Ancient Near East

It is believed that the history of the guitar began in the ancient Near East. There, the archeologists found instruments and representations of them that served as landmarks or guideposts in the relatively uncharted territory of the guitar's beginning.
Among the artifacts excavated from Babylonia, the most relevant were the clay plaques dated (1900-1800 B.C.). These showed nude figures playing musical instruments, some of which bear a general resemblance to the guitar. Close examination of the instrument on the plaque shows it to have a distinctly differentiated body and neck. Its back is undoubtedly flat; the manner in which it rests against the priest's chest precludes the possibility of its being bowl-shaped. It is clear that the right hand pluck the strings. The number of strings is unfortunately not clear but on another plaque, at least two strings are shown on the instrument. Evidence of guitar-like instruments has been noted in Assyria, Susa (an ancient city north of the Persian Gulf: capital of the Persian Empire), and Luristan.

Egypt and Rome

In the earliest days, the only plucked string instrument in Egypt was the bow-shaped harp. Later, a necked instrument with carefully marked frets, probably made of gut, wound about the neck. Eventually, some of the features and characteristics would combine in a later instrument, one would be the predecessor not only of the guitar but of all necked string instruments, both plucked and bowed. Further developments made this instrument even more similar in form to the guitar.
The instrument from the Roman period (30 B.C. - 400 A.D.) is made entirely of wood. The rawhide soundboard is replaced with wood on which five groups of small sound holes are visible. This arrangment persisted up to the 16th century. On an instrument found in Coptic tomb in Egypt, the curves along the sides are already quite deep and the basic guitar shape is apparent. The back has become completely flat instead of it curving upward to meet the soundboard, the two surfaces are now attached to each other by strips of wood that form the sides of the soundbox. These features remain to the present day.
Medieval Europe

The first known European string instrument that might have had its origins here dates back to the third century A.D. Examination of the third century instrument shows it to have a round soundbox which tapers into a wide neck. This type of instrument continued to be in use for many years.There is description also of instruments dating from the time of the Carolingian Dynasty which could be either French or German.

The Carolingian instrument is rectangular, approximatively equal in lenght to its neck, the upper end of which is a wider rounded area containing small pegs for the attachment of strings. In some illustrations, these pegs appear to be four; on others, five. The strings are of a corresponding number and are plucked in two ways: either with a plectrum or with the fingers. The Carolingian instrument retained its form up to the 14th century.

At the same time, another instrument began to exist side by side with the Carolingian type. This change affected the soundbox of the instrument, its straight sides now giving way to slight curves. Representatives of this new instrument can be found in a number of English cathedrals. Depictions of guitar-shaped instruments have been found in French and Spanish cathedrals prior to the fourtheen century.

Guitarra Latina and Guitarra Morisca

There was a distinction made between Guitarra Latina and Guitarra Morisca. The latter has been brought by the Moors, hence, its name. Its soundbox was oval and it had many sound holes on its soundboard. The Arabs, passing through Egypt on their way to complete the great Muslim conquest of North Africa and Spain, may well have transmitted the cardinal features of this design to the instrument makers of Western Europe. It is equally possible that the first Spanish guitars were a European development. Certain is only that the Arabic influence in Spain prepared the ground for the advent of the guitar.

The Guitarra Latina however, did have curved sides and was thought to have come to Spain from some other European country. It was this type that undoubtedly developped into the modern guitar.
The popularity achieved by the guitar can be attributed to the nomadic nature of the troubadours. The guitar could have arrived in Spain from Provence by way of Catalonia. Once there, the guitar could have crossed to Spain in the hand of itinerant Spanish troubadours. Those troubadours in medieval Europe, whose incessant travels and performances, enriched musical culture in general and gave great impetus to the spread of the guitar on the continent.

The Sixteenth Century

Until the Middle Ages, a significant information on the guitar and its lineage has had to be drawn from paintings, sculptures, bas-reliefs. Heavy reliance on indirect evidence is unavoidable.
Beginning with the sixteenth century, however, we find much more direct evidence in the form of instruments that exist to the present day. Sixteenth century guitars are described as vihuela from the time of Luis Milan, Rizzio guitar from France, chitarra battente from Italia.

