March 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part I

The arrival of spring (?) in the UK heralds a new approach to CRAVE Guitars’ regular monthly articles. For some time, I have been interested in the history of the world’s favourite musical instrument. There is certainly plenty of information about the heritage from the mid‑20th Century onwards, much of it, however, is ambiguous and conflicting. As one looks further and further into the past, the lore becomes increasingly more vague, contradictory and incomplete. There seemed to be scant reliable information in book form and little dependable detail on the hinterwebby thing. There is considerable quantity of material and a relative scarcity of quality. NB. This may be adding to the latter, I guess!

So… a while back, I started researching the topic purely for my own interest and to satisfy my curiosity about where and how the guitar originated. As the scope of the topic broadened and the need to wade through misinformation deepened, I concluded that it may be sensible to start writing it down. Documenting my endeavours was a good idea as it turns out, as it proved invaluable when trying to make sense of it all. Disentangling the various perspectives has been a challenge and corroborating the ‘facts’ has proved equally difficult.

Frustratingly, there isn’t really enough material to turn it into a fully-fledged book. I have no interest in padding it out for the sake of it and thereby losing the essence in the process. In any case, it wasn’t an academic research project and I simply can’t be bothered with going back through everything just to reference all the narrative and credit other resources that have largely been gleaned from the public domain. There is no profit element involved, so copyright isn’t an issue. I do, however, thank anyone who might have contributed in some way.

Then, I thought, why not break the story down into manageable chunks and use it as a basis for monthly articles? There is now too much material to be able to use the original full‑fat ‘storyline’ in this format, so I’ve decided to abridge the narrative for easier digestion and issue it as a series of articles. Out of necessity, it will be in sequential, chronological format over several, although not necessarily consecutive months.

As you might imagine, this endeavour turned into a bit of an involved personal mission, rather than a ‘proper’ study. It is presented in this format purely for entertainment purposes and not for any sort of gain. As a result of these factors, I don’t anticipate that it will be published elsewhere, so it is therefore intended to be of primary interest to fans of the guitar. Due the sketchiness of information covering significant periods of time, it is presented as I have tried to rationalise it. As always, I don’t purport to provide the definitive ‘truth’ on the subject. If anyone has evidence to help improve the authenticity of the ‘story’, I would be very happy to amend the timeline or the supporting detail to give a more accurate potted history.

As mentioned above, the articles have been split into several parts for easier consumption. This first article in the series explores the ancestry of the guitar from the primitive beginnings in the ancient world, through the developing civilisations, expansion during the Middle Ages, and to the point of familiarity in the early European Renaissance.

In presenting this story, I have to assume that readers will have some prior knowledge about the basic characteristics of stringed instruments and, particularly, terminology of guitar features. For instance, where I refer to string courses, this means the practice of stringing instruments with pairs of strings tuned (generally) in unison.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

One has to start somewhere so, this first part includes a little background context before looking back in time as far as it is possible to go. There may well have been proto stringed instruments that pre‑date the earliest evidence but we can only conjecture what they might have been like – we can only consider what the earliest artefacts can tell us. There have probably been infinite variations and adaptations along the way, so this article picks up on, perhaps debatably, the most relevant milestones to get to where we are today.

Many learned commentators suggest that the guitar as we know it has its origins in the 16th to 18th Century Europe. While they make a valid point, guitars weren’t invented out of the blue to appear as the fully formed instrument we know and love today, so this fact alone implies that its roots are much older and more convoluted.

Many of the early instruments described in this article may only have influenced the guitar’s incremental development, rather than defined it outright. However, assessing the guitar’s long lineage is worth doing if only to put the modern instrument into a broader historical context.

Before we really dive into the subject matter, I am aware of the many, many different types of stringed instruments from all over the world, many of them exotic and many others far removed from the guitar. However, in order to stay focused on the subject matter, those other instruments, often only tangential to the guitar’s story, are probably best left for a different topic and won’t be covered here.

So… exactly what is a guitar?

There are some fundamentals that underpin the historical development that makes up the guitar’s ‘story’. So, from what and where did the word ‘guitar’ originate?


