The first six string acoustic guitar is believed to have been developed in Italy by Italian luthier Gaetano Vinaccia. However the design and standardisation of the modern acoustic guitar, is credited to Spanish Luthier Antonio Torres Jurado.
While the evolution of the guitar began perhaps thousands of years earlier, Antonio Torres Jurado working in Sevile, Spain in 1850, revolutionised the design of the modern classical guitar. 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. Previously plucked stringed instruments featured significantly smaller bodies. Antonio Torres Jurado developed a unique bracing system (fan bracing) that allowed for the larger body and tension capabilities of the modern acoustic guitar. This form of bracing is still used in classical guitar construction to this day.
Guitars, they appear so ingrained in modern music yet perhaps if not for some of the earliest stringed instruments and the musicians that played them, the design of the humble guitar we know today may possibly have taken a very different turn.
In the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at the history of the guitar including who invented the acoustic guitar, why it was invented, where it was invented and the debate surrounding the evolution from primitive stringed instrument to its current body style and size.
The origins of the guitar, and stringed instruments
Mankind has stretched strings over objects that resonate (chordophones) to produce sound for thousands of years.
Just where the ‘fork in the road’ that eventually led to the current incarnation of the acoustic guitar is unknown and therefore the subject of much debate. Despite the obvious similarities between some of the earliest, ancient stringed instruments, it’s quite possible that many of these instruments evolved in different cultures in isolation.
Many of the details and potential connections are lost to history, at least until around 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.
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 stringed 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 a number of different types of chordophone. 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 and sculpture and artefacts discovered in ancient Persia and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
While bowl harps (another stringed instrument of a similar period in time) 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 similarity between the ancient greek word kithara (ancient Greek and Roman stringed instrument related to the lyre) and guitar is the primary reason many believed the guitar to be a descendant of the kithara.
However this has largely been disproven thanks to the work of Dr. Michael Kasha in the 1960’s 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 that the kithara eventually evolved into the guitarra. For most people, visually the kithara would be considered more closely associated with the harp due to lacking a distinct neck.
Stringed instruments of the middle ages
It is here 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, considered 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 which did not influence the evolution of the guitar in any significant way.
As already 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 stringed 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 much shorter necks than traditional guitars, while the bodies of both are in the form of tear drop and do not feature bouts (e.g. upper and lower bouts). These stringed instruments also included a more rounded back, right angled headstock and elaborate sound hole design, often consisting of multiple different sized holes. The lute unlike the oud, featured frets.
The term ‘vihuela’ was used to describe three variants of stringed instruments that utilised 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 guitar, and featuring a pear shaped body and flat back the cittern was a popular instrument, that bore even more of 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 stringed instrument dating back to the middle ages. Bearing a close resemblance to the medievil lute, the mandolin utilised 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 a number of stringed instruments started taking on more of the conventional guitar shape. At this time 4 and 5 string instruments were becoming more common.
The modern classical guitar
Why the acoustic guitar was invented
Regardless of how the instrument evolved and its cultural origins the acoustic guitar owes much of its standardisation of shape and size to Spanish Luthier Antonio 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 sound board, supporting the resonant capabilities of the sound board, allowing the timber used to be thin enough to vibrate 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 sufficient volume to be accepted as a ‘serious’ musical instrument capable of accompanying other instruments of the same period.
As we can see, the history of the acoustic guitar is complex and due to a lack of historical records difficult, if not impossible to trace. In reality, it is difficult to condense much of the information to a relatively short blog post.
However, to the question of who invented the acoustic guitar, most people credit Antonio Torres Jurado due to the design of the guitar becoming standardised and remaining largely unchanged since being first developed. While other advancements have since come along in the form of X-bracing, facilitating the development of the even louder steel string guitar it’s fair to say that without the important work of Antonio Torres Jurado and the development of many of the earlier stringed instruments of the ancient world, through to the middle ages the guitar we know and love may have turned out very differently.
As always, I welcome your comments below.