Think of the guitar and you probably envision a rock god such as Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen screeching through solos like there is no tomorrow. While the electric guitar stormed into the world of music during the 1950s and beyond, the acoustic guitar has arguably had a bigger impact on the development of music through the ages.
Guitars are not a relatively new invention. This iconic musical instrument has been a part of music for hundreds of years. Granted, its form and design have changed considerably over the centuries but it has remained an integral part of music production to this modern day.
Acoustic guitars may be ingrained in modern music but we can date its origins to some of the earliest string instruments of ancient times. The question is, who invented the acoustic guitar as we know and love it today?
Read on as we answer this question and delve into the history of the guitar. By the end of this article, you will know everything you need to know about this great instrument and its evolutions through the ages.
The Inventor Of The Acoustic Guitar
Today, steel-stringed acoustic guitars are used all over the world. They have been used in some of the most famous recordings of all time and continue to be a key instrument in music production.
But, the history of the very first acoustic guitar is thought to date back to the early 1800s. The man who is credited with being the creator of the acoustic guitar is Christian Frederick Martin. Born in 1796, Martin was a German citizen who emigrated to the United States.
At the time, guitars did not use steel or nylon strings. Instead, they were known as ‘catgut’ strings. These were, quite disgustingly, made from sheep intestines. Thank goodness we moved on from then!
And, it was thanks to Christian Frederick Martin that the intestines of sheep ceased to be used. During the 1830s, he decided to use steel strings for the first time.
It is believed he did this so banjo players could switch over and play the guitar with ease and comfort. At the time, a particular style of country music that used banjos was very popular so this was a welcome introduction to many musicians.
From that moment, it is believed that Martin had invented a new type of guitar by designing the inner structure of it to withstand the additional tension generated by the steel strings. This also allowed for greater volume and resonance with the guitar.
While the steel-stringed acoustic guitar that we recognize today is thought to have been invented by Martin, the design and standardization of the modern classical guitar with nylon strings is credited to a Spanish gentleman called Antonio de Torres Jurado. He is otherwise known as “the most important guitar maker of the 19th century.”
The first Torres guitars were far better than any of Antonio’s contemporaries, especially in their construction. By modern standards, they were not very loud but, for the time, they had a clearer, firmer, rounded, and more balanced tone that projected better than any others.
This led to his guitars being copied and imitated throughout the world leading to a number of fake models being sold. As Torres never signed his guitars, it is very difficult to be sure which guitar is an original and which is a copy.
Torres’ early guitars had a similar pattern and design to modern classical acoustic guitars but there are some main differences. His early models all had soundboards made from European spruce whereas red cedar is usually used today.
The strings also differed as the guitars were strung with silk threads and gut trebles before being wound with silver. The 1950s brought about a change as nylon strings were introduced and have continued to be used ever since.
String Instruments Evolution
Although Martin and Torres are credited with the invention of two types of acoustic guitars, there is no clear evidence of an individual being responsible for the guitar. Instead, we have to look at the evolution of stringed instruments that date back to ancient civilizations in Asia.
While we can’t pinpoint the exact time when the guitar was invented or the person who created it, there are some names and milestones that helped us reach the acoustic guitar as we know it today.
One of the first stringed instruments that we are aware of is the Har-Mose. This is the oldest instrument that resembles the modern acoustic guitar and it dates back as far as 3,500 years ago.
Hailing from Egypt, it is believed the instrument belonged to the famed musician Har-Mose. Its appearance was certainly guitar-like but with 3 strings.
A plectrum was attached by a cord that hung from the neck of the instrument. The body was made from cedarwood, similar to that of modern guitars, and some examples still exist today.
Another important name in the timeline of guitars is the Italian Luthier Gaetano Vinaccia. He is considered to be the man who produced the first real guitar. This model was somewhat narrower than guitars we are used to today and was introduced in 1776 in Naples, Italy.
Luthier was just one inventor in a long line within the Vinaccia family who are also credited with the invention of another famous stringed instrument, the mandolin.
