• E.M.G.

History of the Guitar:

Mis à jour : 26 nov. 2018

Middle Eastern origins:


Various theories exist. However, like every string instruments, first origins of the guitar probably come from the Musical Bow, which is made of an arched stick and a string tied to its two ends. This primitive form dates from 15 000 years before Christ. The string could be plucked (the Guitar ancestor!), struck (the Piano ancestor!) or bowed and the mouth or a cavity into the ground could be used by way of a sound box.

In present Egypt, archeologists found a bas relief dated from 3 700 years B.C. on which is carved a string instrument with curvatures reminding the shape of present Guitar. Maybe it was the sculpture of a Kithara, as the Egyptian said. Depending on regions, several names were used for this instrument: Chaldean people from Iraq called it Chetarah, Assyrians Ketharah, Greeks Kithara, Arabs Quitara… Etymology brings some information: in Persian, Kitar means 3 (ki) strings (tar). However, in Central Asia, many instruments were called by a name ending with the syllable tar depending on the number of strings they had. All these instruments belong to the Tambur (or Pandoura) family.

In present Turkey, on the Archeological site of Alaca Höyük, another sculpture was found with a Guitar shaped instrument dated from 1 500 years B.C. Moreover, a real Egyptian instrument dating from this period is displayed at the Cairo Museum (the so-called Harmosé Lute which looks like a rectangular Guitar).


Medieval times: appearance of Guitar and Lute in Western Europe:

In 711, led by the military strategist Tariq Ibn Ziyad, the army of the Caliphate of Damascus invaded the Visigoth kingdom (present Spain) which was in deep crisis at that time (internal tensions and epidemics). It is probably from this period that several Tamburs instruments (Lutes, Gunbris and the Guitar predecessor) began to be brought in Europe.

Later, during the Carolingian era (600-1000 A.C.), Guitar shaped instruments with a rectangular sound box were painted. Dated from the XIIIth century, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is a compendium of 420 Spanish sacred songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Rare historical evidence, it includes many instruments paintings such as the Latin curved Guitar (Guitarra latina, Quintaine qitara citterne or Citole), the oval Moorish Guitar (Guitarra Moresca) and the Guiterne (also called Mandore) which looks like a Lute. Moreover, it is estimated that the French Minstrels from the duchy of Aquitaine began to use those instruments around the XIth century.

In his work De inventione et usu musicae, published around 1480, theorist Johannes Tinctoris (1445-1511) mentions an instrument called “Guitar” and coming from the region of Catalonia.

However, before Arab occupation, there already was a plucked string instrument in Europe which came from Greece: the Sitar, made of several strings tied over a sound board (with no handle). It may have also influenced evolutions of string instruments.


The Renaissance Lute and the Vihuela (XVIth century):

The Renaissance has been the golden age of the Lute. Several sizes of Lute exist. The most simple Renaissance Lute has got 6 pairs of strings tuned sol, do, fa, la, ré, sol (G, C, F, A, D, G from bass string to treble). Each pair of string can either be tuned to the unison or octave. One of the differences with the Guitar is that the sound box of the Lute is round shaped.


Several Renaissance Lute composers may be mentioned:

Francesco da Milano, Vincenzo Capirola, Cesare Negri, Santino Garsi da Parma…in Italy.

Hans Judenkenig, Hans Newsidler… in Germany.

Pierre Attaingnant, Adrian Leroy (probably a cousin of Robert Ballard 1527-1588), Jean-Baptiste Besard… in France.

John Dowland, Anthony Holborne, Francis Cutting…in England.

While the Lute was meeting with enormous success all around Europe, another Spanish instrument called Vihuela appeared. This instrument was especially played in Spain and Latin America, for replacing the Lute (which has Arab origins). It has got a rounded or flat bottom, a curved-shaped sound box (like the Guitar), 6 pairs of strings and is tuned the same way as the Lute (sol, do, fa, la, ré, sol). However, unlike the Lute which exists in several forms, there is only one size of Vihuela.


Several Vihuela composers can be mentioned:

Alonso Mudarra (Tres libros de musica en cifras para vihuela, 1546),

Luis Milan (libro de musica e vihuela de mano intitulalo el maestro), Luys de Narvaez, Miguel de Fuenllana, Antonio de Cabezon…

This Lute and Vihuela repertoire includes songs, Variations, Danses, Ricercare, Fantaisies….and can either be played on the Lute, Vihuela or modern Guitar. Indeed, as the tuning of those instruments is especially made of 4th, transposing it to the modern Guitar results in mi, la, ré, fa#, si, mi (E, A, D, F#, B, E). Note that in this transposition only one string differs from the modern Guitar tuning: mi, la, ré, sol, si, mi (E, A, D, G, B, E).


The Renaissance Guitar:

It had got 3 pairs of strings and one 4th single treble string. It was tuned the same way as the Lute and the Vihuela: do, fa, la, ré (C, F, A, D). This instrument was especially used for accompaniment.


