The History of the Guitar, the World’s Most Popular Instrument
by Alain Abou Atmeh, Dec 2, 2016 . 3 min read
The music industry is constantly evolving and revolutionizing. Changes in the audience’s taste and musicians’ desires to experiment and push the envelope have forced the musical world to modernize and create new instruments to meet demands, from the theremin in the 1920’s to the latest apps found on the laptops of electronic musicians. But one thing has remained constant this entire time: the centrality of the guitar, the most popular instrument in the world. While violins, drums, and clarinets are wonderful and well-loved instruments, guitars have been the nucleus of the music industry and it’s impossible to dispute the pride of place it has in many musical genres, from folk to heavy metal. Despite all the new instruments crowding the market, the guitar is still the most played instrument in the world and continues to be a favorite for youngsters who want to start playing.
Ever wonder when, why, and how this important instrument was invented? Read on and find out.
The history of the guitar, with some variations, can be traced back more than 4000 years. There are many theories about its origins: many believe that it’s an enhanced model of an ancient instrument called the “lute,” which was used to play folk and traditional songs, while others see it as a relative of the Greek “kithara.” While compelling, prestigious music historians such as Dr. Michael Kasha, have proved these accounts to be unreliable.
Things start getting much clearer, however, once archeologists discovered the guitar’s oldest ancestor: a string instrument named the “tanbur.” The tanbur has, with some differences, the shape of the guitar. It’s perhaps no surprise that the Egyptians, being such a culturally rich civilization, were involved in its invention. These instruments eventually evolved into the Oud, which spread into the Arabic islands. Later, Europeans adopted the instrument and added some frets to enhance its look. They christened it the lute, paying tribute to its Arabic name, Al-Oud (meaning “perfumed wood”).
The lute’s popularity eventually gave way to the guitar, named after the Sanskrit word for “string.” The instrument in its many variations—including two-, three-, and four-string models—became very popular in many European countries during the 16th and 17th centuries. While most people are roughly familiar with acoustic and electric guitars, the instrument continues to boast a wide range of variations. Guitars ranging from contrabass to treble and with varying numbers of strings are played in Europe and Latin America. The twelve-string guitar has six double courses placed in standard tuning. The Hawaii Guitar or steel guitar is laid across the knees of the player instead of propped upright. And, of course, there is the famous electric guitar, played mostly in rock music but not unheard of in jazz and other genres. It’s a solid, non-vibrating body guitar made of steel.
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