• OVERVIEW •
No tuning is the ‘best’ – but the popularity of our modern ‘standard’ makes sense, balancing geometric clarity, harmonic versatility, and physical convenience. The perfect 4ths-based layout gives a curiously vacant-sounding ‘open chord’ of Em7(11), ripe for multidirectional expansions in many global genres. Its most distinctive quirk is the irregular major 3rd jump between 3>2str (‘5>5>5>4>5′), preventing a dissonant E-to-F semitone clash arising between 6-1str (to keep it in, try All Fourths).
EADGBE has roots in Renaissance Europe, where various proto-guitars of the 15th and 16th centuries (including the English lute and Iberian vihuela) were set to layouts of ADGBE or similar. Mediterranean luthiers seem to have added the low E a few generations later – although it would take far longer for our instrument’s design to truly ‘settle’ (if it ever really has…). Read on for some long-scale string history!
Harmony: Em7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• Guitarcheology: Six-String Origins •
Our view of guitar history tends to be somewhat iceberg-shaped. Despite an unimaginable wealth of recorded six-string sounds, this preserved proportion of axe activity only spans a small fraction of the whole. The rest, forever lost to the waves of time (or, more accurately, the winds), forms the inaudible foundations of today’s repertoire – thus shaping the lifelong fascinations and everyday routines of countless people across the world (n.b. naturally, this framing is overly neat: after all, most of today’s notes still go unrecorded…). So, where do guitars come from? How did we arrive at our modern designs?
- Prehistoric mysteries (~13000 B.C.): cave-painted ambiguities
- Ancient artefacts (~3000 B.C.): Mesopotamian grave harps
- From lyres to lutes (~0 C.E.): Central Asia to Central London
- Renaissance experiments (~1300): extra strings & more
- Baroque expansions (~1600): radical growth of size & scope
- Paths to modernity (~1750): finalising the core elements
- The age of electric steel (~1930): the birth of amplification
- Etymologies of the string: guitars, sitars, dotars, & zithers
- Bonus: earliest recordings: the first surviving guitar sessions
The strange resonances of stretched strings have likely provoked intrigue since the earliest days of our evolution – suggesting that the guitar’s basic ‘chordophone’ concept (plucking a taut line fixed at both ends) may have been discovered independently by multiple cultures through time. Initial designs might have derived from hunting bows, fishing line, or natural fibers (although more recent scholarship has disputed these functional assumptions). Given the decomposability of wood-and-string constructions, it’s vanishingly unlikely that we’ll ever know.
Still, we do have some remarkably ancient creations to mull over. The earliest evidence of string-playing activity comes from the Trois Frères cave complex in Southern France, a 430m system of passageways and chambers which, in 1912, was found to contain a wealth of Palaeolithic paintings. Hidden amongst hundreds of other creatures (170 bison, 84 horses, 40 deer, 20 ibex, 8 bears, 6 birds, 6 felines, 2 mammoths, and 1 woolly rhinoceros), a curious horned figure can be seen, apparently cradling a shoulder-mounted string instrument of some kind.
(Trois Frères cave sketches: c.13,000 B.C.)
“Hundreds of years before the dawn of history…No one knows who they were, or what they were doing…But their legacy remains, hewn into the living rock” (Eminent sonic archeologist Nigel Tufnel on Stonehenge)
Debate persists over the age of the image (current consensus dates it to around 13,000 B.C.), and also over exactly what it depicts. While most see the instrument as some form of ‘mouth bow’, others consider it to be a flute – while some dispute these musical connections entirely. However, we do know that human music long predates this period.
German caves have revealed mammoth-bone flutes fashioned over 40,000 years ago (presumably the ‘Warhammer era‘) – and an intriguing analysis of ~20,000-year-old French cave art concludes that, “the presence of wall paintings [is] highly correlated with [points] of natural echo…and especially so at particular resonant frequencies“, with the juiciest acoustic zones often indicated by “precisely-coded…lines or dots emerging from the mouth of a person or animal” (basically, the oldskool version of cranking up the volume: “look, these caves go to 11!”).
Despite the incredible age of these cave images, no actual string instruments have yet been discovered from truly prehistoric times (i.e. before the dawn of writing). In fact, the following ten millennia remain largely mysterious (the real underground era) – with the next-oldest significant source being a collection of cylindrical seals found in a ~3100 B.C. Mesopotamian tomb (in modern-day Iraq), depicting what is thought to be a woman playing a ‘stick-lute’ of some kind.
However, not far away, dating from only a few centuries later, we have the earliest definitive examples of surviving string instruments. During 1929 excavations of another Mesopotamian burial site, the Royal Cemetery at Ur, segments of three lyres and a harp were unearthed, estimated to have been buried circa 2,500 B.C. – during the ‘Early Dynastic III’ period of regional civilisation, when the first city states were beginning to form, and formalised written scripts were starting to take hold.
