Curious as to who invented the acoustic guitar and when?
The first steel-string acoustic guitar was developed by Christian Frederick Martin in 1843. While stringed instruments have been around since ancient times, C.F. Martin’s unique bracing system (X-bracing) and truss rod design provided the necessary support for the guitar to handle the tension placed on the guitar from steel strings which allowed the guitar greater volume and projection.
However, the classical guitar, an important step in the evolution of guitars in general, was designed much earlier:
The first classical guitar was developed in Italy by the Italian luthier Gaetano Vinaccia in 1779. However, the standardization of the modern classical guitar is credited to Spanish guitar maker Antonio de Torres Jurado working in Seville, Spain in 1850, thanks to the development of fan bracing. Fan bracing allowed guitars at the time to be built with larger soundboards, allowing for greater volume.
But…there’s far more to this story.
While fan bracing and X-bracing are imperative to the design of the modern acoustic guitar, It’s also fair to say, if not for some of the earliest stringed instruments and the musicians that played them, the design of the acoustic guitar we know today may have taken a very different turn.
With this in mind, in the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at the history of the acoustic guitar including who or what shaped the evolution of the acoustic guitar, when it was invented, and where it was invented. We’ll also touch on some of the finer details surrounding the evolution from primitive stringed instrument to the acoustic guitar’s current form.
When was the acoustic guitar invented?
The invention of the guitar can’t really be credited to one individual alone or be given a specific date.
Much is owed to the natural evolution of stringed instruments in general.
As a result, there are some important names and dates that paved the way for the modern guitars we have available today. These include:
|The first stringed instrument that most closely resembles what we have come to know as the acoustic guitar dates as far back as 3500 years ago, and belonged to Egyptian musician Har-Mose.|
The ‘guitar-like instrument featured 3 strings and a plectrum that was attached by a cord to the neck of the guitar. The body of the guitar was constructed from cedarwood and is still in existence today, preserved in the new (as of 2020) Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza.
|Italian Luthier Gaetano Vinaccia – developed what many consider the first real guitar in 1776 in Naples (a smaller and narrower version of the guitar than we see today). The Vinaccia family was a renowned family of luthiers, also credited with the invention of the Mandolin.|
|Antonio de Torres Jurado|
|Antonio Torres Jurado is credited with standardizing the acoustic guitar in 1850. By reducing the thickness and increasing the surface area of the guitar’s soundboard (the top of the guitar body) the resonant capabilities of the instrument were greatly enhanced.|
Antonio De Torres Jurado was able to do this thanks to a unique bracing system (fan bracing) he developed, that allowed for the larger body of the modern acoustic guitar. This form of bracing is still used in classical guitar construction to this day.
|Christian Fredrich Martin|
|Credited for developing the first steel-string acoustic guitar. C.F. Martin of C.F. Martin & Company developed X bracing in the 1930s. This was a significant development for the acoustic guitar allowing for the introduction of steel guitar strings and as a result increased volume, paving the way for modern acoustic guitars.|
And while the names listed above are of great importance when it comes to the development of the acoustic guitar, mankind has stretched strings over objects that resonate (chordophones) to produce sound for thousands of years.
What is a chordophone?
A Chordophone is a musical instrument that creates sound due to the vibration of strings fixed at separate endpoints. Chordophones consist of five subcategories:
- Musical Bowls
The guitar is a member of the group known as ‘lutes‘, subcategorized even further to distinguish between instruments that are played with a bow, such as a harp or a lyre, and those plucked such as the guitar.
The guitar is a member of the ‘lute‘ family, categorized even further to distinguish between instruments that are played with a bow, such as a harp or a lyre, and those plucked such as the guitar.
Just where the ‘fork in the road’ that eventually led to the current incarnation of the acoustic guitar began is largely unsettled. And, despite the obvious similarities between some of the earliest, ancient stringed instruments, it’s possible many of these instruments evolved in different cultures, in complete isolation.
Sadly, many of the details and potential connections are lost to history, at least before the turn of the 16th century when the first vihuela and 4 and 5-course guitars came to prominence bearing a closer resemblance to the modern instrument.
What’s in a name?
The word ‘guitar’ is taken from the Spanish word ‘Guitarra’ which likely evolved from the ancient Persian term for four strings, ‘chatar‘, which is derived from the ancient language of Sanskrit (one of the oldest Indo-European languages). In Sanskrit, the word ‘tar’ means ‘string’.
A number of ancient eastern instruments (and many still in existence to this day) use a prefix to describe the number of strings the instrument consists of e.g. the ‘dotar’ is a two-stringed instrument originating in Central Asia.
The ‘setar‘, considered the precursor to the ‘sitar‘, consists of three strings while the ‘chartar’ as noted above, is a 4-string instrument.
The term ‘tanbur‘ is used to describe several different types of chordophones. Again, the exact origins of the tanbur are also largely unknown due to the ancient origins of the instrument. However, the earliest visual representations can be seen in ancient Egyptian art, sculpture, and artifacts discovered in ancient Persia and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
While bowl harps (another instrument from a similar period) featured a curved neck, the tanbur consisted of a straight neck which allowed pressure to be applied to the string which altered the pitch of the note being played.
The chartar and kithara
Some historians believe the chartar to be the ancient ancestor of the modern acoustic guitar, and, after finding its way to Spain, eventually evolved into the Guitarra.
The similarities between the ancient Greek word kithara (ancient Greek and Roman stringed instrument related to the lyre) and guitar is the primary reason many believed this to be the case.
However, this has largely been disproven thanks to the work of Dr. Michael Kasha in the 1960s who demonstrated that over time the kithara evolved to introduce additional strings, whereas the earliest guitars were typically 4 strings.
