History of the classical guitar

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The evolution of classical guitars began with the influences of the vihuela and gittern in the sixteenth century and ended with the modern classical guitar in the mid nineteenth century.


Precursors to the classic guitar

Renaissance stringed instruments

While the precise lineage of the instrument is still unclear, historians believe that the guitar is the descendant of the Greek kithara, gittern, lyre, European and Middle Eastern lutes, and the Spanish vihuela. The poem The Book of Good Love [circa 1330] describes two early instruments, guitarra morisca and guitarra latina.

Then came out, with a strident sound, the two-stringed Moor’s gittern,
High-pitched as to its range, as to its tone both harsh and bold;
Big-bellied lute which marks the time for merry, rustic dance,
And Spanish guitar which with the rest was herded in the fold [1]

Instruments called "guitars" were first mentioned in literature in the 13th century, though many of these medieval records describe instruments that in modern times are classified as gitterns. [2] The first incarnation of what is now called the guitar first appeared during the Renaissance. The Renaissance guitar contained four pairs of strings called courses. The Renaissance guitar shared most similarities with the Spanish vihuela, a six-coursed instrument with similar tuning and construction. [3] Juan Bermudo in 1555 published Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales, a treatise containing a section on plucked string instruments. This publication examined the relationship between the guitar and vihuela, and also differentiated between four- and five-course guitars. The five-course guitar did not phase out the four-course instrument until the Baroque period.

One of the first major methods published for five-course guitar is Joan Carles Amat's Guitarra Española y Vandola en Dos Maneras de Guitarra, Castellana y Cathalana de Cinco Ordenes, [4] published in 1596. [5]

The vihuela became popular in Spain and Italy and remained common until the late 16th century. This instrument appears to have had a strong influence in the design and tuning of the early five-course guitars that first appeared in Spain in the middle of the sixteenth century. [6] These five-course guitarras replaced the four-course Renaissance instruments, particularly in Spain. The guitarra set the modern standard tuning – A, D, G, B, E – for the top five strings that continues to this day. [7] The number of frets on the guitar was increased from eight to ten and eventually to twelve. Later, it was in Italy that a sixth course became commonplace and this was an easily done by replacing or reworking the nut and bridge to plug in another tuning peg hole for the sixth string. An ornate guitar made by a Joakim Thielke (1641–1719) of Germany was altered in this way and became a success.

From the mid-18th century through the early 19th century, the guitar evolved into a six-string instrument, phasing out courses by preference to single strings. These six-string guitars were still smaller than the modern classical guitar.

Romantic guitar

Modern classical guitar

Agustin Barrios Agustin Barrios.png
Agustín Barrios

The design of the modern classical guitar can be attributed to Antonio de Torres. The construction of these guitars has been considered the standard in "traditional" instruments since the mid 19th century.

Contemporary classical guitars follow the Smallman design which replaces the fan braces with a much lighter balsa brace attached to the back of the sound board with carbon fiber. The balsa brace has a honeycomb pattern and allows the (now much thinner) sound board to support more vibrational modes. This leads to greater volume and longer sustain.

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Classical guitar member of the guitar family used in classical music

The classical guitar is a member of the guitar family used in classical music. An acoustic wooden string instrument with strings made of gut or nylon, it is a precursor of the modern acoustic and electric guitars, both of which use metal strings. Classical guitars are derived from the Spanish vihuela and gittern in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, which later evolved into the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Baroque guitar and later the modern classical guitar in the mid-nineteenth century.

Guitar Fretted string instrument

The guitar is a fretted musical instrument that typically has six strings. It is held flat against the player's body and played by strumming or plucking the strings with the dominant hand, while simultaneously pressing the strings against frets with the fingers of the opposite hand. A plectrum or individual finger picks may be used to strike the strings. The sound of the guitar is projected either acoustically, by means of a resonant chamber on the instrument, or amplified by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.


The vihuela is a 15th-century fretted plucked Spanish string instrument, shaped like a guitar but tuned like a lute. It was used in 15th- and 16th-century Spain as the equivalent of the lute in Italy and has a large resultant repertory. There were usually five or six doubled strings.

Tiple Fretted string instrument

A tiple, is a plucked-string chordophone of the guitar family. A tiple player is called a tiplista. The first mention of the tiple comes from musicologist Pablo Minguet e Irol in 1752. Although many variations of the instrument exist, the tiple is mostly associated with Colombia, and is considered the national instrument.


The bandurria is a plucked chordophone from Spain, similar to the mandolin, primarily used in Spanish folk music, but also found in former Spanish colonies.