The Baroque Guitar:

A fifth pair of strings has been added and guitar is now tuned A, D, G, B, E (la, ré, sol, si, mi). This instrument had become very popular under the reign of Louis XIV. It is interesting to know that the king took guitar lessons with Robert de Visée (1650-1725), famous Baroque Guitar composer.


Among Baroque Guitar (or Lute) composers are:

In Germany: Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750), Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), J.S. Bach (1685-1750)…

In Spain : Juan carlos Amat (Guitarra Espanola y vandola, 1596), Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710), Lucas de Ribayas (1626- ?), Don francisco Guerau (1649-1717), Nicolao Doisi de Velasco, Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739)…

In Italy : Francisco Corbetta (1615-1681), Giovanni Battista Granata (1621-1687), Ludovico Roncalli (1654-1713), Domenico Pelligrini (1617-1682, Armoniosi concerti sopra la chitarra spagnuola)


Baroque Guitar makers: René Voboam (1606-1671), Jacobus Stadler (who made the first German Guitar in 1624), Joachim Tielke (1641-1719), Vincentius Lubeck (1654-1740) and the famous Antonia stradivarius (1644-1737)…


The Classic Guitar:

Around 1750 the Guitar acquires its final form. Pairs of string are replaced by simple strings, and a 6th string is added: the E bass. As regards the Lute, this instrument is gradually left behind, less and less pieces being written for it.

However the Guitar went through another prolific period at the beginning of the XIXth century, as demonstrated by the number of composers, players and method books. At that time, European artistic centers were Vienna, Paris and London. Moreover, famous composer such as K.M von Weber, F. Schubert, H. Berlioz or N. Paganini are also guitar players.


Composers and Teachers:

Austria: Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806 1856), Joseph Friedrich Bernhardt Caspar Majer (1689-1768, Museum musicum, one of the first testimony of a 6 strings Guitar tuned D A D F# A D), Simon Molitor (1766-1848), Leonhard von Call (1767-1815 Methode for the Guitar), Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829, Guitar study), Wenzel Thomas Matiegka (1773-1830)

France: Trille Labarre (end of XVIIIth), Antoine Marcel Lemoine (1763-1816, he set up the famous French publishing firm named Henry Lemoine, one of his sons), Charle Doisy, Fernando Carulli (1770-1841, Complete Guitar method, La harmonía aplicada a la guitarra), Matteo Carcassi (1792-1853), the famous Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and his student Napoleon Coste (1806-1883)…

Spain: Fernando Ferrandière (1740-1816, Arte de tocar la guitarra española por música), Federico Moretti (1765-1838, Precedidos de los Elementos generales de la musica Gramática razonada musical, Principios para tocar la guitarra de seis ordenes), Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849 Nuevo Método para Guitarra)…

Italy: Luigi Legnani (1790-1877), Matteo bevilacqua (1772-1849) and the famous Luigi Boccherini (1746-1805)…


Guitar makers:

In Spain: Juan Pages (1740-1822),

In France: Francisco Lupot, Gerard Deleplanque (1723-1784), Francois René Lacôte (1785-1868),

In Germany: Jacob August Otto (1760-1829),

In Austria: Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853, and his son’s pupil Johann Gottfried Scherzer 1843-1870),

In Italy: Gennaro Fabricatore (1750-1832).


From 1850: Torres, Tarrega and the modern Guitar school:

Around 1850, the collaboration between the Spanish Guitar maker Antonio Torres Jurado (1817-1892) and the composer Julian Arcas (1832-1882) gave birth to modern guitar making and a long line of composers and teachers still active nowadays. Later, the guitar maker José Ramirez (1858-1923) followed the designs of A. Torres and founded the famous firm called Ramirez guitars.

One of J. Arcas students was Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909, Recuerdos de la Alhambra), maybe the most famous guitar composer and teacher. Among Tarrega students were composers such as Emilio Pujol, Miguel Llobet, Daniel Fortea, Alberto Obregon… Tarrega also wrote guitar transcriptions of piano pieces from his friends Isaac Albeniz (Asturias) and Henrique Granados.

Andres Segovia (1893-1987), who was a student of Miguel Llobet, taught many guitarists like Alirio Diaz (1923-2016) and John Williams (1941-?). Several pieces were dedicated to Segovia like Segovia from Albert Roussel, the 12 Estudos from H. Villa-Llobos, pieces from Joaquin Rodrigo, Manuel Ponce….

Others guitar players of the XXth century are: Narciso yepes (1927-1997, known for the performance of Jeux interdits), Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948), Alexandre Lagoya (1929-1999) and Julian Bream (1933-?) known for his performances of contemporary piece. Collaboration between Julian Bream and the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) gave birth in 1963 to a piece called Nocturnal, good example of “contemporary” or modern Guitar music of the XXth century. He also played music from Frank Martin (1890-1974, listen to the amazing 4 short pieces) and Hanz Werner Henze (1926-2012, el polifemo de oro).

Another great multicultural teacher and composer is Carlo Domeniconi (1947-?) known for his hypnotic and fabulous Turkish suite Koyunbaba (listen to the record of Antigoni Goni).

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