The Guitar: Six Strings that Shook the World


Next to the piano, no instrument is as versatile – and as universally popular – as the guitar. There is no style of music that doesn't utilize it. In the classical world, it's been long associated with all things Spanish, yet its origins go back to the Middle East, where traveling troubadours discovered the Oud long ago, and brought it to Europe where it soon evolved into the lute. A few centuries later, Spain introduced the six-string guitar to the world, which welcomed it with open arms (literally). In this Active Minds program, we'll trace the history of the classical guitar, sampling the wonderful music written for it.


It's gone by numerous names over the years: citole, cittern, vihuela, mandore, gittern,  lute. Its shape, size, design and sound have continuously changed, as has the number of strings, what they're made of and how they're tuned. But the principle of the guitar remains fixed. Strings are strung along a neck and secured at a sound box held close to the body. By plucking or struming the string or strings with one hand, and pushing down at various places on the neck with the fingers of the other hand, a different musical note or combination of notes can be heard. Pretty simple, really – a formula that the ancient Egyptians worked with, as did the ancient Greeks, as did the ancient Persians. Music seems to have held an important place in nearly every culture back to the days of the caveman (a crude, flute-like instrument was discovered among the artifacts of a community dating back 42,000 years), and so it's no surprise that string instruments – be they bowed, plucked or strummed – would occupy a prominent place in history. No one knows where it all started, though the Middle East seems a logical point of origin for the guitar's beginnings, with early versions of the Oud (multiple strings, bent tuning head, pear-shaped body) dating way back in time. It's thought that the traveling French troubadours of the 11th and 12th Centuries visited Persia and environs and returned to western Europe with a few Ouds in tow. A few decades later, the similar-looking lute became popular among court musicians, and it survived and evolved all the way into the Renaissance and Baroque eras. At the same time, Spanish instrument-makers were experimenting with another shape for the sound box: a gently curving concept, not far removed from the ideal female body. The number of strings increased over the years, from four to five to six, and for a long time, they were placed in closely aligned pairs, known as “courses.” Most popular among Spaniards at court and in well-to-do homes was the vihuela, later developing into the Renaissance guitar, seen in a famous painting by Vermeer. Not until the 1830s did the now-familiar six-string Spanish (or classical) guitar come into being. The 20th Century saw some major changes in the instrument. Borrowing the idea of the two-string courses, the 12-string guitar became popular among folk musicians such as Leadbelly and Pete Seeger. Thanks to the pioneering work of Les Paul, the electric guitar emerged in the '40s, soon to become an important voice of the blues, jazz and, of course, rock 'n' roll. Along with the piano, the guitar – in all its shapes and forms – has become the instrument of choice for young and old, amateurs and professionals, folkies and rockers. It can be played successfully with the knowledge of only a few simple chords, or it can become a dazzling voice for mind-boggling virtuosity. No musical style is beyond it.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the similarities and differences between the Oud and the lute?
  • Who were the important composers for the lute and the Spanish guitar?
  • Who were some of the master players of the guitar, beyond Andres Segovia?

Reflective Questions

  • America and its self-taught folk musicians had much to do with the guitar's evolution. Why is that?
  • Which do you prefer – the sound of an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar?
  • Many works for other instruments have been transcribed for guitar, even some orchestral pieces. Do they work for you?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Evans, Tom and Mary Anne. Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock. Facts on File. 1982. 479 pages. As its name suggests, this is a comprehensive history of the guitar, with plenty of photographs showing methods of construction, along with illustrations and descriptions of the most famous and important instruments.
  • Wheeler, Tom. American Guitars. Harper Perennial. 1992. 370 pages. Moving from manufacturer to manufacturer, Wheeler outlines the history of the finest instruments made in this country, serving up charming historical pictures as well as photos showing the construction process. Eric Clapton wrote that it was “a fantastic book,” and who are we to disagree?