You are currently viewing The History of The Acoustic Guitar Told Like Never Before

Last Updated on January 12, 2024 by Justin Thomas

Author: Santiago Motto

Aka. Sandel. Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover.

Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music.

Whenever Santiago is not pouring all that experience and love for the instrument into articles, you can find him playing live shows supporting his music and poetry books as “Sandel”. If he’s not doing either of those, you can also find him gigging with his band, “San Juan”, writing, reading, or enjoying the Sun.

photo reveals owner of guitaristnextdoor.com

Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.

I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as SongsterrMusicnotesGuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.

I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).


Welcome to the acoustic guitar history as you’ve never seen it before. We’re going to go through the timeline of one of the most popular instruments in musical history.

This is the tale of the need for a louder sound creating new paths where there once was a wall. Yes, all kinds of stringed instruments helped pave the way before the screaming solos and the electric guitars plugged into huge Marshalls could drive crowds mad.

You’re about to be amazed at how musicians across time were relentless in their pursuit of tone thousands of years before the modern acoustic guitar.

This is the history of how, from nothing but high hopes and thin air, the guitar took over the world.

Welcome.

The Beginnings, Over 5500 Years Ago (3500 – 3100 BC)

According to musicologist and historian, Richard Dumbrill, the oldest trace of a stringed instrument being played comes from the cylinder seal that depicts a woman playing a stringed instrument from the Uruk period. This means that the earliest string instrument that we have evidence of dates back to a period that went from 3500 to 3100 BC.

Displays Stringed instrument oud
Oud

This instrument is considered to be an oud, a predecessor of the Western lute (we’ll talk more in detail about lutes later). It is a fretless, long-neck instrument featuring a pear-shaped sound box.

Although the only evidence from that time is a cylinder seal, there’s an actual stringed survivor that dates back over 4,000 years. Yes, this is a tanbur, a type of fretted lute with three strings and the same pear-shaped sound box.

It is currently in the Archaeological Museum in Cairo and, according to Egyptologist Nora E. Scott, it belonged to Har-Mose, a court singer for Hatshepsut, an Egyptian queen. Fun fact, it still has attached the plectrum used to play it.


A Tale of Greeks and Romans (2550 BC)

Although we could talk about the famous Lyres of Ur, stringed instruments found in modern Iraq that date back to 2550 BC, they’re closer to harps than to the acoustic guitar. Therefore, we’re going to jump that part and go straight to Ancient Greece.

displays Ancient Greek Instrument Kithara
Reconstruction of ancient Kithara. Credit: worldhistory.org

You might think that the ancient Greek word Kithara rings a bell, well; it is quite close to the word “guitarra”, isn’t it? Well, “guitarra” is the word for guitar in Spanish, a Latin language.

It is believed that, although it is an instrument played vertically, it is one of the first predecessors of our modern guitar. It was played with a plectrum in the right hand while the player muted certain strings utilizing his or her left hand.

But connections don’t end there, the kithara featured a flat base, seven strings of exactly the same length, and it even had a wooden soundboard to make it louder. This was the instrument professional musicians in Ancient Greece would play in street presentations in the 7th century BC.

Can you picture Greek buskers carrying it around and playing it for pedestrians?

As the Romans moved into and conquered Greece, the kithara and its wooden body and string appointments were taken with them to Hispania, now known as Spain. This was in the year 40 AD.


The Moorish Invasion and the Middle Age (700 AD)

But the Romans taking their conquests to other territories wasn’t the only epic cultural clash that helped modern-day acoustic guitars come to existence. On the contrary, it was just one of many.

As you might know, during the 8th century (AD), the Moors, who were by then nomadic and lived in North Africa moved into Spain and conquered the southern part of the country. Yes, the middle ages are filled with invasions and conquests.

Well, the Moorish invasion is partially responsible for the guitar sounds we have today.

While the moors brought their ouds with them to dance and party, the locals had their kithara, brought by the Romans. As we said before, cultural clashes in the middle ages were very common. Thus, the combination of the kithara and the oud gave birth to a brand-new instrument called the European lute.

displays Lute instrument
Lute

But why is this so important? Because this combination gave birth to a must in any modern guitar: the fretboard.

But similarities don’t end there; the European lute and the Moorish oud are stringed instruments that are typically played with a plucking movement to generate sound. Speaking of which, both (as well as modern-day acoustic guitars) featured a hollow wooden box to amplify that sound so more people could dance and sing while the band was playing.

This was the middle ages and music technology was very far from modern-day amplification and PA systems.

Finally, the lute enjoyed a lot of popularity in these times but was also crucial in the creation of the vihuela de penola and the vihuela de mano in the Renaissance era.