- The Sumerian Silver Lyre – Peter Pringle (c.2500 B.C.):
“The lyre was discovered in the ‘Great Death Pit’…On the access ramp, as if guarding the entrance, were six soldiers with weapons. In the pit were 68 women wearing elaborate jewellery. Most lay close together, arranged in rows, but four were grouped around musical instruments…” (British Museum)
The lyres, adorned with ornate detail (“wood, shell, lapis lazuli, red stone, silver, gold…white mosaic…a silver-cast cow’s head…a seafaring vessel…the statue of a stag”), had been placed right next to the bodies of four women: presumed to be the musicians who played them. [n.b. If so, this would mean that three of our earliest known string-toting ancestors were: a horned mythical beast (Trois Frères caves), a female stick-stringer (Mesopotamian scrolls), and a quartet of lyre-wielding women (Ur tombs). So much for the guitar being an inherently male instrument!]
Many other lyre-type instruments from throughout the next few millennia have been discovered, with Levantine, Mediterranean, and West Asian cultures in particular displaying advanced levels of craftsmanship. Ancient Greek and Middle Eastern lyres were tuned via cloth or leather ‘bulges’ at the end of each string, which could be adjusted to control tension (much like a modern Strat’s saddle screws, or a sitar’s swan-bead) – with Sumerian variants also adding wedge-like wooden implements.
Boat-shaped Egyptian shoulder-harps have been unearthed from 1,300 B.C. (see below) – while the Natya Shastra, a ~200 B.C. aesthetic textbook covering India’s already-ancient classical arts, lists four main instrument types: tata (‘stringed’), susira (‘hollow’), avandha (‘closed drum’), and gana (‘rhythmic support’) – all of which turn up in the rock art of Madhya Pradesh’s Pachmarhi caves, dating from around a century earlier, alongside images of people “holding hands, dancing, beating drums…paintings of fantastical creatures…[and] scenes of tree worship“.
- The Pan-African Shoulder Harp – Michael Levy (c.1300 B.C.):
“Ancient Sunrise: an improvisation for archaic African arched harp; the Ugandan Adungu – almost identical [to] the Egyptian shoulder harp of the New Kingdom, some 3,500 years ago. Indeed, it is likely that most…arched harps and lyres still played today [in] Africa originally arrived there via trade routes between Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East: an amazing living musical legacy dating back to the time of the Pharaohs!” (Michael Levy)
The oldest string-music artefact discovered in Western Europe is a broken, burned bridge fragment lying amongst Neolithic paraphernalia in a cave on Scotland’s Skye Island, estimated at 300 B.C. (…although there’s a gap of about 900 years before the next European example: a set of Viking lyres dating from circa 600 A.D). According to historical harpologist Dr. John Purser, the Scottish instruments would have been used for “praise songs, funeral elegies, and incitement”, across “three basic types of music: ‘sleep strain’, ‘wail strain’, and ‘laughter strain’…The panegyric [eulogistic oration] tradition is deeply embedded in [Celtic] culture”.
—From lyres to lutes—
But what even is a lyre? And how are they different from lutes? In technical terms, a lyre consists of a “yoke: two arms and a crossbar, projecting out from the body”, whereas a lute has “strings parallel to its soundboard, running along a distinct neck or pole”. In other words, lyres are like Y-shaped harps, with nothing to press the strings against, while lutes incorporate some form of fingerboard – opening up a vast array of new pitch manipulation techniques (…what is fretting but shortening strings?).
Lyres long predate lutes – inevitable given the complexities of fretboards (take it from a primary school teacher: we still haven’t figured out how to make entry-level ukuleles with consistently bearable intonation). While the 3,100 B.C. Akkadian seals from above seem to depict a stick-lute player of some kind, the first representations of recognisably guitaristic designs are from at least a few millennia later on. As per Turnbull et al, multiple lute variants “appeared in Central Asia in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C…These lutes were of many kinds; the guitar shape is found in examples dating from the 1st to 4th century C.E.“
Curiously, instruments of this shape are not met again until the appearance of bowed lutes in 11th-century Byzantine miniatures. However, from this time onwards, guitar-like forms also became increasingly common in the Medieval iconography of mainland Europe – for example the citole, a plectrum-operated, partially fretted lute which evolved from the cithara of Late Antiquity (a category of unfrettable lyre). Hugely influential in its era, the citole’s design is still evident in today’s Corsican ceteras and Portuguese fado-guitars.
- Chansonnier du Roi – María de Mingo Carranza (c.1255):
“The citole makes its appearance late in the 12th century, and seems wildly popular throughout the 13th [and] 14th…There are a number of mentions of it in 13th-century Spain; including a ‘citoler’ in the court of Alfonso the Wise (1252-1284) named Lourenco…involved in a court case where a knight, apparently unhappy with the music, smashed his citole over his head…It appeared heavily favored in England, by the number of players hired by courts there, including…’Janyn the Citoler’, who was paid one mark for performing at the Westminster Festivities of 1305″ (Paul Butler/Rutgers – n.b. as per the National Archives, a single 1310 mark totalled around 2 months wages for a skilled labourer: enough to purchase a whole cow with change to spare. From one freelance London guitarist to another, props on getting paid!)
The precise origins of these proto-guitars remain shrouded in mystery – in part a legacy of the era’s thriving transcontinental trade routes, which had long been scattering a wide variety of lutes (and luthieric knowledge) across vast expanses of Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, India, and beyond. As per Grove, some regard them as “a remote development from the Ancient Greek kithara…and others [see] ancestors among the long-necked lutes of early Mesopotamia and Anatolia, or in the flat-backed Coptic lutes of Egypt”.
