Classical Guitar History

Kevin Ott
Classical guitar body

The history of classical guitar has long fascinated music enthusiasts. While some people consider the guitar a relatively new instrument in the long history of music, the classical guitar has actually been around longer than many people realize.

Ancient Origins of the Classical Guitar

Although it's difficult to pinpoint the precise beginning of the instrument, records point to the ancient Near East (in the vicinity of modern Iraq, Iran, and Syria) as origin of the classical guitar's earliest predecessors.

  • 1900-1800 BCE: Artifacts from the ancient Near East, in Babylonia, depict nude figures on clay tablets playing an early version of the guitar. These instruments perhaps only have two or three strings, but they clearly have a neck and a body, and they are flat and held like a modern guitar.
  • 1473 BCE: Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt employs a singer named Har-Mose who uses a guitar-like instrument.
  • 1010-970 BCE: King David of ancient Israel writes many of the psalms, which are written to be sung on a predecessor to the classical guitar, a thin lyre, which has four to eight gut strings and is strummed with a pick-like object called a plectrum. However, Samuel I 16:23 indicates King David played the lyre fingerstyle, which is similar to the general approach of today's classical guitarist.
  • 754 BCE - 476 CE: The Romans develop three predecessors to the classical guitar:
    • Lyre: A small portable harp, it has either four, seven, or ten strings and is usually strummed with a pick-like object (plectrum) or is fingerpicked. It is used widely among the population and is associated with moderation and virtue.
    • Kithara: A lyre-like instrument with seven strings, but it is used strictly by professional musicians for entertaining at events such as dances, banquets, or Greek poetry recitals.
    • Lute: Though not as popular as the lyre or kithara, Romans did occasionally use their version of the lute, which has a small body, long neck, and three strings.
  • 750 - 887 CE: In Medieval Europe, during the period of the Carolingian Dynasty, a predecessor to the guitar is in wide use, and it is rectangular, with a long neck and wide, round end with small pegs with four or five strings played either fingerstyle or with a plectrum. This style of instrument remains prominent until the fourteenth century.

This last style of guitar during the Carolingian Dynasty sees little change for centuries. It's not until the culture-shaking event of the Renaissance does the guitar make more leaps in its evolution.

The Renaissance

17th Century Spanish Vihuela Headstock
17th Century Spanish Vihuela Headstock

The instruments that begin to appear around this time show the beginning of real connections between earlier guitar-like instruments and guitars that would be recognizable to modern players.

  • 1500: The Spanish vihuela appears in Spain, and it has eight strings divided into four pairs called courses. It is played by the common people, and by the end of the 1500s it is known in other countries as the Spanish guitar.
  • 1536: Luis Milán, a musician and composer for a court in Valencia, Spain, writes "El Maestro," a collection of songs for the vihuela that helps establish the instrument.
  • 1581: Guitar design evolves and becomes more highly skilled. Inspired by the four-course guitar, Belchior Dias makes a five-course guitar, which includes intricate carved rose designs in wood instead of open soundholes.
  • 1500-1600: Early forms of tablature surface at this time and are published in books so musicians can play the songs of their time.

As the Renaissance yields to new developments in music, the guitar is poised to make even more leaps of progress.

Baroque Period (17th Century)

Beginning in the seventeenth century, the guitar begins to explode in popularity in the noble classes, and five-string instruments are becoming the norm. Composers and guitar makers grow in numbers, and a good deal of Baroque music is written and performed on the guitar.

  • 1596: Juan Carlos Amat's Guitarra Española de cinco órdenes is published in Spain for the five-course guitar, and it becomes a popular music book for Europe and ushers in the Baroque Era for guitar, which prominently uses the five-course guitar, a direct predecessor to the modern classical guitar.
  • 1600: Guitar music begins to depart from the contrapuntal style of Renaissance guitar and moves toward the simpler sound of the Baroque Era, thanks in part to the emergence of monody in Italy in which a single line of melody is composed over accompanying chords--an early form of today's melody and harmony approach.
  • 1611: Covarrubias Orozco writes an article in opposition to the popular emergence of the guitar, as noted in the book The Guitar Before 1900: What the Dictionaries Reveal by Sean Ferguson: "all kinds of notated music was played on it, and now the guitar is nothing more than a cow-bell, so easy to play, especially in rasgado, that there is not a stable boy who is not a musician of the guitar."
  • Circa 1600-1700: Alfabeto music notation becomes a popular form of spreading musical knowledge and skill of the five-course guitar, though it is hard to decipher and is similar in spirit to the shorthand "fake book" lead sheets of today's jazz notation.
  • 1639: French Baroque guitarist and composer Francesco Corbetta publishes Scherzi Armonici, his first of five influential volumes of guitar music that reflect the strummed and plucked style of Baroque guitar, especially the French style.
  • 1674: Guitarist and composer Gaspar Sanz writes his famous Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española, later republished in 1697 with subsequent works combined into the first work. This book of music would become a masterful example of Baroque guitar and a standard volume for future classical guitar repertoire.

