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Historical & Fun Facts

by Claude Samard Polikar
Photo by Méline Waxx - ref. 165971

The guitar is catalogued in the family of 'long-necked luths' (whose neck is longer than it's body). The guitar is a mixed combination of arabic, with the Moors travelling up thru Spain to Northern Europe, and Asian relayed by the Gallo-Romans. During the IXth century, the term 'cithara' appears (from the greek 'kithara'), to name the guitar. Other names will be used after 1250, depending on the region, the era & the phonetic evolutions: kitaire, guiterre, guiterne, quitarre, quitaire...
The countries best known for their contribution to the guitar's evolution are France & Spain; Italy, Germany & England to a lesser degree. Since the end of the XIXth century, most innovations originate from the 'New World'.

Jimmy Page was not the first to have used a bow on his strings. Fingers, plectrum and bow were used 'till the Renaissance period.

Alternatively, fingers and plectrum were used depending on the musical trends of the time, thru to the present. Therefore playing with a pick is not exactly a modern invention and its use by our commonly known “Guitar Heroes” is not systematic either. Electric wizz rockers Knopfler and Beck & Classical maestro Segovia might have a lot more in common than you think !

During the Middle Ages all the way thru to the Renaissance both styles each have a dedicated instrument: the Moorish guitar, round back, steel strings, rhythmic style of playing with the plectrum and the Latin guitar, flat-backed, gut strings, played with the fingers.

The tablature, a new musical reading system, widely advertised by Marcel Dadi in France, is not a recent invention designed for a bunch of lazy guitarists. The one we currently know and commonly use comes from the 'Italian tablature' that's been around since the XVIth century. The "Solfeggio" or 'Sol-fa' was only used for the guitar during the XVIIIth century. Both systems co-exist since, & can be used indifferently.

Until the end of the XVIIIth century, the rule was to use double strings, except for the First string which will always remain the first by all means. However, tuning problems for strings played in unisson slowly led to the disappearnace of this mode (stable nylon strings only being invented in 1945). We're coming from 7 strings set in 4 rows to 9 strings in 5 rows at the end of the XVIth century. To compensate for a loss of volume and harmonics, an E bass was added, and the outcome is the 6 stringed-instrument that we are now more familiar with.

As for frets, at first there were only 8 to 10 frets which soon became 18, and nowadays you'll even find 24 fretted instruments. At the time they were made of gut and were mobile attached with knots to the neck. By the end of the XVIIth century, manufacturers began fitting metal frets when they realized that the Moorish guitar known as the "Chitarra battente" with it's metal strings, had become a very popular instrument. The precision with which they are now fitted and placed, will only be determined during the XVIIIth century, a time at which most of the current guitar's characterictics will be established. Nowadays, the precision is calculated by computers.

Here are the names of a few misappreciated guitarists of the past : French kings Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Henri VIII & Charles II, composers Lulli, & Berlioz, writers Ronsard & even La Bruyère.

"Le Concert" (oil on canvas) by Gerrit Van Honthorst - circa 1623

The instrument as we know it today

Despite these, the guitar has always had a difficult time being acknowledged as a 'noble' instrument. Traditionally popular, it was always well associated with danses, songs and other festivities. Yet, classical composers, save Berlioz, Shubert or Boccherini, remained insensitive to the refined playing of some of it's musicians who were left to compose or transcribe their own repertoire: the XIXth century "Guitaromania" (if your familiar with the lingo) therefore sustained it's own concertists, theorists Sor, Carcassi, Carulli Tarraga and stringed-instrument makers such as Spain's Torres. These are the men that founded & established the rules that have since been applied to the instruction and manufacturing techniques of the classical guitar that we are familiar with today.

It's low volume was the main reason for it's not becoming a part of classical orchestras or even of jazz big bands. The innovative electric guitar has since insured the instrument's survival and growing popularity: at least we can hear it now. The banjo and then the mandolin in the 20's were the most popular instruments in the US. The 30's became a 'golden age' for the guitar in America and it's supremacy has been growing since. We could easily quote this writer from the Renaissance who said : "Everyone is guitarring..".

As the arabic "oud" benifited from the islamic influence it received during centuries, the guitar is now coming into it's own, due to the unprecedented media exposure the anglo-saxon culture has to offer. It has become the symbolic emblem of Rock 'n' Roll music.

And it's only right to acknowledge that more and more guitarists are becoming interested in 'World Guitars' and have become familiar with techniques, tunings, musical phrases and genders inspired from instruments that share close relations with the guitar.

Guitar families of Spanish descent, are & remain: (with some typical exponents)

  • the Classical guitar, inspired by Torres
  • the Flamenco guitar, lighter in weight, with a less resonant sound
  • the Arch-top guitar: Gibson or Selmer (Jazz)
  • the Flat-top guitar: Martin for Folk & Picking
  • the 12 string acoustic guitar: Stella since 1920 for Blues or Country blues
  • the Hawaiian acoustic guitar: early XXth century style: Weissenborn 1915.
  • the Dobro, National guitar: Steel guitars with resonators in 1928, made popular thanks to Blues artists.
  • the Hawaiian electric guitar: lap steel, Hawaiians on stands, then Pedal Steel since 1939.
  • the Acoustic electric guitar: arch-tops with a pick up: Gibson, Selmer 1936.
  • the Electric Solidbody guitar: 100% rock: Fender Telecaster 1950, Gibson Les Paul 1952.
  • the Electric Solidbody 12 string guitar: Rickenbacker - the Byrds & Beatle sound.
  • the Electro-acoustic guitar: Ovation, Takamine, Lag...
  • the Guitar-synth: Roland.
  • Baby and Travel Guitars: Martin, Taylor, Lag, Traveler guitar, Yamaha (Guitalele).