It would be highly unlikely that due to the addition of strings the kithara eventually evolved into the Guitarra. For most people, visually the kithara would be considered more closely associated with the harp due to its lacking a distinct neck.
Stringed instruments of the middle ages
It is the middle-ages, where much of the debate is triggered surrounding the evolution of the guitar. While some believe the guitar to be an invention of Europe during the middle ages, there is also significant evidence to support the influence of the Arabic ‘oud‘ and its contribution to the development of the guitar.
The oud is believed to have been first introduced to Spain after the Moorish conquest of the 9th century and descends from the earlier tanbur.
Following this line of reasoning, the oud (the precursor to the lute) could be considered an important step in the evolution of the guitar. However, many historians consider the lute an offshoot or separate line of development that did not influence the evolution of the guitar in a significant way.
As discussed the oud was first introduced to Spain after the Moorish conquest of the 9th century.
The oud is considered the precursor to the lute and may play an important role in the evolution of what we now identify as the guitar. But far from just being an important stepping stone, the oud was a significant instrument in its own right that bridged the cultural divide between the East and West during the middle ages.
Strictly speaking, the term ‘lute‘ refers to any instrument featuring a body and neck and played by vibrating strings across two fixed points. Most people, however, associate the lute with the stringed instrument of the middle ages.
Both the lute and oud feature shorter necks than traditional guitars, while the bodies of both are in the form of a teardrop and do not feature bouts (e.g. upper and lower bouts).
These instruments also included a more rounded back, right-angled headstock, and elaborate soundhole design, often consisting of multiple different-sized holes. The lute unlike the oud also featured frets.
The term ‘vihuela’ was used to describe three variants of stringed instruments that utilized a neck and fretboard. Of these, the vihuela da mano became most popular and was played with the fingers. The vihuela de peñola was played with a plectrum, while the third category of vihuela, the vihuela de arco was played with a bow.
At much the same time, 4 and 5-course guitars were being developed which had an obvious visual connection to the modern acoustic guitar.
The cittern (cithren)
Looking similar to the modern-day mandolin, the cittern was thought to have been influenced by the earlier citole of the middle ages. Bearing some resemblance to the modern classical guitar, and featuring a pear-shaped body and flat back the cittern was a popular instrument, that bares a resemblance to the acoustic guitar. Still, in existence to this day, the cittern is now known as the waldzither or lutherzither.
The mandolin was another popular instrument dating back to the middle ages. Bearing a close resemblance to the medieval lute, the mandolin utilized 4 strings (like many of the renaissance period stringed instruments) and was thought to have influenced the design of the cittern.
It was during the early renaissance period that many stringed instruments started taking on a more conventional guitar shape. At this time 4 and 5 string instruments were becoming more common.
The modern classical guitar
Why and How the Modern acoustic guitar was invented
Regardless of how the instrument evolved and its cultural origins the acoustic guitar owes much of its standardization of shape and size to Spanish Luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado and the development of ‘fan bracing‘.
Bracing is the term used to describe the arrangement of wooden struts that are fixed to the underside of the guitar’s soundboard, and back, allowing the timber used to be thin enough to resonate strongly, but strong enough to support a large surface area.
Fan bracing consists of positioning between 5 – 7 struts in a fan-like manner, pointing toward the 12th fret of the instrument. The added tensile strength afforded to the soundboard allowed guitar bodies to increase dramatically in size and gain significant volume. This allowed guitars to become accepted as ‘serious’ musical instruments capable of accompanying other instruments of the same period.
The acoustic guitar was simply referred to as the guitar up until 1933 when the electric guitar was first developed. The word ‘acoustic’ was then used as a prefix, to ‘guitar’ to differentiate between the classical guitar and steel-string guitar.
The Modern Steel-String Guitar
Christian Frederick Martin (C.F. Martin) was a German-born American luthier who established C.F. Martin Guitars & Company, perhaps the most highly regarded acoustic guitar manufacturer in existence today.
While the classical guitar was already a popular instrument at the time, it wasn’t able to compete with the banjo or violin in terms of volume. The guitar needed to increase in size and utilize higher-tension strings to gain the volume and projection required to be considered a serious instrument.
At first, X-bracing, (an invention of C.F. Martin) was designed to facilitate catgut strings. While not made from the intestines of cats, catgut strings are made from the natural fiber found in sheep and goats’ intestines, although other animals, including horses, were also used.
Thanks to X-bracing and the subsequent addition of steel strings and a larger soundboard area, the acoustic guitar was finally able to produce the kind of volume needed to compete with instruments such as the banjo and violin.
This allowed the acoustic guitar to be taken more seriously as an instrument in its own right. C.F. Martin also was responsible for the development of the ‘truss rod‘ the adjustable steel rod inserted into the neck of the guitar, beneath the fretboard, and used to support and stabilize the neck when under the heightened tension of steel strings.
And, the rest as they say is history.
While innovations continue, such as acoustic pickups, cutaways (providing upper fret access), beveled ‘comfort’ edges to provide a more comfortable playing experience, CNC production (computerized routing), and Torrefaction to name just a few. The acoustic guitar hasn’t changed fundamentally in the years since C.F. Martin developed X-bracing.
The history of stringed instruments is complex and due to a lack of historical records difficult, if not impossible to trace. In reality, it is also difficult to condense much of the information into a relatively short blog post.
However, to the question of who invented the acoustic guitar, C.F. Martin was responsible for the development of the steel-string guitar, while Antonio de Torres Jurado is largely responsible for the standardization of the classical guitar which paved the way for all guitars that followed.