How Old is the Guitar? – by Mike Overly

November 20, 2014

Babylonian GuitarWhenever I ask a new student, how old do you think the guitar is? They just shrug their shoulders and reply, I don’t know. Then I show them a picture of an ancient Babylonian clay tablet, circa 1800 BCE, of a person playing a guitar-like instrument. They are amazed to learn that the guitar begins almost 4000 years ago! This is long before staff notes, keyboards, metronomes and many other musical thoughts and ideas that we use today.

There are many theories about the guitar’s beginnings. Some believe that the guitar is an extension of the ancient Greek kithara since there is a similarity between the Greek word kithara and the Spanish word for an early four-string guitar, quitarra. However, since the kithara is a square-framed stringed instrument of the lyre family, without a neck attached to a body, it’s hard to imagine how the quitarra, let alone the guitar, could have developed from it. And not to get too far ahead of our story, but it could be that the Greeks Hellenified the name chartar, which was an ancient Persian (Iranian) guitar-like instrument.

The Harp and Tanbur
The earliest stringed instrument known to archaeologists, circa 2500 BCE, is the harp. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have made harps using tortoise shell and calabash resonators with a bent stick for a neck, and one or more gut or silk strings. The world’s museums contain many such instruments from the ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures.

The tanbur is a stringed instrument that has a long straight neck with a small pear-shaped body, arched or round back, and usually with a soundboard of wood or hide. The tanbur developed from the harp but with a straightened out neck to allow the strings to be pressed down to create more pitches. The tanbur is found both fretted and fretless. Tomb paintings and stone carvings in Babylon and Egypt show tanburs being played in ensemble almost 4000 years ago. Archaeologists have also found many similar instruments in the ruins of ancient Persian and Mesopotamian cultures.

The oldest preserved tanbur belonged to the Egyptian singer Har-Mose, who was buried with his tanbur 3500 years ago. His tanbur had three strings and a plectrum (pick) suspended from the neck by a cord. The soundbox was made of polished cedar wood and had a rawhide soundboard. It can be seen today at the Archaeological Museum in Cairo.

The Chartar
As the harp and tanbur spread around the ancient world with travelers, merchants and seamen, so did the chartar. It arrived in Spain from Persia where it changed form and acquired pairs of unison-tuned strings (courses) instead of single strings, and became known as the quitarra.

The Lute
In the 9th Century, the Moors brought the fretless Oud to Spain. Frets were added to the oud and it became known as the lute. Lute derives from Al’ud, which is Arabic for wood. Laúd is the Spanish name for lute. A lute is defined as a short-necked instrument with multiple strings, having a large pear-shaped body with highly vaulted back and an elaborate, sharply angled peghead. Although the guitar and lute later coexisted, the guitar was overshadowed until the end of the 17th century when the lute had acquired too many strings and became too hard to tune and play.

The Early Guitar
To distinguish guitars from guitar-like instruments like the tanbur, we need to define what a guitar is. A guitar has a long straight neck with a fretted fingerboard, a flat back, a flat wooden soundboard, structural ribs, top bracing, and most often in-curved sides. The oldest known representation of an instrument displaying the essential features of a guitar is a 3300 year old stone carving of a Hittite guitar found in Turkey.

The name guitar comes from the ancient Sanskrit word tar, which means string. There are many stringed instruments that exist to this day which have been used in almost unchanged form for several thousand years. Many have names that end in tar, with a prefix indicating the number of strings, for example: Dotar, a Turkestan two-string instrument and Setar, a Persian three-string instrument. There are many four-string instruments, for example: the Persian Chartar, Spanish Quitarra, Arabic Qithara, Italian Chitarra. The Panchtar is an Afghanistan five-string instrument. The Indian Sitar probably took its name from the Persian Setar, but over the centuries it developed into a completely new instrument.

The Four, Five and Six String Guitar
The guitar’s predecessors came to Europe from Egypt and Mesopotamia. These early instruments most often had four strings. Many such instruments can be seen in mediaeval illustrated manuscripts and carved in stone in churches and cathedrals, from Roman times through the Middle Ages. By the beginning of the Renaissance, the four-course guitar (four unison-tuned pairs of strings) had become dominant in most of Europe. The earliest known music for the four-course Quitarra was written in 16th century Spain.

The five-course Guitarra Battente first appeared in Italy around the same time and gradually replaced four-course instruments. The added fifth course gave the guitar more frequency range and thus improved its repertoire and led to its ascent. Early guitars seldom had more than 8 frets, but as the guitar evolved, this increased to 10 and then to 12 frets. The standard tuning had already settled at A, D, G, B, E, like the five highest strings of the modern guitar.