  • Ancient Greek – kithara
  • Roman (Latin) – cithara
  • Andalusian Arabic – qitara
  • Spanish – guitarra
  • French – guitare
  • German – gitarre
  • English – guitar


The origin of the word ‘guitar’ is commonly constructed of 2 key parts. The suffix, ‘tar’ (or something like it, see above), comes from the ancient Sanskrit, simply meaning ‘string’. The prefix often refers to the number of strings that an instrument may have, including the following examples (recognising that there are many variations of the spellings):

  • 2 strings – Dotar – Persian long-necked lute
  • 3 strings – Setar – Persian, which may or may not have led to the Indian sitar (see also sattar below)
  • 4 strings – Chartar – Persian, from which it is believed that the early 4-string Spanish guitar, the guitarra, derives
  • 5 strings – Panchtar – Afghanistan
  • 7 strings – Sattar – from which it is believed the Indian sitar derives, which has 6/7 played strings

Many modern, regional stringed folk instruments retain the ‘tar’ suffix in some form, with some just colloquially called ‘tars’.

The word ‘guitar’ is largely recognised to derive from the Latin word ‘cithara’ which, in turn, may stem from the earlier Greek word ‘kithara’. However, as we’ll see, the instrument’s evolution may actually have taken a different geographical and chronological path from the past to the modern day, possibly from Arabia via North Africa and Spain.


The system for categorising musical instruments comes from the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification (1914). Guitars are part of a broader musical instrument classification known as a chordophone, which is defined as “a musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points”. Chordophones include 4 main groupings within which other familiar instruments are categorised. Those groupings are; violins, guitars, lyres and harps. The main division of chordophones into which the guitar falls are known as composite because they have “a resonator that forms an integral part of the instrument”, i.e. with a sound chamber, unlike a piano or harpsichord. A chordophone’s strings may be plucked, bowed or struck.

The modern amplified electric guitar would initially appear to diverge from this definition and designation. However, in order to fit the electric guitar into a pre‑existing system, it is generally categorised as a ‘solid body electric chordophone’.

Guitar Anatomy

As a brief introduction to what makes a guitar a guitar in the minds of most 21st Century players, the following diagram shows the basic components of the modern acoustic and electric guitar.

The origins of guitar-like instruments

Many of the time periods indicated herein are approximate with no precise or definitive start and end dates. Also, many of the time periods (and geographies) overlap, rather than being sequential and discrete. The information is therefore indicative and only to be consumed as a (hopefully) helpful rough guide.

The Ancient World

The roots of the instrument extend way back from human pre‑history (i.e. before written records began around the 3rd millennium BCE) through to the start of classical antiquity (c.8th Century BCE) and the emergence of the major civilisations often characterised by urban development, social stratification and symbolic communication systems.

The earliest forerunners of the guitar have their origins in the Middle East region populated by Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian societies. Around the time that these cultures started to keep historical records in the Bronze Age (c.3000‑1200 BCE), people also started to chronicle the presence of musical instruments as an integral part of their social order.

The earliest instruments were probably similar to our understanding of a bowl harp, which had a curved neck, round back, hide soundboard and a variable number of strings. They are clearly not guitars, although they do perhaps indicate where some of the key characteristics of modern-day guitars originated. Some of these early stringed instruments are conserved in museums and contemporary variations of these ancient instruments appear to have survived into the modern era. Due partly to local custom and partly to increasing interest in historic musical instruments, some modern regional folk instruments are very similar to these early archetypes.

Around 2000-1500 BCE, the tanbur, originally a 3-stringed instrument with a long straight neck, pear-shaped body and round back began to appear in regions such as Mesopotamia (roughly equivalent to current day Iraq) and Turkey spreading to central and southern Asia. One of the earliest depictions of this guitar-like instrument appears in Babylonian wall carvings from c.1800 BCE. Other wall carvings made over 3,000 years ago during the Hittite civilisation (1600‑717 BCE), which occupied much of Asia Minor, show a distinctly guitar-like tanbur being played.

Early lute-like instruments with long necks similar to the tanbur first appeared in Mesopotamia over 3,000 years ago and spread throughout the ancient world, including Egypt, Greece, Italy, Turkey, India and China. The word ‘lute’ is often used to refer to these early long-neck instruments. However, the term can be confusing as it did not come into common usage until much later and is usually used to denote to the more familiar form of short‑neck medieval European lutes.