The Early Renaissance saw an explosion of instrumental innovation. Aiming to boost volume, European luthiers began adding ‘double courses’ (like a modern 12-string) some time in the 14th century – and, around the turn of the 15th, their descendants extended the melodic range with extra strings. Grove again: “A 5th course was added in the treble, and later…a 6th [in] the bass, resulting [in] the tuning [G-C-F-A-D-G = ‘5>5>4>5>5’: like EADGBE capo 3fr, but with the Maj. 3rd gap jumped ‘back a string’]…This interval pattern…was shared by the [Spanish] vihuela de mano, [while] the late 15th-century gittern [4-string lute] was tuned [‘5>4>5’].” [n.b. See Lute/Vihuela tuning for more on the ‘5>5>4>5>5’ sequence.]
By the early 16th century, a plethora of lute-like designs had spread across Europe – including the first instruments which broadly resemble a modern guitar (well, minus a string or two). As noted by Powers & Dobney, guitars of this era were “much smaller…with four double courses of gut strings…tied gut frets, friction tuning pegs, [and] a decorative rose”. Popular in England, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and beyond, these ‘treble guitars’ enjoyed a rich repertoire of “dances, fantasias, chansons, and other secular genres”. Tuning patterns tended to match the closely-related gittern‘s ‘5>4>5’ intervals (e.g. the ukulelistic G-C-E-A), often with the deepest course strung in octaves rather than unisons.
(Bacchanale Toile: Niccolò Frangipane, late 15th-century)
Europe’s string-playing traditions diversified as they solidified, with distinct stylistic and pedagogic lineages forming around each new instrument branch. As per Early Romantic Guitar, “the lute and vihuela were used…for plucked compositions, whereas…the guitar was more of a treble instrument, primarily strummed“. These early axe ancestors tended to feature a covered, rose-carved soundhole, a low-set wooden bridge, and 8-10 animal-gut frets tied around the neck – with the earliest known music written specifically for guitar being 1546’s Tres Libros de Musica en Cifras para Vihuela (‘Three Books of Vihuela Music in Numbers’, i.e. tab) by Alonso Mudarra, a Spanish priest who had absorbed Italian concepts via travelling there with the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Late 16th-century guitarists followed in the footsteps of their lute-wielding forebears by adding a further string – indeed, the world’s oldest surviving guitar is believed to be this 5-course model built by Lisbon luthier Belchior Dias in 1581. French, Spanish, and Portuguese performers were the first to embrace the extra range, which became normalised across much of mainland Europe by the early 17th century.
The beginning of the Baroque period saw significant increases in the size of the instrument. While the ‘Lisbon guitar’ above has a scale length of only 55.4cm (~15% smaller than a Stratocaster), Baroque models could often stretch to over 65cm (essentially equal to a modern acoustic). Many were artfully decorated: e.g. the example below, constructed by Italian luthier Matteo Sellas, featuring “scalloped snakewood ribs, bone striping, and fanciful arabesques…hallmarks of the Venetian tradition”:
(Baroque Guitar: Matteo Sellas, c.1640)
Along with this general growth trend, Ian Pittaway’s meticulous overview cites “huge variation in shape: thin bodies, wide bodies, tapered bodies, flat backs, fluted backs, bowl backs, various lengths of neck, and some variation in tuning” – with the distinctly guitar-like ADGBE being the most common layout. However, course-pairing conventions continued to vary wildly: e.g. ‘octave-doublings’ vs. ‘unison-doublings’ on the middle strings, or whether to have some single-courses, etc (a tradition mirrored by modern artists such as John Butler, who removes his 12-string’s high-octave G3str for a better strumming-tone balance: see Open C tuning).
Pittaway also outlines “a fundamental shift in the way the guitar was played: A new simplified style of playing was created: the rasgueado [‘strum’], consisting entirely of chords played rhythmically using…fingers and thumb”. This concept is central to Juan Carles Amat’s influential instructional textbook The Five-Course Spanish Guitar, published in 1596 (as usual, Spain was a little ahead of the rest…). Amat, a Barcelona physician who played music in his spare time, “saw the guitar as an instrument that could be easily picked up by anyone: a notion reinforced by the very simple principles in his book”.
Tantalisingly, we remain, in the words of historical luthier Clive Titmuss, “very much ignorant about the music played on [late 17th-century] guitars” – partly due to a shift in its status as “an ‘art music’ instrument, played by [the] cultivated and wealthy”, to “a ‘pop music’ instrument, for which the opportunity to print and distribute music was slim…Nevertheless, many [surviving] compositions…derive much of their texture and rhythm from the guitar music of the streets”.
- Gaspar Sanz on the Baroque Guitar – Hopkinson Smith (2022):
“Smith spoke about his guitar, a replica of a 17th-century Spanish [model]…he noted that his instrument was tuned according to [Gaspar] Sanz’s directions, with the two lowest courses tuned an octave higher so that no bass notes can be produced. The result is ethereal, transparent and…liberated from the bass: thus the tonality has a unique poetic aura…a magic of its own.” (Lindis Taylor: n.b. this high-strung idea resembles today’s Nashville tuning)
—Paths to modernity—
Inevitably, subsequent generations soon looked to further expand the instrument’s potential, with a wave of vital innovations coming towards the end of the 18th century. Drawing on groundbreaking research in Tyler & Sparks’ 2002 book The Guitar and its Music, Len Verrett offers an excellent summary of these developments, noting that the earliest known reference to a 6-course guitar appeared in the ‘for sale’ section of a 1760 Madrid newspaper. Likely tuned to E right from its first days (=EADGBE), the extra string reduced the number of “awkward chord inversions”, while also fulfilling “the desire of Spaniards to produce forceful strumming in noisy bars”. Elsewhere in Europe, the E6str was utilised for “clear bass notes on the first beat” and “delicate arpeggiated accompaniments” in a variety of Italian-derived styles.
