s musical versatility draws many to it, the guitar falls into most peoples musical tastes through being used in so many types of music.
Storage and transportation must be taken into consideration on this note, when compared to a piano, a drum kit or the like, mobility, and storage is much less of a concern then with many instruments. Another factor to consider in regard to the guitars near universal popularity is it’s learning curve to play. To reach the ability of a player Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton may be out of reach to most and truly mastering the instrument takes many thousands of hours of dedicated practice, a beginner can learn a few chords and play many songs without a great amount of effort, in a short frame of time and have it sound good.
Cost also is a factor, as with most everything we buy (or do not buy), an entry level or second hand guitar can be had at a cost affordable to most people wanting to play. Lastly is the image and the big dream many aspiring guitarist look up to, to make music and become famous like they’re favorite performer(s). No doubt this plays a role in instrument sales, individuals longing for the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll lifestyle associated with rock stars and all the perks it brings. Most never do achieve this dream but it certainly hasn’t stopped generations from trying and the trusty, venerable guitar is ready and waiting for those who wish for an attempt at the limelight.
From humble beginnings, the guitar may well be the most widely recognized instrument in the world today, both by appearance and sound. In much of the world as a mainstay in most songs being recorded and has been for the better part of a century. The guitar’s true uniqueness is in its accessibility and versatility which makes it appalling to basically any musical requirements and to a very wide range of individuals. While difficult to predict, it seems highly unlikely that the guitar will wain in popularity within the foreseeable future, given its current status in music as a whole. Whether it be played for fun and entertainment, for the challenge to master it or to deliver a message though song, the guitar is always a great choice.