Stringed Instruments in History

YouTube stars of today shred the guitar with innovative, mind-blowing riffs and licks that are changing music forever. Many don’t realize that the guitar – or some version of it – has existed since the dawn of time.

The exact origin of the guitar is still a mystery. The word “guitar” probably comes from the ancient Greek word κιθάρα (kithara). Mythology attributes Hermes with creating the first kithara from a tortoise shell, but many likenesses of Apollo show him with this instrument.

This instrument had a wooden soundboard and box-shaped body, or resonator. Two hollow arms, connected by a crossbar, extended from the resonator. The instrument originally had three strings running from the crossbar to its lower end, passing over a bridge on the soundboard; later versions had as many as 12 strings.

The ancient musician typically played the strings with a plectrum, which is an early version of the modern pick. The player would use his or her left-hand fingers to dampen unwanted strings and, at times, stop the strings or produce harmony with their left hand. Solo musicians would sometimes pluck the strings with the fingers of both hands. Holding a kithara is similar to holding a guitar, and musicians would often use the early equivalent of a guitar strap with an over-the-shoulder band.


History of the Shape of Guitars


Shape of the Guitar From Prehistory Through the Middle Ages

The history of the guitar generally goes back to two instruments, the oud and the lute, which predate written history.

Many say that a man known as Lamech, who was Noah’s grandfather and the sixth grandson of Adam and Eve, designed the Arab precursor to the guitar. Lamech was apparently inspired to design the shape of the instrument, known as an oud, after hanging the body of his dead son from a tree. The Moors brought the oud with them when they invaded Southern Spain in 711 AD.


Shape From the 15th Century to Present Day

The lute came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but generally had a curved back. The instrument passed from the Egyptians to the Greeks and then onto the Romans, who took it to Europe.

The first ancient pictorial record of a lute-like stringed instrument first appeared in 3500 to 3200 BCE in Southern Mesopotamia – Iraq, which is now Nasiriyah City. The image depicts a female crouching on a boat; the position of her hands on the instrument indicates she is playing an instrument.

Long- and short-necked varieties of lutes continued to appear in pictorial records throughout Mesopotamian and Egyptian history. Metropolitan Museums of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the British Museum display many examples of these pictorial records on clay tablets and papyrus paper.

The lute had evolved significantly by the end of the Renaissance – many lutes had up to 20 or 30 strings – but the lute-like shape of the instrument was fading in popularity. By the 15th and 16th centuries, musicians in Spain began to favor instruments featuring the familiar curved shape we now associate with guitars.

These guitars, known as Baroque guitars, effectively replaced the lute as the go-to stringed instrument for musicians from about 1600 to 1750. Further refinements, such as five courses of gut strings and moveable frets, made these instruments easier to play.

The vihuela, which has incurving sides that give its body an hourglass shape, became popular in Spain, Portugal and Italy during that time too. Mariachi groups still use a version of the vihuela today.

The evolution of Spanish guitars settled by the 1790s; they had the standard body type and six courses of strings that resembles the modern guitar, but were smaller. Spanish musician and guitar maker Antonio de Torres Jurado changed all that in the mid-1800s, when he created the style of guitar that gave rise to all guitars to follow. Many people consider him as “one of the single most important inventors in the history of guitar.”

His guitars featured a broadened body, thinned belly and increased curve at the waist. He also replaced wooden tuning pegs with a machined heads. His innovative approach to body design and fan bracing, which is that system of wooden struts inside the instrument, gave his classical guitars their distinctive, rich voice.   

Influential Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia established Torres’ classic guitar as a concert instrument. The talented guitarist also penned complex musical compositions that we now identify as “classical guitar” music.

At about this same time, Europeans brought a steel-stringed version of the Spanish instrument when they immigrated to America. There, the modern guitar took on a new shape and a new place in history, with the invention of the flat top, archtop and modern electric guitar.


The Modern Guitars

The flat top acoustic guitar remains the most popular form of acoustic guitar, nearly two centuries after its invention. German-born American guitar maker, Christian Frederick Martin, created the flat top. Martin replaced the old-fashioned fan bracing with X-bracing to help the guitar body handle the extra stress of modern steel strings, which had posed a problem for the old Torres-style guitars.

The tight steel strings of the flat top also required the guitarists to change their playing style and use picks more often, which fundamentally changed the type of music played on these instruments. Melodies on classical guitars are precise and delicate, for example, while steel strings and picks created bright, chord-driven music. The common use of picks also triggered the evolution of the pickguard, now seen below the sound hole on most flat top guitars.

Many attribute Orville Gibson with the creation of the archtop guitar. This guitar features F-holes, arched top and back, and adjustable bridge, which increases the instruments tone and volume. Gibson created guitars that had bodies similar to cellos, which helped the instruments produce a louder sound. Jazz and country musicians quickly embraced these guitars; big bands and swing bands also used flat tops.

George Beauchamp and his partner Adolph Rickenbacker won the first patent for the electric guitar in 1931. Many other inventors and guitar makers were working on electric versions of these old instruments at about the same time. Les Paul pioneered the solid body guitar made by Gibson Guitars, for example, and Leo Fender invented the Fender Telecaster in 1951. Together, the Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul and Gibson SGs helped the guitars of yesteryear evolve into the solid-body electric guitars still used today.



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