Around this time, improvements in wire-winding technology led to the widespread adoption of single-string bass courses, as the louder double-wires brought too much low-end power for the music of the day (in contrast to Spinal Tap‘s theory that “physically, you cannot overload the bass spectrum”). Still, a full set of strings could still cost half as much a new guitar – so, for reasons of economy as well as style, performers continued to subtract from their double-courses, reaching our modern ‘six single strings’ setup by around 1800 (n.b. many of the earliest 6-stringers were just 12-hole guitars with half the slots left empty). The old gut frets, easily eroded by the new wires, were soon replaced by more robust materials (initially ebony or ivory, then metal) – and tab was sidelined in favour of staff notation (in my opinion, a major mis-step…).
(Six-single-course guitar: late 18th-century)
By around 1810, we have what essentially resembles a modern classical guitar – at least in terms of size, stringing, and tuning. But while this design philosophy was fast becoming the European standard, other variants persisted. Verrett notes that “the 5-course guitar remained popular in France until the 1820s…and the 6 double-course guitar [in] Spain until the 1830s”, with alternate single-course guitars also arising in Italy (sometimes with 7 strings) – while “the English and Germans played a form of cittern in the late 18th century, and not the guitar”.
Composers of the 19th century continued to soak up the sounds around them, travelling throughout Europe while also incorporating ideas from further afield. In particular, the flamenco traditions of Southern Spain served as a transcultural passageway, drawing on Islamic-infused improvisatory ideas from North Africa, which in turn permeated Europe’s sheet-composing classical conventions via pioneers such as Fernando Sor (1778-1839: possibly the era’s greatest virtuoso).
Guitars had also taken firm root across the Atlantic, with a range ‘starter packs’ issued by catalogue-order companies such as Sears & Roebuck selling wildly across mid-19th-century America. Many arrived with a tutorial pamphlet featuring instructive instrumentals, often including two particular tunes: The Siege of Sevastopol and Spanish Fandango (see more on my Open D page, tracing the hidden influence of the former tune, and also Open G, on the links between the Delta and the latter).
- Caprice #2 (Luigi Legnani) – Brandon Acker (2019):
“During the early decades of the 19th century…changes in the basic instrument were many, and the guitar lost much that it had in common with the lute…Machine heads were used instead of wooden pegs…an open soundhole replaced the rose; the bridge was raised to a higher position, a saddle and pins introduced to fasten the strings; and the neck became narrower. The flat back became standard, and proportions of the instrument changed to allow the positioning of the 12th fret at the junction of body and neck…” (Grove)
As ever, technological advancements continued to broaden the instrument’s perspective. Starting in 1880s America, subtle chemical changes in iron alloys allowed for the introduction of steel strings – bringing a massive volume boost, but also requiring the addition of metal neck-bracings to counteract the tension (a Standard-tuned steel string can rack up over 85kg/190lb of force – almost triple that of its nylon-string equivalent: so yeah, if you put steel strings on a guitar without a ‘truss rod’, they’ll literally rip the neck away from the body: trust me, I did it as a teenager while trying to turn a junkyard classical into a DIY lap-slide…)
Around the same time, sound recording technology was beginning to blossom – stemming from Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph. Aside from giving today’s listeners, for the first time, a direct aural impression of our string-playing ancestors, the newly captured sounds also allowed these forebears to absorb an even wider range of genres and global traditions. The new equipment quickly spread abroad, reaching guitarists in Mexico, Cuba, Spain, and beyond by the turn of the 20th century (see below for my rundown of the earliest known guitar recordings, c.1900-1910). The first issue of Billboard magazine, published in Nov 1894, only listed a ‘top of the charts’ for sheet music sales – but soon switched to tracking physical singles, with US record sales growing from around 3 million in 1900 to 140 million in 1921.
—The age of electric steel—
The next wave of change – perhaps the most radical in centuries – came in the form of amplification. While electromagnetic induction had first been discovered way back in 1831 (around the same time as the birth of the modern classical guitar), it took another century for the technology to find its way to the world of string instruments. As explained by Ian Pittaway: “Coiled copper wire around a magnet…produces an electromagnetic signal when steel strings vibrate near to them…[which] is then fed to an amplifier. The first move [came in] 1928, in an article in The Music Trades [about] the Stromberg Electro: ‘An electronically operated device that produces an increased volume of tone for any stringed instrument’.” While previous attempts had been made to electrify various musical instruments (stretching back over 250 years: see below), the first truly fruitful union of guitar, voltage, and volume came via a vaudeville performer from Texas – George Beauchamp – who, in 1931, devised the ‘Frying Pan’, a modified lap-steel generally regarded as the first mass-produced electric guitar.