But before we go to the Renaissance period, it’s important to say that the oud and other traditional Eastern instruments followed their own path and can now be heard in popular music as well. A great example is Erdinç Ecevit Yıldız who plays an electric Bağlama with his band, Altın Gün live.


Renaissance Antecedents (1400 – 1700)

We’re entering an era in which the acoustic guitar’s volume became a real problem. Although it didn’t receive that name yet, the need for loudness in a time with no microphones or amplification had to be resolved by guitar manufacturers to sell their instruments.

displays Renaissance guitar
Renaissance guitar

But how do we know about the Baroque guitar and the Renaissance guitar? Well, from a German book named Heidelberger Totentanz from 1488. In it, death visits several personalities and is drawn carrying musical instruments. These drawings are important because death is visiting people with a lute and a Renaissance guitar among others.

This shows that the Renaissance guitar was used during the early Renaissance period. The resemblance between the Renaissance guitar and our modern classic guitar is amazing. It features a pine soundboard and a hard maple construction with a flat back, a delicately-ornamented soundhole, and a glued bridge among others.

displays Mexican Vihuela
Mexican Vihuela

Close to Germany, in Spain, another instrument that needed to be plucked to generate sound and that featured frets was invented. It was called vihuela. This was very close to the lute but featured a flat back instead of a round one, like our guitars do.

This small, figure-of-eight-shaped guitar predecessor featured 5 or 6 double strings in lute tuning.

Soon after its introduction, it became the go-to instrument for Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian musicians who played it in three versions:

  • Vihuela de arco – “Arco” means bow in Spanish, so this was the bow version of the vihuela. This instrument was to become the famous viola da gamba (“gamba” is leg in Italian).
  • Vihuela de mano – This version was the original, played with the fingers and featuring 5 or 6 double strings.
  • Vihuela de penola – This version of the vihuela was played with a plectrum.

Although you can still buy and play a vihuela today, its use declined toward the 17th century. Nevertheless, it is one of the strongest antecedents of our modern classic guitar. If it wasn’t for the vihuela de mano and vihuela de penola, we might not have gotten to the same shape of instrument we have today.


The Classic & Romantic Periods (1850 – 1900)

displays Classical Guitar

The classical guitar had its biggest push during this time. This wasn’t only because classical guitars saw their most important overhaul in history, but also because great composers of the time started using it as the star instrument of any ensemble.

In this sense, Dionisio Aguado y García and Fernando Sor were the most remarkable ones.

As we stated before, volume was an issue for guitarists back then. Far from giving up, Dionisio invented the tripodison, a stand that allowed the player to play the classic guitar without his or her body muting the natural vibrations, thus, making it louder. This accessory is still being used by amazing guitar players like Santana.

Upon moving to Paris, Dionisio and Fernando became friends, played, and even lived together.

Fernando’s work is still being printed to teach the instrument to new generations. Moreover, he was regarded as such a virtuoso that his fame was of being the best guitarist in the world. His virtuosity also included an unorthodox playing style using the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the picking hand.

Although during the Baroque period, guitars with 5 courses were the norm, when the Baroque period came to an end and made room for the classical period, 6-string guitars were the most popular.

Both these players made their mark in music guitar history playing 6-string guitars as we all do from the classical period to these days.

Displays Classical Guitar

But the guitar as we know it now wasn’t yet quite the same as we have now.

The responsible for the biggest leap in that regard was Antonio de Torres Jurado, a Spanish guitar maker regarded as “the most important Spanish guitar maker of the 19th century.”

He made several modifications to the guitar’s body to make it louder. We spoke about the volume being a problem back then. Well, he made his instruments with a bigger guitar body (like you find in a modern guitar) and found out that, if the soundboard was thinner, resonance would increase volume.

Learn more about different acoustic guitar body styles here.

For that to work, he had to come up with a system of fan bracing to add strength to the soundboard. He built those from wooden struts and laid them down using a symmetrical form close to that of a kite underneath the wooden soundboard (check our full acoustic guitar tonewood guide here).

Thus, Jurado’s guitar’s structure is what we know today to be the standard Spanish guitar, one of the most iconic instruments and a must for any guitarist trying to pursue an academic formation in the classic repertoire area.

Jurado continued to build his own guitars (one of them, with sides and back of paper-mâché still resides at the Museu de la Música in Barcelona and was in playable condition until the year 2000) until his passing in 1892 at 75 years of age.

According to Juan Martinez, Jurado’s shop helper, he would use his middle fingers to measure the soundboard and decide whether it was perfect or not. His guitars were requested from every corner of the continent because of their outstanding volume, clarity, and sound.


The 19th and 20th Century across the Ocean (1833 – 1960)

Displays a Martin guitar
Martin, established in 1833.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a German immigrant, Christian Frederick Martin revolutionized the world of steel-string acoustic guitars with designs we still use today.

