Few instruments capture the imagination of instrumentalists from around the world as much as the guitar. It is remarkable how the guitar has come, from a humble acoustic stringed instrument to the heavily-amplified and affected electric of today that can rock stadiums full of people.
Guitar’s earliest surviving ancestors include the tanbur, which is believed to have originated from Mesopotamia, Central or Southern Asia, and the cithara, an ancient greek instrument . After making their journey to Europe, these instruments began to change over time.
Throughout the centuries, the tanbur went from three sets (or courses) of strings, to five, and eventually settled at six single strings in the 18th century. These were smaller than what we are accustomed to today. The first guitars that look like the acoustic guitars of now were developed by Antonio de Torres Jurado. He introduced mechanical tuning pegs, fan bracing, and a wider body with a more pronounced waist. The design proved so popular that it was copied by many.
When Jurado’s design made it over to the United States, it was developed further. Christian Frederick Martin created the first flat-top guitar and designed it to have X-bracing inside in order to accommodate steel strings. This became the most popular guitar style in the West.
With the large music ensembles of the day, the intricacies of what was playable on the instrument were getting lost. This led to jazz players putting pickups on their arch-tops. The first commercially available electrified guitar was by Rickenbacker and was called the ‘Frying Pan’. It was marketed primarily for lap steel. The first electric guitars to take off in popularity were created by Leo Fender and Les Paul (their designs were put out by Fender and Gibson, respectively) in the 1950s. These models have become iconic and are still used today.
The main change in recent decades is not so much the design of electric guitars (most electric designs tend to be variations on designs popularized by Fender & Gibson), but the modifications that are made to their sound through effects. The first effect happened when players turned up their amps so loud that it would overdrive, creating an exciting new sound. The first effects unit was a tremolo that sat on top of an amp in 1946. In the 1950s, a bar was added to the body of a guitar that you could use to artificially create vibrato. In 1961, Leo Fender created the first reverb unit, still one of the most popular effects in all of music. On guitar, its popularity is second only to distortion/fuzz, which was introduced in pedal form in the beginning of the 60s and hit big once it was used by The Rolling Stones in their song ‘Satisfaction’.
Those are the basics of guitar’s past, be sure to check out Create More Music to see how you can fit into its future.