It isn’t clear exactly what the evolutionary path is between the largely figurative prototypes dating back 3,500 years and the modern interpretations of today. It is likely that many ancient cultures developed primitive stringed, largely fretless instruments with similarities to either artefacts (physical remains) or representations (images) from the period.

Major Civilisations (c.3000 BCE-500 CE)

The Egyptians (3000-1800 BCE) – Egyptian wall paintings, including some from Thebes c.1420 BCE and elsewhere show that tanburs, harps, long lutes and other musical instruments were widely used around that time. As the reach of ancient civilisations extended outwards from the ‘cradle of civilisation’ in the Middle East, carried by travellers, explorers, and merchants from Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia to Turkey and Greece, as well as further afield including Afghanistan and India, so did their musical instrument design influences. While there may not be instruments attributed specifically to the Egyptians, they may be credited with dispersing existing instruments in an organised way that had not existed before, thereby possibly contributing to more rapid evolution of these pre‑guitars.

The Greeks (800-146 BCE) – The kithara was an ancient Greek stringed instrument of the simple lyre (or lyra) family from c.1000 BCE-1 CE. While the common harp-like lyre was a folk instrument played by most Greek classes, the kithara was considered a ‘professional’ version of the instrument used for public performance by trained musicians (kitharodes). The kithara had 7 or more gut strings of equal length, strummed with a plektron (a precursor of the modern plectrum or pick). While the kithara wasn’t similar to the present‑day guitar, it may be an important link between rudimentary early instruments and a more refined and technical approach to design and construction. The word kithara has come to mean guitar in present day Greece.

Originating around the 4th Century BCE, there was another group of popular Greek long‑neck, lute-like instruments known as the pandura, also adopted by the Romans.

The Romans (753 BCE-476 CE) – The Romans admired and adopted many Greek instruments including the 2-string lyre, the 3-string lute and the 7‑string cithara (now with Latin spelling), the latter was mentioned in the Bible. The Romans also continued the Greek tradition of playing the pandura. Alongside the cithara, the Egyptian influenced Roman Byzantine long lute brought the instrument to prominence and has similarities to the much earlier tanbur. Perhaps strangely, there is little evidence to suggest that the Romans added much in their own right to the fundamental design and development of existing instruments. Importantly, what the Romans did, though, was to introduce the instrument throughout much of continental Europe.

The Persians (550 BCE-224 CE) – One version of the guitar’s ‘family tree’ may begin in ancient Egypt, then adapted and improved upon by Greek and Roman cultures. Alternatively, the guitar’s origins may begin with members of the early long lute family in Persia from a 4‑stringed instrument known as the chartar, which arrived in Europe as a result of Arabic expansion via Africa. A separate branch of evolution possibly spread eastward towards India, the 3-string (a 4th string was added in the 19th Century) setar, which may have been influential in that country’s development of the sitar. Later instruments dating from the 15th Century include the 2-string dotar originally a humble shepherd’s instrument.

Some commentators suggest that the nomenclature, kithara/cithara and chartar, bear a passing resemblance to the modern word ‘guitar’, although there is probably little evidence, other than supposition, to support the validity of this particular claim.

The Middle Ages (5th-15th Centuries CE)

Roughly, the Middle Ages (sometimes referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’) of medieval Europe spans a 1,000 year period from c.476 CE following the fall of the Roman Empire to c.1450 CE with the beginning of the Renaissance and the ‘Age of Discovery’. The Middle Ages are generally characterised by many as a period during which there was little in the way of significant scientific or artistic accomplishments.

There are Middle Age manuscripts and numerous religious iconographies which suggest that guitar-like instruments were making their way across medieval Europe and the design fundamentals were probably being adapted and improved along the way to meet the cultural and social needs of musicians.

While the guitar’s roots almost undoubtedly lie in the Middle East, its development appears to have resulted from widespread distribution over an extended period of time in the vacuum left in the post-Roman era. While different scholars may adopt their own preferred view, it is likely that there isn’t a single traceable path and that early guitar development probably occurred via a number of different routes, along with a number of evolutionary dead ends, derivations and mutations along the way. Some of these archetypes survived, some didn’t, and some were modified or merged either in part or whole to fit the situations in which they were used. While the picture during the Middle Ages is both complex and unclear, the key evolutionary milestones to today’s instruments most certainly occurred in Europe rather than Asia.