Then, there was Antonio de Torres Jurado. As we mentioned, he is credited for the invention of the first standardized acoustic guitar during the 1800s. He did this by reducing the thickness of the guitar’s soundboard but, at the same time, increasing its surface area.
This meant the resonance of the guitar was enhanced significantly. His unique racing system allowed for a larger-bodied guitar and heightened tension capabilities that are evident with modern acoustic guitars.
In fact, his form of bracing is still used in the construction of classical guitars today.
Although we have already discussed Christian Fredrick Martin, he is worth mentioning again. His introduction of steel strings revolutionized the guitar. Without this individual, guitars may have taken a much stranger turn in terms of design.
Who knows? Maybe we would still be using sheep intestines as strings. All we know is that we have Martin to thank for the increased volume that acoustic guitars offer to this very day.
Stringed Instruments Through The Ages
We could discuss the history of the guitar for days on end. There are various theories as to who the actual inventor of the acoustic guitar is. Some believe it to be an ancient invention while others believe it is only a few hundred years old.
One common agreement is that the Europeans and Arabs had important roles in the evolution of the stringed instrument.
Many debate that the Europeans were responsible for the development of the acoustic guitar during the middle ages while others argue that the stringed instrument can be dated back to being influenced by the Arabic “Oud.”
When considering the Oud, historians believe that the acoustic guitar was introduced to the Spanish mainland sometime after the Moorish conquest during the 9th century.
With evidence backing up some of these claims, it would be foolish not to consider the Oud as having a key influence over the evolution of the guitar in general.
One common theory is that the guitar evolved from the medieval instrument known as a lute. However, some historians believe that the lute was just an offshoot of the guitar and not a predecessor as many believe.
The guitar is a member of the Chordophones musical family. Chordophones create sound and only produce music when the strings that are fixed at different points vibrate. This is exactly how a guitar makes that iconic sound.
When we consider this, it opens up new theories as to what instruments had an impact on the evolution of the acoustic guitar.
One such instrument that is thought to have a key influence on the acoustic guitar is the tanbur. However, the tanbur is a term used to describe various types of Chordophones such as lutes, lyres, zithers, and harps. While we know the tanbur has ancient origins, not a lot is known about this mysterious instrument.
There are examples of ancient sculptures, artifacts, and pieces of art that depict a tanbur from ancient Egypt but were discovered in modern-day Iraq. Without these, we may have never known what a tanbur looked like.
These depictions led historians to draw comparisons and differences between the tanbur and bowl harps, another member of the Chordophone family.
This is because the bowl harps existed around the same time as the tanbur. However, the main difference was that the tanbur sported a straighter neck to allow for greater pressure to the strings as it was played.
This meant that the note’s pitch could be changed as it was played, unlike the curved neck of a bowl harp that didn’t have as much pressure applied to the strings.
The Chartar and Kithara also play a huge role in the evolution of the acoustic guitar. Many historians believe that the modern acoustic guitar would not be anything like it is today without the Chartar and Kithara.
It is believed that the chartar is one of the earliest ancestors of the acoustic guitar. As it evolved, different versions of the instrument were passed down through generations. Historians found that the charter evolved into the Guitarra in Spain.
The Kithara also has a key role in the advent of acoustic guitars. Historians decided to study the origins of the guitar name and found that it has links to the original Kathara.
Now, you can hear the similarity in the names, right? Well, Kithara is an ancient Greek word used to describe an ancient stringed instrument. This was directly related to the lyre.
With this direct link and the guitar having links to the lyre, the Kathara can not be removed from the debate of where the acoustic guitar evolved from.
On the other hand, some argue that the Kithara and the guitar are not similar at all. Research undertaken in the 1960s pointed to the fact that the Kithara and the guitar have no relation whatsoever.
Researchers discovered that the Kithara evolved into other instruments. It even evolved into having more strings. At the time, a guitar-based instrument would not have had any more than four strings so the two couldn’t be related in any way.
