The guitar is perhaps one of the most recognizable and versatile instruments of the modern age. From rock to blues, country to gospel, there are very few genres of music where the guitar can’t fit. The history of the guitar is a story spanning several thousand years. With such a prolonged history, it’s nearly impossible to trace the origins of the guitar to a single person or culture. Influences on what we know as the modern day guitar can be traced back to ancient civilizations in the areas of Rome, the Middle East, Asia, and India.
The oldest surviving six stringed guitar is rumored to have been created by an Italian luthier in Naples named Gaetano Vinaccia in the year 1779. Even though the six string guitar is one of the most basic models of guitar, and typically what beginners learn to play on, modern variations on Vinaccia’s supposed six string creation have led to guitars with anywhere from four to twelve strings.
Today, two primary categories of guitar exist; acoustic and electric. Acoustic guitars create music by reflecting sound from the strings plucked by the player into the saddle (or bottom of the guitar) and back out through the sound hole, located on the front of the guitar and below the strings. An electric guitar is entirely different in operation because it requires an electric speaker known as an amplifier in order to work. Without the amplifying speaker, the electric guitar would produce only very faint, barely audible sounds. The strings on the body of the electric guitar create music by vibrating against magnetic “pickups”, which carry the sound to the amplifier. Some electric guitars feature hollow or semi hollow bodies for playing without an amplifier, but the most popular types of electric guitars are solid body. In terms of popular culture, the electric guitar is considered by some to be “...one of the most important inventions of the 20th century”. Both types of guitar, acoustic and electric, can play many different notes by applying and releasing pressure to the strings with the non-strumming hand (usually the weak hand).
The name “guitar” is derived from the ancient Sanskrit term for the word “string”, which was “tar”. Several stringed cousins of the modern day guitar contain the suffix “tar” in their name, like the Indian sitar and the Turkestani dotar. The modern English word “guitar” is said to have come from the Spanish “guitarra”, as it was most likely Spanish settlers who first brought the instrument to the early United States.
For such a simple design concept, the modern day guitar has forever changed the face of music. It has allowed sounds from different parts of the world to be melded into single bits of music to express the performer’s emotions and stories. It has helped generations find their own voice and has accompanied lone cowboys on deserted trails. It is a considerably affordable instrument to purchase and a relatively easy one to play. The guitar has turned young street and bar performers into world renowned celebrities with mass followings. Considering the long history which the guitar has enjoyed, it’s unlikely that the instrument will be going away anytime soon.