In the 8th Century CE (c.711) the Moors from the Islamic world invaded the Iberian Peninsula from northern Africa. During the Middle Ages they brought with them an Arabic four-string fretless instrument known as the oud (meaning ‘wood’). With further development, including the addition of tied gut frets and a 5th string, it may have led to what is now widely recognised as the European, short or medieval lute (to some degree a descendant of, and distinct from, the earlier Egyptian, Greek and Roman lutes). The headstock of the medieval lute is traditionally set at a very sharp angle to the neck, making tuning both difficult and unreliable. The lute’s appearance is instantly recognisable today and differentiates it from the more guitar‑like instruments that would follow.

While sharing some characteristics with early guitars, the lute is arguably a separate but parallel line of progress from Bronze Age Arabian cultures. Whether the genetic route to current day is a result of European trade following the demise of the Roman Empire or via Arabic invasion from Africa (or both), the direct ‘missing link’ to prove the classical guitar’s lineage is likely to lie somewhere in medieval Spain as the Middle Ages overlapped and merged with the early European Renaissance.

Early Renaissance (14th-17th Centuries)

The French word renaissance translates as ‘rebirth’ or ‘reawakening’ and stands for a resurgence of interest in classical learning and culture in Europe with significant achievements in art, science and social orders.

European antecedents of the guitar include the archaic, small box-like, 4-string fretless citole that appeared from c.12th to 15th Centuries. Some commentators suggest that the holly leaf-shaped instrument may be a French form of the ancient cithara, although the physical similarities between the two are far from obvious. The citole is often cited as a distant relative of the guitar and is often confused with the more guitar-like cittern (see below) which possibly superseded it. There are visual depictions of citole-like instruments although there is only one surviving, adapted example, now looking more like a prototype of the violin rather than a guitar, dating to the 14th Century, which is now part of the British Museum collection (from Warwick Castle, previously labelled as a gittern – also see below).

The pear-shaped cittern (French) or cistre (Italian) was a 4-course, flat-backed, metal-strung fretted instrument that appeared in Western Europe in the 13th Century and was relatively common during the European Renaissance. The cittern bore a greater similarity to a guitar than the lute and was popular amongst most social classes, often played by travelling minstrels and court musicians, as well as by amateurs within their local communities. The cittern remained popular in England up to the 18th Century, often referred to as ‘English guitars’ to differentiate them from the ‘Spanish guitars’ emerging from continental Europe. Visually, citterns are sometimes confused with the mandolin-like gittern, a 3 or 4‑course, round‑backed instrument from Western Europe, which also appeared around the 13th Century. There are only three known surviving examples of the gittern, currently residing in American, German and Polish museum collections.

Meanwhile, in Medieval Spain, the European guitar’s essential DNA began to coalesce into 2 distinct forms by c.1200 CE. These two variants include the lute-like Guitarra Morisca (Moorish guitar) and the more guitar‑like Guitarra Latina (Latin guitar). By c.1400 CE, these 2 main variants effectively converged and were henceforth commonly referred to simply as Spanish guitarra or simply ‘Spanish Guitars’. From this point onward, the generic word ‘guitar’ to describe these instruments is both common and appropriate.

After 3,000 years of evolution, many historians suggest that the story of the guitar as we know it really began around the 16th Century CE. Certainly, examples of European fretted, stringed instruments from the mid‑Renaissance onwards certainly appear much more guitar-like than their predecessors. In addition, there are many more surviving examples in museum and heritage collections for academics and enthusiasts to study in detail. The convergence and rationalisation of diverse influences will be explored in the next part of the guitar’s development.

End of Part I

This is where the first part of the guitar’s long history must end… for now. This juncture seems a sensible place to stop as, for me, it represents the dividing line between the guitar’s pre‑existence and the guitar itself. The next instalment in the series will explore the remainder of the Renaissance period and the transformation from some unusual stringed instruments to generally more recognisable forms. These fascinating instruments will become the direct ancestors of today’s familiar guitars.

I hope that this introduction has whetted your appetite for subsequent episodes and you’ll join me on subsequent stages of the journey. To many, the later parts may become more interesting as the guitar’s features morph and converge into what we use nowadays. Be patient, there are few hundred years still to go before we get there.

Thank you for reading. I’m off to plink a modern (vintage) guitar. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “If we fail to learn from the past, we will fail to live as a species”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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