Classic and Romantic Periods (18th and early 19th Centuries)

The most significant development the guitar undertakes in this period is its evolution to a six-string instrument. The instrument is becoming popular in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and all over Eastern Europe and Russia. The six-string instrument is the norm by the end of the eighteenth century.

  • 1743: Luigi Boccherini is born. He would become an important composer for guitar during the Classic Period, especially his famous guitar quintets, which includes well-known pieces, such as Fandango.
  • 1750: Six-course guitar (12 strings in six pairs of courses) emerges alongside the Classic style of composition made famous by WolfgangAmadeus Mozart, but the six-course guitar remains uncommon and constrained to mostly Spain. This would be the precursor to the six-string guitar upon which the modern classical guitar is based.
  • 1800: The six-course guitar is changed to six single strings. However, at the same time the piano is introduced, and this diminishes the popularity of the guitar.
  • 1840: Antonio de Torres, still known today as the undisputed master of guitar makers, gives the guitar a larger body to make it louder and a new pattern of fanstruts still used today. His new design adds great beauty and volume to the tone, and it helps launch the guitar back to popularity and make it viable in concert settings.
  • 1860: Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz is born and over the next several decades, he writes some of the great masterpieces later transcribed for modern classical guitar, such as Asturias (Leyenda) and Granada.
  • 1896: Spanish guitarist and composer Francisco Tarrega, known as one of the fathers of the modern classical guitar, composes one of the most famous classical guitar pieces ever written, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, which successfully combines the Romantic period of classical guitar with a distinct Spanish style.

The foundation laid in the 1800s will allow the classical guitar in the next century to reach an unprecedented level of popularity in global culture.

Modern Period (20th Century)

Thanks to musicians like Francisco Tarrega and guitar design improvements by luthiers such as Antonio Torres, the foundation for modern classical guitar in the twentieth century has been laid. Andres Segovia, considered the giant of the guitar in the twentieth century, will build a palace on this foundation as he defines modern classical guitar and makes it an instrument of true virtuosity.

  • 1893: Andrés Segovia is born in Linares, Spain.
  • 1909: Segovia, who is mainly self-taught, makes his classical guitar debut in Grenada, Spain.
  • 1920s: Segovia begins touring internationally and is quickly becoming regarded as a virtuoso master for classical guitar.
  • 1941: Australian classical guitarist John Williams is born. Classical guitar historian Graham Wade describes Williams as perhaps the most technically flawless guitarist the world has seen. Williams helped widen the appeal of classical guitar with his group Sky and with his unusual explorations of South American, African, and jazz music.
  • 1951: Julian Bream, another classical guitar giant of the twentieth century, makes his debut at Wigmore Hall in London. Besides bringing the classical guitar into a wide variety of modern musical styles, Bream becomes known for his advocacy of the Elizabethan repertoire and lute.
  • 1973: John Williams and Julian Bream collaborate on the album Julian and John and win a Gammy.
  • 1970s: Australian guitar maker Greg Smallman meets John Williams and begins a collaboration that leads Smallman to create a new design of classical guitar. His innovation produces a revolution of guitar making not seen since Antonio de Torres in the 1800s.
  • 1987: Segovia dies.

While the heart of modern classical guitar remains firmly planted in Spanish music, thanks, in part, to the Spanish composers of the nineteenth century and to the Spanish guitar master Segovia of the twentieth century, the dizzying complexity and diversity of the new millennium brings new sounds and playing styles to the classical guitar never heard or seen before.

The Future of Classical Guitar: Women and Non-Europeans Stealing the Spotlight

It is true male European composers and musicians have dominated classical guitar for centuries, but the genre is already beginning to look very different. As the twenty-first century blossoms, fresh influences are coming in, as noted in this analysis from Classical Music that lists some of the newest classical guitarists who caught the attention of the music world:

  • Xuefei Yang, a Chinese classical guitarist, is fast becoming known as one of today's great virtuosos and the future of classical guitar. She is known for her energetic, "feisty" style and her incorporation of Chinese composers such as the music of Chen Yi.
  • Craig Ogden, an Australian guitarist, was named by the BBC as the next Julian Bream. He is known for his masterful technique and his wide range of styles, from Takemitsu to Rodrigo.
  • Miloš Karadaglić, a guitarist born in Montenegro, has become one of the most in-demand classical guitarists on the concert scene today. He is known for his precise but "feather-light" touch and warm style. His recordings regularly top the classical charts, and in 2012 he filled the famous Albert Hall in London for its first solo classical guitar recital.

An Exciting Future

With such fascinating virtuosos from around the world playing today, the future of classical guitar is sure to explore new territories and sounds.

Was this page useful?
Classical Guitar History