Instruments | Guitar | Stringed

The guitar is a plucked stringed instrument played resting on the lap. Although it has a long history – thought by many to reach as far back as the ancient Greek lyre known as the kithara – it is best-known today in the design of the Spanish guitar-maker Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817–92).

The modern or classical guitar developed from the short-necked lutes that appeared in central Asia during the fourth and third centuries BC. Many pictures from the ensuing millennium depict instruments exhibiting guitar-like characteristics. However, the guitar as we know it today has its roots in the Renaissance period.


One of the most significant precursors of the guitar is the vihuela, a plucked stringed instrument with six or seven courses popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The vihuela is closely associated with Spain and areas under Spanish influence, although it was also used in Italy and Portugal.

In looks, the vihuela is very close to the modern guitar. It has the characteristic figure-of-eight body shape, a long neck and a head set back at a slight angle. Rose patterns were often set into the body, functioning as sound holes. The vihuela was a fretted instrument, using 10 lengths of gut tied around the neck to stop the string. Like the lute, the six courses followed the tuning pattern of fourth–fourth–major third–fourth–fourth.

It is not clear why the vihuela gained such popularity in Renaissance Spain at a time when the rest of Europe used the lute for the same purposes. Nevertheless, the guitar’s strong association with Spain began at this time, and the Spanish passion for the vihuela was responsible for its introduction to Latin America during the colonization of that part of the world.

Baroque Guitar

The guitars of sixteenth-century Europe were considerably smaller than the modern instrument. Initially they had four courses tuned fourth–major third–fourth. Baroque guitars often had a single, central rose as a soundhole and between eight and ten gut frets. The courses’ pitches were by no means set in stone, a characteristic shared with the vihuela: they were often changed to suit the music being performed.

By the end of the fifteenth century, five-, six- and even seven-course guitars were being used. In Italy the six- and seven-course guitars were often referred to as viola da mano or ‘hand viola’, as opposed to the viola da arco or ‘bowed viola’.

Playing Techniques

One of the most common uses of the guitar was as a strumming accompaniment to songs. The rasgueado technique, in spite of its close association with Spanish flamenco repertoire, in fact developed in the sixteenth century when it was more commonly known as battuto. The strum could be executed in either direction, indicated by an arrow pointing up or down immediately preceding the chord affected.

The English guitar and Portuguese guitarra date from this period. Generally six-course instruments, they tended to be closer to the lute in design and were...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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