History of Acoustic and Electric Guitars

Fred Hultstrand and guitar
Fred Hultstrand and guitar circa 1910. Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo

One of the mysteries of the music world has long been who, exactly, invented the guitar. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians had stringed instruments, but it wasn't until the relatively modern era that we can begin to point to Europeans Antonio Torres and Christian Frederick Martin as key to the development of acoustic guitars. Decades later, American George Beauchamp and his cohorts played an important role in the invention of the electric.

Strum Like an Egyptian

Stringed instruments were used as accompaniments to storytellers and singers throughout the ancient world. The earliest are known as bowl harps, which eventually evolved into a more complex instrument known as a tanbur. The Persians had their version, chartars, while the Ancient Greeks strummed along on lap harps known as kitharas.

The oldest guitar-like instrument, dating back about 3,500 years, can be viewed today at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. It belonged to an Egyptian court singer by the name of Har-Mose.

Origins of the Modern Guitar

In the 1960s, a Dr. Michael Kasha debunked a long-held belief that the modern guitar originated from these harp-like instruments developed by ancient cultures. Kasha (1920–2013) was a chemist, physicist, and teacher whose specialty was traveling the world and tracing the history of the guitar. Thanks to his research, we know the origins of what would eventually evolve into the guitar—a musical instrument with a flat-backed rounded body that narrows in the middle, a long fretted neck, and usually six strings—is actually European in origin: Moorish, to be specific, an offshoot of that culture's lute, or oud.

Classical Acoustic Guitars

Finally, we have a specific name. The form of the modern classical guitar is credited to Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres circa 1850. Torres increased the size of the guitar body, altered its proportions, and invented the "fan" top bracing pattern. Bracing, which refers to the internal pattern of wood reinforcements used to secure the guitar's top and back and prevent the instrument from collapsing under tension, is an important factor in how the guitar sounds.

Torres' design greatly improved the volume, tone, and projection of the instrument, and it has remained essentially unchanged since.

At around the same time that Torres started making his breakthrough fan-braced guitars in Spain, German immigrants to the U.S. had begun making guitars with X-braced tops. This style of brace is generally attributed to Christian Frederick Martin, who in 1830 made the first guitar to be used in the United States. X-bracing became the style of choice once steel string guitars made their appearance in 1900. 

The Body Electric

When musician George Beauchamp, playing in the late 1920s, realized that the acoustic guitar was too soft to project in a band setting, he got the idea to electrify, and eventually amplify, the sound. Working with Adolph Rickenbacker, an electrical engineer, Beauchamp and his business partner, Paul Barth, developed an electromagnetic device that picked up the vibrations of the guitar strings and converted these vibrations into an electrical signal, which was then amplified and played through speakers. Thus the electric guitar was born, along with the dreams of young people around the world.

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Bellis, Mary. "History of Acoustic and Electric Guitars." ThoughtCo, Apr. 3, 2018, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-accoustic-and-electric-guitar-1991855. Bellis, Mary. (2018, April 3). History of Acoustic and Electric Guitars. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-accoustic-and-electric-guitar-1991855 Bellis, Mary. "History of Acoustic and Electric Guitars." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-accoustic-and-electric-guitar-1991855 (accessed April 19, 2018).