A Brief History of the Acoustic Guitar

Published Categorized as Other
History of the Acoustic guitar
By cogito ergo imago from Rumson, NJ (Martin Guitar, c1838) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Acoustic guitars are one of the most famous instruments around the world.

The history of the acoustic guitar dates back thousands of years, and the acoustic guitar?s history can be described as rich as colorful.

Table of Contents

In the Beginning

It is believed that the acoustic guitar developed from ancient stringed instruments, as evidenced by stone carvings that are over 3,000 years old being excavated in the territories of ancient Babylonia.

The term guitar was applied to all chordophones that were developed in 12th century Europe, and the term evolved from the Greek “kithara”, which is an ancient musical instrument that is closely related to lyres.

There are so many instruments believed to be the antecedent to the guitars of the present day, and it is very difficult for historians to point out the exact instrument which gave birth to the modern acoustic guitar because its records are lost in history. However, there are two probable instruments which are believed to be the predecessor of the modern acoustic guitar. These are the European lute, and the Moorish Oud.

Both of these instruments resemble the modern day acoustic guitar in a couple of major ways.

  1. Both are stringed instruments which need to be plucked or strummed by hand to create a sound; and
  2. They include a hollow box which aids in producing the sounds

Both of these instruments still exist in modern day society. You can see examples of these unique (by modern standards) instruments being played in the videos below.

Oud

Lute

Further Evolution

In medieval Spain, there were two instruments that were referred to as “guitars” – the Guitarra Latina and the Guitarra Morisca. The two guitars looked different from each other, but by the 14th century, they were both simply referred to as “guitars”.

Guitarra Latina

Guitarra Morisca

During the middle ages, an instrument called the gitterns was used by people for festivities around Europe. It is described as a small, guitar like instrument, and its shape is similar to a lute. It was prevalent in the Middle Ages, and most people living in medieval European cities have them inside their homes.

Gitterns

Getting Closer to the Modern-Day Guitar in the Renaissance

These instruments were all predecessors of the guitar and have their obvious similarities. However, guitars that mostly resemble the acoustic guitars of the present day did not appear until the Renaissance period.

In the 15th and 16th century, the Spanish developed the vihuela, another stringed instrument resembling the modern day acoustic guitar. Through the years, the structure of vihuela slowly changed and became strikingly similar to the modern acoustic guitar.

Vihuela

However, the instrument only gained popularity in Italy and Spain, and it is unknown to most of Europe, where lute is more commonly used.

This resulted to the vihuela being largely forgotten in the pages of history. Another stringed instrument that gained popularity during the 16th century is the baroque guitar, and unlike the vihuela, this instrument managed to gain popularity in Spain, Italy and France, with the instrument surviving up until the modern times.

Baroque Guitar

It is also similar to the present day acoustic guitar, but has movable frets that can be adjusted to change the tone of the instrument. It is also believed that the baroque guitar is the real predecessor to modern day acoustic guitars, because of its striking resemblance to the instrument.

These were/are 10 string instruments but in the same that you would think of a 12 string today. So there were usually 5 main string pitches but there were double strings, like you would find with a 12 string guitar.

The Beginning of Major Guitar Production

Major production of acoustic guitars kicked off in France after the Renaissance. The popularity of the instrument in France resulted to the production of a large (for the time) number guitars, and annually, the production rate increased, and more and more people started to buy the instrument to try it.

By the 18th century, guitars were being mass produced, often in large quantities because of the high volume of orders that were being placed. Even though Spain is recognized as the guitar’s homeland, they never had the chance to beat the massive production being done in France.

Early Guitar Brands

Some famous brands that were being created in France, such as Gasparo Duiffopruggar‘s, were being copied in other French cities, especially in Lyon. Guitar makers in Lyon were taking advantage of the popularity of guitars, and they were raking in a lot of money.

However, their method of copying the work of famous brands and companies was considered illegal, and the state started to prosecute those who were distributing fake guitars.

In Paris, father and son duo Robert and Claude Denis started to create their own design for the acoustic guitar, and they started manufacturing hundreds and even thousands of them, oversupplying the guitar industry once again.

There were many other guitar manufacturers who were living in France when the industry started to boom, and because there was a massive supply of guitars, prices started to drop and more people began purchasing them because of their curiosity with the instrument.

Spanish Manufacturing

During the late 18th century in Spain, manufacturers started to change the appearance of the Vihuela and they became more similar to modern day acoustic guitars. Spain started to manufacture their version of the instrument hoping to compete with the French. During the 19th century, guitar manufacturers in Spain and France changed the overall design of the guitar, making it more familiar to the 6 stringed acoustic guitars that we are familiar with today.

Continued Popularity of Guitars

The popularity of the guitar did not fade after France oversupplied their citizens with the instrument. People started to use them in concerts and performances, and it became a staple for bands. Today, acoustic guitars are being used in a wide range of genres and in a wide range of ensembles from large orchestras to individual performances and singer/songwriters.

Acoustic guitars are also popular for jam sessions in bars and restaurants, and the popularity of the instrument has spread across the globe.

Today, there are a large number of guitar manufacturers creating high quality guitars that produces high quality sound. Manufacturing enhancements have allowed manufacturers to create a consistent sound and quality instrument for much less than they used to.

Related: The Top 10 Acoustic Guitar Brands

Final Thoughts

The modern-day acoustic guitar’s history is still relatively young, relative to the history of other instruments, but the instruments that the guitar evolved from date back a lot further.

It would be interesting to be able to look 500 years into the future to see how much the guitar might have changed in that time, if at all.

FAQs

How did the modern acoustic guitar evolve to what it is now?


The modern acoustic guitar evolved from small four-stringed instruments in Renaissance Spain, undergoing significant changes over centuries. In the 19th century, Antonio Torres Jurado revolutionized its design with a larger body and fan bracing. The early 20th century introduction of steel strings led to stronger construction and louder sound. Innovations like the dreadnought design and built-in electronics further shaped its versatility and popularity in various musical styles.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1