Almost immediately, competing designs hit the market (…enabled by the fact that Beauchamp didn’t receive a patent until 1937) – constructed by companies such as AudioVox, Vega, VoluTone, Epiphone, and Gibson. 1941 saw Lester Polsfuss (a.k.a. Les Paul) the release his ‘Log’: a solid maple block encased by the split halves of an Epiphone hollow-body, aimed at evening out the frequency response – leading to creation of the Gibson Les Paul in 1952. Leo Fender, an amateur radio expert and PA repair shop owner from California, was similarly busy, founding the Fender Electric Instruments Company in 1946, and releasing the Telecaster in 1950 (best in butterscotch), and the Stratocaster (still my electric of choice) in 1954. Each of these shapes proved hugely influential on countless subsequent designs (not to mention an array of ‘lawsuit guitars’: impressive East Asian fakes from the 1970s and 80s, some lines of which were apparently good enough to have themselves been faked…).
- Birth of the Stratocaster – BBC (2014):
“Curiously, Leo Fender…who created the Stratocaster (along with draftsman and steel guitar virtuoso Freddie Tavares)…never learned to play the guitar. What he understood, though, was that a new wave…playing roadhouses and dance halls wanted a bright-sounding instrument that was easy to hold, tune, and play…The Stratocaster grabbed attention like no other electric guitar before or since…” (BBC)
The standard electric guitar has itself changed relatively little since the 1950s. But before long, the new possibilities of amplification had given birth to a marvel of fresh playing styles, notably including…well, these margins are far too narrow to properly contain any such summary: for more on the world’s electric experiments, see my tuning pages on:
- Nashville (Tennessee’s thriving 1950s session scene)
- Eb Standard (Jimi’s innovations amidst 1960s counterculture)
- Db Standard (Sabbath’s injury-induced 1970s slackenings)
- Open E (Duane Allman & Derek Trucks’ divine slide ideas)
- Baritone (deep-growling Scandinavian black metallers)
- New Standard (Robert Fripp’s ultra-wide melodic imagination)
- All Fourths (Stanley Jordan’s two-hand tapping techniques)
- Albert Collins (sizzling solos from the Iceman of the blues)
- Albert King (several alternate bend-friendly variants)
- Blown a Wish (MBV’s multi-pedalled shoegaze drones)
- Karnivool (curious combinations from rock down under)
- Ali Farka Touré (Islamic fusions from a Saharan legend)
- Haja’s Bb (a modern Malagasy master’s ‘Bighand’ layout)
- Math Rock F (major ideas from diverse pattern-rockers)
- Gambale (Antipodean sweep-picking fusion virtuosity)
- Ethereal (Ichika Nito’s odd-wound internet sketches)
Side note: early electric instruments (click to expand)…
Matthew Hill’s 2013 PhD (George Beauchamp and the Rise of the Electric Guitar) contains a fascinating rundown of the earliest attempts to add electricity to instruments. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Golden Dionysus (1748): a keyboard instrument built by Czech priest Václav Prokop Diviš, with “over 790 strings arranged into 14 ‘stops’…the instrument was said to be able to imitate the harpsichord, harp, lute, and even wind instruments…[and] employed electricity, supplied by means of batteries or Leiden jars…to somehow ‘energise’ the [strings], which in turn enhanced the sound, and [also]…to enable Diviš to give the unsuspecting player [an] electric shock” (Hill reminds us that “some of the first practical applications of electricity were in the creation of novelties which buzzed or shocked the unwary recipient…”).
- Clavecin Électrique (1759): another keyboard invented by another priest, French Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Delaborde, who rigged up pairs of small bells with “a metal clapper…activated electrostatically using a glass globe-type generator, which produced electricity by way of friction” – producing a continuous ringing tone, in similar fashion to an analog alarm clock.
- Breed Guitar (1890): U.S. Navy Officer George Breed filed a patent for what “appears to be the first application of electricity to a fretted string instrument”: a heavily modified guitar with “an exceptionally unusual…continuously sustained sound”. While experimentally intriguing, the resistance of the strings heated them up, causing them to expand and drop significantly flat.
- Giant-tone violins (1920s): the violin, as the pre-amplified Western world’s most prestigious string instrument, was the subject of several early amplification attempts – as evidenced by “Fred C. Hammond’s 1922 patent, [which] describes mounting a microphone in a violin”, and the Apr 1927 front cover of Radio News magazine, depicting “a violin player on stage…with a carbon-button pickup and a horn-type radio speaker” (the ‘Giant-tone’). The same article mentions “a prototype guitar and amplifier…in the Chicago banjo shop of Milton G. Wolf”, which had apparently been used by “Guy Lombardo’s Orchestra at the Granada Cafe”, as well as a group called “The Vagabonds”).
- Neo-Bechstein piano (1928): cited as the only “pre-1931 electric instrument that [uses] a ferrous string-driven pickup”. Designed by Nobel Prize winning physicist Walter Nernst, with “strings mounted over a series of electromagnetic pickups…in turn connected to an amplifier and speaker. The pickups consist of a horseshoe magnet [and] two coils of wire.”
- Vega Banjo (1929): only known about from “a short article in the Jan 1929 issue of The Crescendo magazine”, the Vega company apparently sold a banjo pickup in the late 1920s – however “no exemplars, photographs, or drawings…are known to exist.”