A sixth course of strings was added to the Italian Guitarra Battente in the 17th century and guitar makers all over Europe followed the trend. By the end of the 18th century, the six-course arrangement was replaced by six single strings. And by the beginning of the 19th century, some of theses six single string guitars were employing struts under the soundboard. These struts were added for structural support to allow thinning of the top for greater resonance and for better distribution of vibration across the soundboard. Other developments included the use of a reinforced raised neck with ebony or rosewood fingerboards. The raised neck and fingerboard had a great impact on technique since the strings were too high above the soundboard to comfortably rest one’s finger on the face of the guitar for support. Also, metal machine-tuners began to replace wooden tuning pegs.It is interesting to note that the six-string guitar developed from a twelve-string guitar, not the other way around!

The Modern Classical Guitar
Although the modern classical guitar was beginning to take shape at the beginning of the 19th century, the bodies were still fairly small and narrow-waisted. However, around 1850, the true modern classical guitar took its present form when the Spanish luthier Antonio Torres altered the guitars proportions by increasing the size of the body, the width of the neck, and introduced the revolutionary seven strut “fan” top bracing pattern. His design radically improved the volume, tone and projection of the instrument and it very quickly became the standard. And even though there have been continued developments since the middle 1800’s, most agree that the best classical guitars were made by a handful of great luthiers nearly 150 years ago!

The Steel-String Acoustic Guitar
At around the same time that Torres started making his breakthrough fan-braced guitars in Spain, German immigrants to the USA, among them Christian Fredrich Martin, had begun making guitars with X-braced tops. Steel strings, which first became widely available around 1900, made the guitar much louder, but the increased tension was too much for the Torres style fan-braced top. But the much stronger X-bracing proved successful and quickly became the standard for flat-top steel string guitars.

By the end of the 19th century, Orville Gibson was building archtop guitars with oval sound holes. He combined the steel-string guitar with a body constructed more like a cello, where the bridge exerts its pressure straight down on the top. This allowed the top to vibrate more freely and thus produce more volume. In the early 1920’s designer Lloyd Loar joined Gibson, and refined the archtop into a guitar with f-holes, floating bridge and cello-type tailpiece. However, Lloyd Loar’s most important contribution to the guitar was the electrostatic pickup!

The Electric Guitar
The electric guitar was born when electrostatic pickups were added to hollow-body guitars in the late 1920’s, but met with little success before 1936, when Gibson introduced the ES150 model, which Charlie Christian made famous. With the advent of electric amplification, it became possible to do away with the soundbox altogether. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s many were beginning to experiment with solid-body electric guitars. Controversy still exists as to who constructed the very first solid-body guitar: Les Paul, Leo Fender or Paul Bigsby.However, be that as it may, the solid-body electric guitar is here to stay… or is it?

The Electronic Guitar
The late 20th century saw the emergence of the electronic guitar synthesizer. It was a computer based musical instrument system that allowed a guitar player to generate sounds, both musical and non-musical, electronically. While the term MIDI guitar (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is often used as a synonym for the entire field of guitar synthesis, MIDI is not always used.In the early 1970’s there were three main types of guitar synthesizers: multi-effects type, frequency to voltage converter type, and guitorgan type. Today, there are still three types: guitar-based systems, guitar-like MIDI controllers and software only systems.

Guitar-based systems consist of a standard electric guitar equipped with a hexaphonic “divided” pickup that provides a separate analog output for each vibrating string. The hex pick-up connects to an AC to DC converter that changes each separate analog signal into a corresponding digital signal which is then outputted, via the converter, as various musical components, such as: pitch, duration, wave shape, harmonics, amplitude, etc.

Among the advantages of a guitar-based system is that the musician can play either the guitar or the synthesizer alone, or blend the timbres of the both together in any ratio. In the early systems, there was noticeable latency, especially at lower pitches. In other words, there was a perceivable time delay between playing a sound on the guitar and hearing that sound through the synthesizer. This was remedied in the late 20th Century due to faster computer processing speeds.

By the 1980’s, guitar-like MIDI controllers were created to eliminate the tracking and latency problems associated with guitar-based systems, while retaining the expressiveness of the guitar. They achieved this, to some degree, by redesigning the guitar part of the human-machine interface so that it was better suited to driving a computing synthesizer.

The advantages of the guitar-like MIDI controller systems is that there is virtually no noticeable latency or pitch glitches. In other words, tracking, which is the speed and accuracy of the sounds the instrument produces, is much faster. Also, whammy bars and other types of controllers can be assigned to any MIDI function to give the performer more control of their sound. Guitar-like MIDI controllers also offer playing options, such as the fretboard tapping, that is not possible on traditional guitar-based systems. Also, guitar-like MIDI controllers with touch-sensitive fingerboards never need tuning.In 2011, the first software only MIDI “fretboard” controller for the iPhone and iTouch was released. It works with any music creation program like Garageband, Logic and Reason. Since it’s an iOS app, it’s inexpensive and widely accessible. Setup is easy because it accepts MIDI input via the open-sourced DSMidiWifi Server maintained by Google code. In other words, all you need is a computer and a wifi router.

Wow! It seems that some people in the 21st Century believe that after 4000 years, a guitar is no longer necessary. Luckily, I’m not one of them… are you?

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