Before there were guitars
It is a scary thing to consider, but for most of human history people have lived their whole lives without ever having had the chance to plug their axe into their stack and shred some mad licks.
If we go back in time, to a period in the dim and distant past, approximately 4000 years before the invention of the Floyd Rose tremolo bridge and of hot pink leopard print spandex pants, we start to see the very first ancestors of the electric guitar to be found by archaeologists.
The very first stringed instrument with a neck and body was a bowl harp, found in ancient egypt, sumeria and babylon. It was a fairly crude instrument, consisting of a stick, bent under tension from the strings, with a tortoise shell or a carved wooden body.
The strings were made from silk or from animal gut, and were probably plucked with the fingers. The strings were simply tied to each end of the instrument, making tuning a rather haphazard affair and as there was no way to fret or otherwise shorten the string, the player was limited to one note for each string. If the player wanted more notes, they needed more strings – a situation similar in this regard to a modern-day piano or harp.
Slightly more guitar-like was the tanbur, found in the same region. The tanbur was a more sophisticated development from the bowl harp, and some of them had a long, fairly flat, fretted neck, and a flat wooden body.
These tanburs could be plucked with a plectrum or with a fingernail, making them not too dissimilar to the guitars and banjos we are familiar with today. Dating to around 3000 years ago, these instruments are probably the ultimate vintage guitars. And like most vintage guitars, people accustomed to learning guitar on current production instruments will probably find most of them rather unplayable.
Fretted instruments took a little longer to arrive in europe. The Moors in Spain brought their Oud to Spain. The oud was a short, thin necked fretless instrument with many strings, a sharply angled peghead and a large, round body.
The europeans added frets to the oud, calling it a “lute”. Guitars did not descend directly from lutes, however the lute was a forerunner of the guitar in european music, and much early classical guitar music was rearranged from lute scores.
Centuries before the Scorpions rocked you like a hurricane, lute players could be considered among the first rock stars of old europe: lute players were a common subject of rennaissance painting, and were depicted elaborately dressed, often with tight pants and long hair.
While the lute had the role of the guitar in european music, the direct ancestors of the electric guitar come from further away, in Central Asia.
The name “guitar” has its roots in Sanskrit, the old tongue from which the languages of northern India and Central Asia originated.
The ancient Sanskrit word “string” was “tar”, and stringed folk instruments were named for the number of strings they had.
A two-stringed instrument was known as a dotar, from the Sanskrit “dvi”, meaning two.
A three stringed instrument was called a setar, which with the addition of numerous other strings became the indian sitar while a five stringed one was known as a panchtar.
It is the four stringed chartar, with it’s long fretted neck, narrow waisted flat body, and tuning pegs on a slightly angled headstock that arrived in Spain and became known as the chitarra, which over the course of centuries eventually developed into the electric guitar we know and shred today.
Before guitars were electric
We left off from our last part in the history of the electric guitar with europeans rocking it out to the lute as their fretted instrument of choice, while the four string chartar had just arrived in spain from central asia. So how come we all ended up wailing on electric guitars, and not on electric lutes?
The lute is a pretty nifty sounding gadget. Have a listen to it here:
But hang on.. we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. How did this four string instrument from somewhere near Persia become a Strat and a Les Paul?
Well the first thing the spanish did when they got ahold of the chitarra was to add four more strings to it. This 8 string instrument had four “courses” of two strings each, with each course of two strings tuned either in unison or in octaves.
The earliest music written for this four-course guitar was written in 16th century Spain. The italians added an extra course to the instrument, and the tuning came to be standardised as A, D, G, B, E.. much like the 5 highest strings of the modern electric guitar.
A century later a sixth course of strings was added to the guitar, making something very similar to what we would recognise today as a 12-string guitar.
The six-course arrangement was replaced by six single strings gradually, to allow for more technical playing and intricate single note lines that would be too cumbersome to play on a guitar with more strings in each course. Spanish guitar makers then added a “fan” style bracing that is still used on classical guitars today. This bracing allowed extra strength, which let guitar makers build a wider guitar.
Up to this point, guitars were still built with animal gut strings. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, steel strings were developed. These were initally not used on guitars, as the designs of the period could not withstand the much greater tension that steel strings put on the body.
It took the development of a much stronger “X” brace to allow for steel string guitars. These steel string guitars had a much louder and brighter sound.
They were also extremely important to the eventual development of the electric guitar, because a vibrating steel string, unlike a gut string, can induce an electric signal in a magnetic pickup. If steel string acoustic guitars were never developed, it is unlikely that we would have the electric guitar that we know today, as magnetic pickups are crucial to the traditional sound of an electric guitar.
The struggle to be heard
Many of the sounds that are now typically associated with electric guitars, such as huge overdriven chords that sustain into harmonic feedback, screaming legato leads interspersed with tapping arpeggios, echoing delays, swooshing phasers, and enormous whammy dives, were not even dreamt of when the instrument was first invented.
Guitarists only wanted to be just a little bit louder. However, electric guitars were not the only instruments invented to help guitarists play louder.
The gut stringed instruments that had served so well for centuries had begun to become inaudible in the new musical environment of the early twentieth century.
The small, intimate concerts of the mid-nineteenth century had given way to performances in larger public spaces. The invention of steel string guitars went some way towards making guitars louder.
But guitarists seeking to play new and exciting styles of music, such as jazz, often found themselves in ensembles with horn players and with drum kits.
Next to these loud instruments, the louder steel string guitars could barely be heard.
New microphone technology went some way to helping make guitars louder. But, as any sound guy will tell you, there is only so much volume you can add to a quiet instrument by using a microphone, before the microphone starts to pick up the sound coming from out of the speaker, causing uncontrollable feedback.
And with the surrounding instruments being so loud, microphones often picked up more of the drums or the horns than of the guitar.
The used of dynamic microphones placed very close to the sound hole would also create a muffled, boomy sort of tone with little harmonic detail, which many people found unpleasant.
The invention of the resonator guitar also helped to help guitarists play louder. Guitar makers like Dobro and National responded to the need for guitarists to be heard by making guitars that featured a metal resonating cone instead of a sound hole.
This cone is attached to the bridge, and the vibrations of the string are then transferred to the cone, which then produces a great deal of sound, much like the speaker cone inside your stereo.
Because the cone is right behind the strings, the strings then resonate in sympathy with the sound that the cone produces, further amplifying the guitar. This made resonator guitars some of the loudest instruments available in their day.
Resonator guitars tend to have a very bright, raucous and metallic sound that has made them popular in blues, bluegrass and hawaiian music.
They are still often used for these styles today. Many of them were made with a square neck, to be played with a slide.
Michael Molenda, the transformative Editor in Chief of Guitar Player magazine from 1997 to 2018, revolutionized its content and expanded its influence. With over 2,500 published works, including in-depth interviews and technical analyses, he’s a giant in guitar journalism. Post-Guitar Player, he launched CONTENT BY MOLENDA and co-founded music websites, bringing his unmatched expertise to the forefront of music marketing. At Fretterverse, Molenda continues to shape the guitar world with insightful commentary and trendsetting journalism.