- n.b. Hill also adds that “examination of the historical record does not bear out the suggestion that making the [guitar] louder was the primary motivation behind its invention” – in other words, the electric came more from open-ended experiments than specific functional aims. Read his full PhD!
- Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix (1969):
“Despite being released over 50 years ago now – a full 9 months before man had set foot on the moon – I’d still choose Voodoo Child as my one guitar record to send into space. I’ll never forget the day my dad first played it to me as an 11-year-old – listening wide-eyed to the clashing textures and explosions of tone-colour, arriving from unseen directions before fading away to some hidden realm of future six-string discovery. No other track gave me more motivation to start learning the guitar – and today, two decades on, it’s still my favourite single showcase of the electric’s very best energies. Esteemed musicologist Hulk Hogan clearly agrees, having chosen the song as his WWE walkout music…” (from my Eb Standard page)
Today, the guitar, variously manifested, continues to reign supreme as the world’s leading string instrument – also serving as humanity’s most prominent visual icon for music in general. Despite sporadic news stories of declining sales, it remains, by most measures, the most popular instrument on Earth (by some estimates, over 10% of the world’s population have, at one point, played the guitar). Fender’s New Guitar Player Survey, a 2021 YouGov-weighted poll of over 20,000 beginners, points to increasing six-string diversity. In the two lockdown-dominated years prior, up to 16 million Americans had picked up the instrument (a whopping 7% of the 13-64 age population), with 72% of these newbies being aged between 13-34, 38% being Latine, and around half being female. Over two-thirds of adult starters had full-time jobs, and – thankfully – a strong majority of all demographic categories saw the instrument as an inherently valuable activity rather than a route to achieving specific outcomes or goals […if you’re one of them, hit me up for online lessons!]
For me, the guitar chiefly represents the most distracting object I’ve yet discovered in my 31 years of life – and, perhaps, the only activity which I can always rely on to provide deep fascination, regardless of mood, location, or context. I seek to keep my own playing time as open-ended as possible, always preferring to pick up the instrument with no set agenda – and encourage my students to see it as a ‘toy to be explored’, rather than ‘homework to be completed’. Given this affinity for the unplanned, I’m probably not well-placed to guess at what may be next for our instrument. While tempting to speculate, the only real answer I can give is to paraphrase activist and hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey’s reply to questions of his own tradition’s future: “You know what’s gonna happen with the guitar? We are the guitar – so, next time you ask where the guitar’s going, ask yourself: ‘Where am I going?’.”
- A History of the Guitar in 4 Minutes – Ian Pittaway (2021):
“Guitar: a string instrument of the lute family, plucked or strummed, normally with frets…It is difficult to define precisely what features distinguish guitars from other [lutes]…because the name has been applied to instruments exhibiting a wide variation in morphology and performing practice” (Grove)
—Naturally, the guitar’s tale is just one of many strands of the whole. To learn more about this transcontinental string-lineage tree, see my World of Tuning pages on the:
- Lute/Vihuela (Europe’s oldskool axe forebears)
- Terz (a cute 19th-century lute tuned to G Standard)
- Arabic Oud (fretless melodies from Islamic maqam)
- Turkish Oud (a higher-pitched Anatolian variant)
- Baglama/Saz (more Turkish double-course microtonality)
- Kabosy (Malagasy DIY box-lutes, descended from the oud)
- Dobro (Slovak-honed cone-resonator volume innovations)
- Carnatic Drone (rewound for South India’s raga patterns)
- Charango (repression and sonic resistance in Pinochet’s Chile)
- Mi-Composé (Jhimmy the Hawaiian’s wild life in 1950s Congo)
- C6 Mauna Loa (Hawaiian kī hō’alu‘s volcanic key-slackenings)
- Papuan Four-Key (New Guinea’s hyper-diverse stringbands)
- Dulcimeric (Joni Mitchell’s mimicry of her 4-string lap-zither)
- [n.b. The Banjo, while guitar-like in concept and technique, mostly arose from a separate lineage of West African string-drums imported via the Transatlantic slave trade…]
—Etymologies of the String—
Separating out all these historical strands is further complicated by some intriguing linguistic ambiguity. The word ‘guitar’ audibly overlaps with several other global string instrument names – such as the Indian sitar, Persian dōtar, and European zither. To uncover why, we must walk back through several millennia of Eurasian linguistic history…
The English term guitar, in its recognisably modern sense (‘lute-like string instrument’), dates back to at least 1620. It was likely borrowed from the Spanish and/or Provençal French guitarre, itself descended from the Old French guiterne, which in turn comes from the Latinate cithara, and, before that, the Greek kithára – a 7-string ‘professional’ version of the folk lyre, strummed with a leather plectrum (fabled to have been invented by Apollo: god of music, archery, dance, sunlight, and truth). But – as many in the West often seem to forget – Classical Greece was not the birthplace of culture. Naturally, their civilisation was a product of its ingredients: a transcontinental mix spanning Bronze Age Mycenaean and Mediterranean cultures to those further inland (particularly Macedonia), augmented by influence from as far away as India and Persia (Alexander the Great, the only leader to rule over the entire Hellenic sphere at once, turns up as a side-character in the Manganiyar hymns of ancient Rajasthan – and even now, Greek still overlaps more with the Indo-Iranian language family than anything further West).