The Vihuela

From Spain, occured another instrument: the vihuela. Originally, the vihuela was associated to a small four and five-string guitarra. At the same time, the sixteenth century saw the lute emerge as the favorite instrument of the aristocracy in nearly all of Europe. Spain was a notable exception. In this country, the lute had become associated with the Moors and their oppressive rule. The Spaniards did not readily take to the instrument. They did, however, appreciate the music that was written for it, hence the search for a means by which the music could be performed on an instrument other than the lute. The aristocrats turned to the popular guitarra with its four double strings. However, a guitar with only four strings did not have resources adequate to meet the requirements of complex, polyphonic music. In addition, the nobles of Spain were disdainful of the guitar as it was then an instrument of the common people. To solve these problems, the four-string guitar was enlarged and given six double strings, turned in the same manner as the present six-string guitar with the exception of the third string, turned a half tone lower. This was the instrument that came to be known simply as vihuela.
In its final form, the vihuela was a guitar with six double strings made of gut. The large type of vihuela was some four inches longer than the modern guitar. The neck had twelve frets.
One of the first vihuela players, whose publications are known to us was Luis Milan born in 1500. In 1535, he published a book, Libro de Musica de Vihuela de Mano Intitulalo “El Maestro”. This was probably Milan’s most important work.

The last known vihuela is dated 1700 and represents the instrument’s final stages of development. Its frets are metal, the curves along the sides have deepened and the sound hole is oval type. The popularity of the instrument is evident from the large quantity of music still extant written to it. Music for the vihuela was written in tablature: in this system, each line of the staff represents a string of the instrument. In Spanish and Italian tablatures, the top string is represented by the bottom line, while in French and English tablatures, the reverse would be the case. The numbers on the lines indicate the fret to be stopped on that particuliar string. Notes values are indicated by various notes types placed above the staff. These are similar to our present day notes.

The first to publicate works of Spanish tablature for the vihuela were Luis de Milan in 1535, Luis de Narvaez in 1538, Alonso de Mudarra in 1546.This collection of tablatures contains the finest instrumental compositions of the Renaissance. The sixteenth century was golden age of Spanish vihuela music.

The Four-string guitar

The four-string Egyptian guitar, once arrived in Europe, underwent a considerable change in form. The number of strings became variable, passing from three, four, and five strings. However, the four-string guitar emerged as the most popular by the end of the medieval period.
In the 15th century, the terms chitarra and chitarino (Italy), guitarra (Spain), quitare, quinterne (France), and gyterne (England) referred to a round-backed instrument that later developed into the mandolin. Only in the 16th century did several of these terms come to be used for members of the guitar family

All of its four strings were double in most of Europe with the exception of Italy, where the first string remained single, and the tuning of the Italian instrument differed from the standard system. Whereas, the general practice was to tune the lowest course in octave, with the remaining three each tuned in unisson, the Italians tuned the two lowest courses in octave, the remaining double course in unisson, the first string being single. Both systems used the tuning G, C, E, A most frequently.
In Spain, there appeared to have been two main tuning systems for the four-string guitar. The first tuning was G, D, F#, B. This tuning was more suitable for old ballads and musica golpeada (strummed music) than for music of the present time. The other tuning is identical to the tuning of the first four strings of the modern guitar.

The first of the Spanish tablatures to include serious music for the four-string guitar were those of Alonso Mudarra. It included four fantasias, a pavana and the romanesca “G?rdame las Vacas”. The second work to include four-string guitar was Miguel de Fuenllana’s Orphelina Lyra. The last work containing music for this instrument was Juan Carlos Arnat’s Guitarra Espa?ola y Vandola de cinco Ordenes y de Quatro, in 1586.

As these Spanish tablatures were being published, the popularity of the four-string guitar was rising in France and Italy. In Italy, a collection of guitar music was published in Venice under the title Libro de tabolatura de chitarra, by Paolo Virchi. The growing number of publications was paralleled by the number of noted guitar players.

In France, the effects of music printing became manifest. From 1551 to 1555, five books of guitar tablatures were issued in Paris by Adrian Le Roy and Robert Ballard. These books contain fantasias and pieces in dance such as branles, galliards; music for voice and guitar: psalms, chansons. These compositions came from many masters. It gives the proof that a true school of guitar playing existed in France in the sixteenth century.

From Germany, we have the name of two guitar players: Michael Janusch and Michel Mulich.
There must have existed a great many number of guitarists, in those countries, who will remained anonymous whose music never reached the press as it was nearly impossible to publish without royal sanction.

Five-string guitar

In the Middle Ages, the co-existence of three, four and five string guitars was noted. By the fifteenth century, the four-double strings instrument excelled in popularity. In the sixteenth century, it in turn was gradually replaced by the five double string guitar .