Check how Martin guitars ranked in our Best Acoustic Guitar Brands round-up!

Yes, upon arriving in the USA, Christian Frederick Martin, who was the descendant of a family of cabinet makers and a very skilled carpenter, opened up his first shop in New York City. If you’ve ever picked up one of Martin’s amazing steel-stringed acoustic guitars, you might have seen that the logo says “established in 1833”. The company is still family-owned and run by Frederick’s great-great-great grandson.

displays Martin guitars facilities in Nazareth Pennsylvania
Martin guitars facilities in Nazareth Pennsylvania.

The factory, though, was moved by Frederick himself to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where it still is.

Also in the USA, a man by the name of Orville Gibson founded his company in 1902 to manufacture mandolins, guitars, and other instruments. According to Paul Sparks, a music historian, Orville’s instruments were unlike others in the same era. The big difference was the super-high quality standards and the heavy marketing.

If you are thinking about relocating or just visiting some new awesome cities, check the Top 7 Cities For Guitar Players in The US!

But why is this important? Well, Orville used the knowledge he had as a mandolin maker to create the first archtop guitar. It featured violin-like holes and an arched top which gave it uncanny volume and resonance, way before acoustic guitar pickups were even a thought.

Displays Gibson L5
Gibson L5. Credit: Maybelle Carter, CMHF.jpg: Cliffderivative work: User:Clusternote, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gibson L-5, for example, introduced to the market in 1923 with violin-like sound holes is still a masterpiece and a very important part of the history of the acoustic guitar.

By the same time, in the roaring 1920s, Martin focused all its production efforts on steel-string guitars because the company felt that was the direction music was going at the time. Indeed, they were trying to create the best acoustic guitars guitar composers could play alongside banjos, a very important instrument in the growing country music scene of the time. Plus, if both instruments had steel strings, players could switch back and forth effortlessly.

But the real challenge was to make the guitar withstand the pull of the steel strings, which was much higher than nylon strings. Thus, Martin invented the X-bracing technique which is the most widely used today in modern acoustic guitar manufacturing and that runs below the soundboard right beneath the sound hole.

If you are one of the lucky people to play or own a Martin, you’ll know that resonance is the name of the game for the brand.

Also in that decade, John Dopyera invented the resonator guitar. This was another, more extreme experiment to create a louder guitar. He founded the Dobro Company, which also gave the instrument its name, a shorter version of “Dopyera brothers”.

Displays Selmer Gybsy Guitar
Selmer Gibsy Guitar

When talking about acoustic guitars and virtuoso players, it is impossible to avoid speaking of the Selmer guitar, Django Reinhardt’s favorite instrument. The French brand is the result of Selmer’s partnership with Mario Maccaferri. The French instrument developed by the pair is a predecessor of what you would call today a Gipsy acoustic guitar with an oval sound hole, and a movable, adjustable bridge.

The bridge in these guitars is mustache-style and is on top of a “domed” soundboard. Don’t be confused with an archtop guitar because here, what gives the top its curved form is bending the single piece of wood instead of carving it like Gibson-style guitars.

Selmer guitar’s neck is quite wide and the body of this French instrument features a cutaway to make room for Django’s treble-string rants.

Also, since it sports steel strings, the rather thin top features ladder bracing to enhance resonance and also make it resistant to the pulling force of the strings.


The ‘60s Revolution (1960 – 1970)

The ‘20s were roaring, but the ‘60s were definitely groovy; especially in the USA.

But let’s rewind a little, the guitar still needed to be louder in the ‘50s to compete with a drumkit, for example. The first one to add a pickup to a traditional acoustic guitar that we know of was the Gibson Company with the CF-100E in 1951 placing a P-90 pickup right below the neck.

Only 1,250 were ever made between 1951 and 1959.

Check our full acoustic guitar pickup types guide here.

Around the same time, the solid-body electric guitar had made a stellar appearance in the center of the music scene with brands like Fender, Rickenbacker, Gibson, and more. These guitars could take feedback and volume better. Therefore, soon after their introduction, it was possible to spot an electric guitar in most live performers’ hands.

displays John Lennon's 1962 Gibson J-160E acoustic guitar
John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J-160E. Image credit: Lauren Gersonderivative work: Clusternote, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gibson’s second attempt is much better known: the Gibson J-160. It was introduced in 1954 and it is still in production to this day. That being said, the original dreadnought model that took over the world because of the Beatles’ television appearances didn’t have a piezo pickup underneath the guitar’s saddle or sliding EQ controls. The P-90 pickup was mounted straight onto the body with dual pole screws and wired to a regular volume and tone knob on the bottom of the guitar.

John Lennon and George Harrison used their identical sunburst Gibson J-160s electro-acoustic guitars throughout the band’s meteoric career. Lennon’s one was sold not so long ago for a staggering $2.4M.