Before Ancient Greece, however, our direct linguistic knowledge is murkier. Only a few palaeographic treasures from these eras have been discovered and deciphered (notably ‘Linear B’: a pictographic script decoded by Michael Ventris & John Chadwick in the early 1950s) – and most of these comprise skeletal administrative records rather than anything more humanly descriptive (while ‘Linear A’ remains undecoded…). Nevertheless, scholars can still draw detailed inferences about the likely shapes of these so-called ‘Proto-’ Eurasian languages, which underlie all the aforementioned dialects (kind of like: if your soloing style is based on your teacher’s licks, then I wouldn’t have to hear them directly to draw at least some inference about their sound…and I’d have an even better idea if I got also to hear several more of their students, which would allow for spotting ‘shared vocab’ and other points of confluence).
(Apollo with Lyre: Anglesey Abbey)
Thus, we can trace our string-syllabic lineage back even further. While the precise paths of change remain unclear, modern linguists believe that the Greek kithára evolved from the ‘Proto-Indo-European’ root -tar (‘string’), itself a variant of -ten (‘thin, stretched’: e.g. tension, extend, & hypotenuse). These shared roots are the reason why so many cultures still use the -tar suffix to describe string instruments today: the term fed into the Greek kithára, and then on to various European traditions (e.g. the Medieval citole and gittern, the Renaissance cittern and cither, and, later, the zither…plus, of course, the guitar!). A similar branching also occurred to the East, embedding it into Sanskrit and Indo-Persian traditions – often with a number prefix (e.g. 2 to 6-string Iranian lutes are called, respectively, dotār, setār, čārtār, pančtār, & šeštār). India’s Islamic-infused sitar took its name from the second of these – although today’s models exceed being a ‘3-string instrument’ by around 17 extra (even if you only really play melodies up-and-down one of them!).
We’re still not sure quite where the tree begins to branch: e.g. the Greek kithára may have come directly from the Persian term sihtar, rather than just sharing the same -tar ancestry. For more context, check out Rice University’s brief overview: “The original homeland of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is not known for certain, but many scholars believe it lies somewhere around the Black Sea…”.
[n.b. This is just a hazy outline of an incredibly complex area. For more, see musicologist (and excellent guitarist) Ian Pittaway’s Early Music Muse blog – which cautions against the “misunderstandings which can arise due to mistaken word association…Wishing to tie their music theory to ancient sources, Medieval and Renaissance writers used kithára as the root word for citole, cittern, gittern, guitar, etc…[and] indiscriminately for lyres, citoles, harps, psalteries, gitterns…[or] indeed any instrument with plucked strings…If we see a Medieval reference to, for example, a citole (or its spelling variants citola, cithola, cistole, citolent, sitole, citule, sitol, chytole, etc) – we can be sure the instrument in question is a citole. But a citole isn’t always called a citole. In the [anonymous] 14th-century Berkeley Theory Manuscript, what appears to be a citole is called a cithara…”]
- The Ancient Greek Kithara – Peter Pringle (2015):
“A ‘kithara’ reproduction…made by master luthier Anastasios Koumartzis. The strings…are of 100% pure silk, which is closest in tone and response to the gut strings of the Ancient Greeks. The more time I spend with this kithara, the more I discover about it. I’m beginning to understand why the kithara players of the Golden Age (c.500 B.C.) were considered rock stars!” (Peter Pringle)
—Bonus: The earliest guitar recordings—
Since you hardly need Standard-tuned song suggestions, we may as well stick historical and take the chance to sample some of the first known recordings of the guitar. So, here’s a quick highlight reel of artists known to have recorded prior to 1910 – most of whom emanate from the guitar-rich traditions of the Hispanosphere:
• c.1900 | Luis y Simón Ramirez (Estudio Turca, Caridad, Córdoba): Two brothers who recorded guitar duets in Madrid onto brown-wax Edison cylinders, provisionally dated to ~1900 by respected archivist John Levin.
• 1905 | M. Lloyd Wolfe (Autumn Evening Serenade): Cut several cylinders with Samuel Siegel (himself described as the ‘American Mandolin King’ in the 1900 edition of Banjo World).
- Dixie Girl – Ossman-Dudley Trio (1906):
“Walsh quotes the 1908 Victor record catalog: ‘The combination has made some extremely pleasing records. The harp-guitar gives a support to the other instruments which is decidedly effective’…The other instruments in the group are Ossman’s bright banjo, and a triple-strung mandolin. Sadly, no one knows what became of George Dudley’s amazing Holzapfel 36-string…” (Harp Guitars)
• 1907 | Telesforo del Campo (Malagueña): Another Cuban gold-mold artist who sung flamenco and Latin American folk songs (n.b. while Campo definitely played guitar, I can’t be completely confident it’s actually him on the 1907 record, due to the scarcity of studio notes…).
• 1907-8 | Octaviano Yañez (La Perjura, Habaneras, Anita): The “acknowledged champion guitarist of Mexico” (with a fittingly musical forename) recorded several superb instrumentals on extra-strung models (see below: he sometimes tuned them to the Baritonal BEADGBE: over 80 years before Scandinavian black metallers started doing similarly!)
• 1908 | William Smith (Castilian Echoes): American artist about whom little seems to be known (not helped by his name) – listed as playing alongside Samuel Siegel’s mandolin on several excellent duets.
• 1908-9 | Roy H. Butin (Estelita Waltz, Carnival of Venice, Gavotte): Also recorded with Siegel – and alongside violinist Michael Banner in The Olivotti Troubadours, a “virtuoso classical-vaudeville duet”.
- Anita – Octaviano Yañez (1907):
“Around the same time as the Cuban sessions, the Edison company was also undertaking recordings in Mexico to fulfil a similar objective of supplying demand for ‘indigenous music’ in the U.S. Of particular interest [was] a high-profile local guitarist from Veracruz: Octaviano Yanez (c.1865-1927)…He may have used a 7-string instrument of Mexican or Russian origin…or a converted 11-string…The bright tone suggests he is playing with his nails very close to the bridge.” (Edison, Victor, & the Classical Guitar)
There may yet be much more to unearth. Guitar historian Tom Ball discusses “rumours of cylinders made by [Spanish composer] Tarrega himself, from about 1903”, while archivist Jack Silver describes “a friend/dealer in Spain [who]…sold several solo guitar cylinders by both Luis and Simon Ramirez…[from] 1895”. Various scratchy records of guitaristic tone but uncertain provenance have also turned up over the years, some of which may date to the 1890s (e.g. Dixie).
While solid evidence for these spectral treasures remains scant, the existence of such artefacts is certainly plausible. Handel choral recordings exist on wax from 1888, while Brahms laid down his own piano pieces the following year (and E.L. Scott de Martinville’s ‘phonautograph’ was patented way back in the pre-Civil War era of 1857…although it took until 2008 to decode its cryptic squiggles back into playable sound). Then again, these old cylinders are nerve-wreckingly fragile (as shown in this unfortunate TV clip), meaning few will have survived the ages intact.
[n.b. Even the harp guitar has a remarkably long recorded history: Aside from Dudley’s cuts above, flamboyant Baptist minister Alfred Karnes used one to preach around Tennessee in the 1920s (Promised Land), and Italian virtuoso Pasquale Taraffo toured the globe with his in 1928-9 (Stefania). In fact, Michael Hedges’ iconic 1980s harpwork was recorded on a model built way back in the 1920s. Read more on my Slack Thwack A page!]
- Demo: Edison’s Cylinder Phonograph (from 1910):
“The phonograph was developed as a result of Edison’s work on two other inventions: the telegraph and the telephone. In 1877, he was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape…This led Edison to speculate that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a ‘diaphragm’ which had an embossing point…held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper.” (Library of Congress)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Lute/Vihuela (this with 3str -1): guitaristic roots
- All Fourths (this with 1/2str +1): removing the ‘kink’
- Terz (this +3): a cute lute from 19th-century Europe
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Early recordings: for more info, see Mac Randall’s Acoustic Guitar article, Tom Ball on the mystery of the earliest solo guitar record, blues historian Jas Obrecht’s Talking Guitar book (p.5 onwards), a Segovia LP insert about the history of the Viuda e Aramburo label, an overview of the supposed Tarrega cylinders, and a general early recording showreel – plus more on the workings of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s ‘phonautograph’ in Centuries of Sound, as well as Patrick Feaster’s incredible 2009 presentation explaining the fiendish detail behind the original squiggles and subsequent decoding efforts (“Scott mentions two collaborators…Prince Shahovskoi, who helped him make the ‘chain of ossicles’, and Nikolai Khanykov…an ethnographer who published a well-known Memoir on the Ethnography of Persia, [and] writes at length about the use of photography as a means of gathering data on foreign cultures: ‘to gather useful linguistic data, you need to be an expert; there’s no way to record speech objectively’. So, in Sep 1860, Scott had apparently found someone who hoped to use his invention…[He] tried removing the second membrane, and attaching his stylus directly to the chain of ivory…But now, Scott decided that he needed to amplify the vibrations…”)
- Guitar histories: delve deeper via my main sources above – principally, Grove Music’s excellent long-scale overview, Tyler & Sparks’ groundbreaking 2002 book The Guitar and its Music, Ian Pittaway’s misconception-smashing Early Music Muse writings, Paul Butler’s heroically detailed history of the citole, Powers & Dobney’s illustrated guide for the Met Museum, Len Verrett’s great Early Romantic Guitar site (including a gallery of pre-1870 models), and Matthew Hill’s 2013 PhD George Beauchamp and the Rise of the Electric Guitar (“Brother musician: listen to a MIRACLE!“). Also check out Michael Levy’s sound-packed Ancient Lyres site, Errede et al’s overview of ancient cave acoustics, Jonathan Friedmann’s Whence Came the Musical Bow?, Uri Gabbay’s Music in Ancient Mesopotamia article, India’s Natya Shastra aesthetic textbook, Brandon Acker’s classical guitar channel, and Fender/YouGov’s 2021 New Guitar Player Landscape Analysis survey – plus, of course, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel (a true tuning connoisseur), to whom this entire project is dedicated (in his wise words, “the artistic process takes years. It’s a crackling sensation, a sort of electrical feel…”). Guitarists of the world, go forth and find your 11!
Header image: my £150 Fender CC-60S (who needs expensive kit?)
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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