The first evidence of a true five-string guitar is an Italian engraving in the fifteenth century. The instrument, itself is at least as large as its modern counterpart, the soundbox appears to be larger than that of the present day guitar. Its fine construction draws our attention to the excellent craftmanship for which Italian luthiers of this period were known.

The five-string guitar had a derivative known as the chitarra battente. It is characterized by a soundbox the back of which curves gently outwards instead of being simply flat. It has a bridge with foliage designs at each end. It had tied-on gut frets and a lute-like bridge glued to the soundboard. The back of the soundbox is decorated with white stripes. These motives were to become very popular later on. In its earlier days, the chitarra battente was primarly a strummed instrument. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, it became a plucked in addition to being a strummed instrument. The popularity of the chitarra battente is attested to by its frequent representation in paintings.
The same observation on the taste for decoration holds true for the French Rizzio guitar. It is decorated with tortoise shell, ivory, mother of pearl and ebony.

In Spain, the most comprehensive work on the five-string guitar was published in 1586 in Barcelona. Written by Juan Carlos Amat, it has a section on the five-string dealing with a new method of playing and contains several compositions for this instrument.

In conclusion: the five-string guitar came to being as a result of the development and transformation of the four-string guitar. The tuning of the five-string instrument was A-D-G-B-E as on the five first strings of the modern guitar. Since the tuning of the four-string guitar was the same as that used on the first four strings of the modern guitar, the low A string was the later addition. The five-string guitar emerged from Italy to its acceptance and increasing popularity throughout sixteenth century Europe.

Six-string guitar

Decidedly, the most important factor in the development of the guitar was the addition of the sixth string. It was without doubt an innovation that belongs to the eighteenth century, just as the five-string guitar was a product of the sixteenth. The Italian origin of the six-string guitar is favored by many arguments:
1) The Italian chitarra battente of the late seventeenth of early eighteenth century had an arrangment of six courses of two strings each.
2) A 1732 publication by J.F.B.K. Majer gives the tuning for a six-string guitar.
3) The first six-string German guitar made by Otto, was constructed accordingly to the Italian method.
The precise date, for when the six double strings were replaced by six single strings, is not known. But it is safe to assume that, the six single-string arrangment goes back to the middle of the eighteenth century. Toward the end of the century, the guitar with six single strings overshadowed all other types.
The six-string guitar had become the norm. The rosette gave way to an open hole, while the neck was lenghtened and fitted with a raised fingerboard extending to the sound hole. Nineteen fixed metal frets eventually became standard. The bridge was raised, the body enlarged, and fan-strutting introduced beneath the table to support higher tension strings. Treble strings were made of gut (superseded by more durable nylon after World War II), bass strings from metal wound on silk (or, more recently, nylon floss). Tablature became obsolete, guitar music being universally written in the treble clef, sounding an octave lower than written.

Unusual guitars

The seventeenth century was a period during which the guitar went through a number of structural changes. New and unusual instruments were being fashioned, innovations tried, some of which lasted well into the nineteenth century.

The desire for better sound moved many luthiers to experiment with varying shapes for the instrument. Also, there was at this time a great love for strangeness and novelty for their own sake.
Probably the most spectacular guitars developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the closely related lyre-guitar and harp-guitar.

The lyre-guitar had a single neck between a pair of wing-like appendages.

The harp-guitar had three necks, each with a full complement of six or seven strings. Only one set of strings could be played at a time.

A guitar with an extended soundbox was build in England. The extension is simply a long rectangular protrusion with its own sound hole. This was probably an attempt to improve the sound of the instrument by increasing the resonance of the soundbox.

Many of these innovations were discarded as soon as they were proven impratical, but three variations on the basic guitar found a certain degree of acceptance.
First was the bass guitar, which consisted of a standard guitar with extra bass strings numbering two to six. These were strung either by having the neck curved to accomodate an extra tuning head by adding a second neck without frets.

The other two accepted types of guitar - the terzguitar and the quartguitar - were closely related to each other. The former was smaller than the modern guitar and was tuned a minor third higher: G-C-F-Bb-D-G. The latter was even smaller and was tuned a fourth higher than the modern guitar: A-D-G-C-E-A. Many composers, among them Giuliani and Diabelli, wrote for these instruments. The bass guitar, the terzguitar and the quartguitar did not survive beyond the first quarter of the twentieth century.