Fast Forward to Today (1970 – 2023)

Displays magnetic pickup of an acoustic guitar
Magnetic soundhole pickup of an acoustic guitar.

It’s fair to say that acoustic guitar amplification has changed a lot since the early days of a P-90 mounted onto the acoustic guitar’s soundboard, sometimes right over the soundhole.

This is, partially, because modern-day acoustic guitar unleashed a new demon while struggling for volume: feedback.

Yes, if you’ve ever gone to a live acoustic gig and played too close to a monitor, you’ll notice that low-pitch rumble that the air inside the guitar’s body generates.

Displays Built In Tuner of An Acoustic Guitar
Preamp section of acoustic guitar.

This is something that doesn’t happen with solid-body electric guitars and that many companies set out to solve. One of the many attempts was the creation of the active acoustic pickup. An active acoustic pickup translates the vibration of the strings into electrical current (like all do) but puts that signal through a preamp section that improves sound quality (most feature an EQ section), lowers noise, and eliminates hum.

displays Ovation Guitars
Classic Ovation guitar headstock.

One of the first guitars to feature such a system was the Ovation Preacher. Ovation is an acoustic guitar brand that was very famous during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was founded by an aeronautical engineer by the name of Charles Kaman.

Check our picks for the best Ovation guitars here.

He introduced several innovations to steel-string acoustic guitar design to fight feedback back and increase sound quality. For example, the curve composite material used in the back and sides of these guitars was perfect to achieve a feedback-less performance on any stage.

Although we could still name other instruments and brands, the modern acoustic guitar we know today is very close to the ones named above. But one thing is sure…we are excited about what the future brings us in terms of new acoustic guitar innovations!


FAQ

In What Music Genres Acoustic Guitars Are Used?

The acoustic guitar has taken over the world and can be enjoyed in virtually any scenario from traditional folk music, tango, bossa nova, pop, blues, and rock, and the list could go on forever. Plus, it’s the only guitar allowed for classical repertoire performance.

What’s the Role of Acoustic Guitar in Traditional American Music?

Ever since the introduction of the steel-string acoustic guitar, all the great players from Willie Nelson to Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley have played an acoustic guitar on stage and in the studio.

Notable Guitar Manufacturers from The 19th to 21st Century

Martin
Guild
Gibson
Taylor
Yamaha
Takamine
Ovation
-Selmer

Influential Acoustic Guitar Players

-Tommy Emmanuel
-James Taylor
-Django Reinhardt
-Al DiMeola
-Paco De Lucía
-Paul Simon
-Chet Atkins
-Charo
-Robert Johnson
-John Fahey
-Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten

When Was The Acoustic Guitar Invented?

The shape of the classical guitar as we know it comes from the 1850s in Spain. The dreadnought shape (the most common steel-string acoustic guitar shape in the world) was invented by C.F. Martin in 1916.

Who Invented The Acoustic Guitar?

-Although it was a process of endless steps, Antonio Torres de Jurado is responsible for the classical nylon-string acoustic guitar shape,
-C.F. Martin for the dreadnought,
-Orville Gibson for the archtop guitar,
-Selmer and Maccaferri invented the Selmer guitar, known as the Gipsy acoustic.

Which Was Invented First, the Classical or Steel String Acoustic Guitar?

The first of the two was the classical, nylon-string acoustic guitar in the 1850s. The steel-string acoustic came about in the 1920s with Martin’s X-bracing invention.

From Which Country Did The Acoustic Guitar Originate From?

The steel-string acoustic guitar (the dreadnought) was invented by C.F. Martin in the USA. The classical nylon-string guitar comes from Sevilla, Spain.


It’s Been a Long Way to You Playing it Today

The instrument you’re holding as well as all the acoustic guitars you come across went through countless transformations to reach their current state.

Indeed, the road of acoustic guitars, from the stringed instruments 4,000 years ago to the steel strings, and the electric guitars is full of pitfalls, passion, and a relentless commitment to excellence and overcoming obstacles.

Moreover, acoustic guitars started being just another instrument in ensembles and popular parties but acoustic guitars gradually took over the scene and are now a very important part of our culture.

You can see acoustic guitars in every bonfire, park, café, and stadium on Earth playing the most varied musical styles.

The history of the acoustic guitar is that of unsung heroes who wouldn’t take no for an answer and committed their lives to following their dreams.

That guitar you’re holding today has been 5,000 years in the making; make it some justice and play it with your heart and soul.

Happy (acoustic guitar) playing!

Now you can discover the history of electric guitars!


You might also like:

Santiago Motto

Aka. Sandel. Pure Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover. Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music. You can connect with Santiago on LinkedIn or just email him.
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments