Background

This section will examine the antecedents to the modern electric guitar and how they developed over the centuries.

Early Guitars

A picture from the ancient vihuela book, The Maestro. 1

The earliest forms of what we can reasonably consider to be guitars originated in Europe, specifically Spain, around the 15th and 16th centuries [1]. Since there was little standardization of instrument making during this time, there are several medieval instruments which can be called antecedents to the modern acoustic guitar (and by extension, the electric guitar). These include the Spanish guitarra latina and its later cousin the vihuela, the Italian cittern and the English guittare allemande [2]. These all had features similar to modern acoustic guitars including a sound hole in the middle of the body, a long fretted neck and a head with tuning knobs. Unlike most modern guitars, however, they usually only had twelve frets, a much lighter frame and  usually had between four and six strings [3]. Early guitars were made entirely out of wood and their strings were made out of the dried and cured intestines of domesticated animals, both of which made them accessible to any social class as long as the individual had access to a dead animal and the knowledge to make strings [4]. They had somewhat dull, rustic sounds to them, could not sustain a note for very long and could not project their sound very well, or very loudly [5]. Still, early guitars were able to spread across Europe and the middle east to become a relatively common site among the lower class where it was admired for it’s earthy and variable tone, its simplistic design and the availability of resources needed to create it [6].

The Lute Dynasty

Unfortunately, guitars never enjoyed much popularity for the majority of their early existence, usually being pushed into the shadows by their contemporary rival; the lute. The lute was a similar instrument to early guitars, being made out of wood with animal intestine strings and a sound hole in the middle. But, the lute had several fundamental structural differences and more importantly, the lute had a lighter, clearer and louder sound than early guitars. The ability to project sound clearly and loudly was important to composers, such as Bach, who wanted to write music for large concert halls and the crisp, clean sound appealed to noble tastes. The guitar’s reputation as an instrument of the common man further pushed it out of favor with the wealthier classes and the lute’s esteemed patronage earned it great popularity between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. The guitar did see some sporadic bursts of popularity over the centuries, most notably in the 1500s and 1600s during the Renaissance, but was never truly seen as anything more than a novelty by most. Because of this lack of interest, the guitar did not see any real fame or significant technical development until the mid nineteenth century. [7]

Rise of the Classical Spanish Guitar

Torres was able to revolutionize guitars with his construction methods. 2

In 1852, a Spanish carpenter named Antonio de Torres would impart to the world anew and vastly improved form of the guitar which would become what we today refer to as the Classical Spanish Guitar. Torres genius didn’t so much lay in new inventions as much as with new methods of laying out the guitar’s construction with currently existing music technology. Torres’ introduction of 650mm length string, a fan bracing system, improved neck angle in relation to the bridge and frets, bridge location, material selection (rosewood, maple, etc. for the body), and more all worked together to create an instrument which could project louder and had a much richer tone. [8] This meant that the guitar was now a viable instrument for use in a concert hall and quickly rose in popularity in Europe over the following decades [9]. Later guitar makers, like C.F. Martin, would make further changes and improvements upon Torres’ method of guitar making, but the majority of acoustic guitars in production today have some form of Torres’ construction as the basis for their form. [10]

Torres’ designs allowed the guitar to become a respectable and even more popular instrument in the eyes of high and low society. Later, German born American guitarist C.F. Martin, would continue to make improvements to Torre’s design with his own bracing system and introduce steel strings which helped pave the way for the electric guitar. [11]

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1 – James Tyler, The Early Guitar, Early Music Series (London: Oxford University Press, 1980), 15.

2- Ibid, 15-17, 25.

3 – Ibid, 25, 35.

4 – Ibid, 61.

5 – Graham Wade, Traditions of the Classical Guitar (London: John Calder, 1980), 6.

6 – Ibid, 6-7.

7 – Ibid, 7-8.

8 – Harvey Turnbull, The Guitar: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 77.

9 – Wade, Traditions of the Classical Guitar, 138.

10 – Kenny Hill, “Antonio de Torres, A Modern Guitar Maker,” Hill Guitar Co., http://www.hillguitar.com/website/news/articles/torres.html (accessed April 7, 2011).

11 – C.F. Martin & Co., “Martin History,” Martin Guitar, http://www.martinguitar.com/ (accessed April 11th, 2011).

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Image Sources

1 – Luis Milan, “El Maestro, 1536,” http://www.ask.com/wiki/Vihuela_de_mano (accessed April 10th, 2011).

2 – Kenny Hill, “Antonio de Torres Bracing System,” http://www.hillguitar.com/website/news/articles/torres.html (accessed April 9th, 2011).

Video Sources

Gaspar Ruiz Cardona, La Capilla, 2007, Youtube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmyxnLmy0jY (accessed April 8th, 2011).

Andrea Damiani, J. S. Bach, Prelude BWV 995, 2008, Youtube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=As4HPjqRvc4 (accessed April 8th, 2011).

Wulfin Lieske, Rumores de la caleta & Asturias, 2009, Youtube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CssfP8Zdjv8 (accessed April 8th, 2011).

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