This leads some historians to argue that the KIthara is simply a similar musical instrument to the guitar but more closely related to the harp in shape and design.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Instruments Are Regarded As The Acoustic Guitar’s Ancestors?
Many instruments can be considered as early ancestors of the modern acoustic guitar. Below are just some that have been linked to its design and development.
As you can tell, debate rages on as to where the guitar originated and who invented it. While many believe that the modern acoustic guitar owes its shape and sound to the influence of the Arabic Oud, many historians have counter-argument that the Europeans of the Middle Ages hold the key to the earliest conceptions of the acoustic guitar.
During the Middle Ages, an array of stringed instruments began to appear. One of the most famous, and widely recognized to this day, is the lute. Think of a lute and you probably conjure up images of a jester during the medieval period.
The term ‘lute’ actually refers to any instrument that has a body, neck, and vibrating strings that are attached to two fixed points.
As with the Oud, the lute has a much shorter neck than a traditional guitar. Their bodies have a more rounded back with a different angled headstock than the guitar you would recognize today. However, unlike the Oud, lutes possess frets like guitar hence the link between the two.
Back to the Arabic Oud. This was first introduced to Spain during the 9th century and this is considered to be a precursor of the aforementioned lute. Most historians agree that the Oud had a far more important role in the development of the acoustic guitar.
Vilhuela was a term used to describe certain variants of stringed instruments that had necks and fretboards. Out of these, the vihuela da mano was the most popular instrument and the one that was played with the use of fingers like a guitar.
However, the vihuela de Penola was played with a plectrum (pick) whereas the last in the category, the vihuela de arco was played with a bow like a violin.
Around the time of these vihuela instruments, 4 and 5-course guitars were being introduced to musical circles and these looked very similar to the modern acoustic guitar.
You will recognize a mandolin, mainly because this instrument is still widely used in traditional and folk music to this very day. However, the mandolin dates back to the middle ages as well and has a close resemblance to the lute of the time.
Mandolins utilize 4 strings which was very common during the renaissance period. This is thought to have led to the development of the cittern, another stringed instrument which we will discuss later.
During this period, many stringed instruments began evolving into more guitar shapes and designs. This was when 5 stringed instruments were becoming more common and becoming closer in appearance to the modern acoustic guitar.
The cittern, or Cithren, looks very similar to what we consider as modern-day mandolins. However, many believe that this instrument was influenced by the citole of the middle ages.
Upon inspection, this instrument looks pretty similar to a modern classical guitar with its pear-shaped body and flat back.
As with classical guitars, the cittern became a popular instrument and continues to be so in some circles. Today, it is also known as a Lutherzither or a Waldzither.
So, Why Was The Acoustic Guitar Invented?
We can’t give a definitive answer as to why the acoustic guitar came about. It’s most certainly an amalgamation of various types of instruments over the centuries.
But, the acoustic guitar that we recognize today owes much of its shape and sound to the standardization introduced by Luthier Antonio Torres Jurado and his innovative fan bracing design.
This fan bracing consists of 5 to 7 struts being positioned in a fan-like manner. They point to the 12th fret of the guitar adding more strength to the soundboard. Therefore, the instrument can achieve greater sizes and volumes.
When Did The Term “Acoustic Guitar” First Emerge?
With so much talk about the origin of the acoustic guitar, it wasn’t even referred to as this until 1933. Until then, an acoustic guitar was simply known as a ‘guitar.’ The term ‘acoustic’ became widespread with the emergence of the electric guitar. Acoustic was then used to distinguish between a classical guitar and a standard steel-string model.
It is almost impossible to pinpoint a specific time and place when the acoustic guitar was invented. By studying the history and development of different instruments, it’s more than likely that the acoustic guitar has evolved from various other ancient instruments.
All we know is that Christian Frederick Martin and Antonio Torres Jurado are two significant figures who helped the acoustic and classical guitar to evolve into what we know today.