Gittern Medieval necked bowl lute

The gittern was a relatively small gut strung round-backed instrument that first appears in literature and pictorial representation during the 13th century in Western Europe. It is usually depicted played with a quill plectrum, as we can see clearly beginning in manuscript illuminations from the thirteenth century. It was also called the guiterna in Spain, guiterne or guiterre in France, the chitarra in Italy and Quintern in Germany. A popular instrument with court musicians, minstrels, and amateurs, the gittern is considered an ancestor of the modern guitar and other instruments like the mandore, bandurria and gallichon.

The cuatro is a family of Latin American string instruments played in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other Latin American countries. It is derived from the Spanish guitar. Although some have viola-like shapes, most cuatros resemble a small to mid-sized classical guitar. In Puerto Rico and Venezuela, the cuatro is an ensemble instrument for secular and religious music, and is played at parties and traditional gatherings.

Baroque guitar

The Baroque guitar is a string instrument with five courses of gut strings and moveable gut frets. The first course sometimes used only a single string.

Acoustic guitar

An acoustic guitar is a musical instrument in the guitar family. Its strings vibrate a sound board on a resonant body to project a sound wave through the air. The original, general term for this stringed instrument is guitar, and the retronym 'acoustic guitar' distinguishes it from an electric guitar, which relies on electronic amplification. Typically, a guitar's body is a sound box, of which the top side serves as a sound board that enhances the vibration sounds of the strings. In standard tuning the guitar's six strings are tuned (low to high) E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 E4.

The Harp Consort is an international early music ensemble directed by Andrew Lawrence-King, specialising in Baroque opera, early dance-music, and historical World Music.

Enríquez de Valderrábano was a Spanish vihuelist and composer. There is little biographical data on this composer of early music, but his Libro de música de vihuela intitulado Silva de Sirenas, published in Valladolid, Spain in 1547, states he is a citizen of Peñaranda de Duero, and the book is dedicated to Francisco de Zúñiga, the Fourth Count of Miranda. This dedication is probably the source of Juan Bermudo's unconfirmed assertion in his Declaración de instrumentos musicales of 1555 that Valderrábano was employed by the count.

Mandore (instrument)

The mandore is a musical instrument, a small member of the lute family, teardrop shaped, with four to six courses of gut strings and pitched in the treble range. Considered a French instrument, with much of the surviving music coming from France, it was used across "Northern Europe" including Germany and Scotland. Although it went out of style, the French instrument has been revived for use in classical music. The instrument's most commonly played relatives today are members of the mandolin family and the bandurria.


Concheras or conchas are Mexican stringed-instruments, plucked by concheros dancers. The instruments were important to help preserve elements of native culture from Eurocentric-Catholic suppression. The instruments are used by Concheros dancers for singing at "velaciones" and for dancing at "obligaciones".

Puerto Rican cuatro Musical instrument

The Puerto Rican cuatro is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. It belongs to the lute family of string instruments, and is guitar-like in function, but with a shape closer to that of the violin. The word cuatro means "four", which was the total number of strings of the earliest Puerto Rican instrument known by the cuatro name.

Juan Bermudo was a Spanish Friar Minor who is best known as a composer, music theorist and mathematician.

Colombian tiple

The Colombian tiple, is a plucked string instrument of the guitar family, common in Colombia where it is considered one of the national instruments. About three-fourths the size of a classical guitar, it has twelve strings set in four triple-strung courses. It is played as a main instrument or as an accompanying instrument to the guitar.

The Guitarra de golpe is a stringed musical instrument from Mexico. It has 5 nylon strings in 5 courses. The headstock traditionally has a traditional shape that is designed to look like a stylised owl with wooden pegs, but nowadays this is sometimes replaced with a guitar or vihuela style headstock with machine heads. For a while during the 20th century, the Guitarra De Golpe fell into disuse in traditional Mariachi groups, and was replaced by the Classical guitar. It has now however been revived. It is still an essential part of the "conjuntos de arpa" from Michoacán.

John Griffiths (musician)

John Griffiths is a musician and musicologist specialised in music for guitar and early plucked instruments, especially the vihuela and lute. He has researched aspects of the sixteenth-century Spanish vihuela, its history and its music. He has also had an international career as a solo lutenist, vihuelist, and guitarist, and as a member of the pioneer Australian early music group La Romanesca. After a thirty-year career at the University of Melbourne (1980–2011), he now works as a freelance scholar and performer.

Guitarra morisca

The guitarra morisca or mandora medieval is a plucked string instrument. It is a lute that has a bulging belly and a headstock as sickle. Part of that characterization came from a c. 1330 poem, Libra de Buen Amor by Juan Ruiz, which described the "Moorish gittern" as "corpulent". The use of the adjective morisca tacked to guitarra may have been to differentiate it from the commonly seen Latin European variety, when the morisca was seen on a limited basis during the 14th century.

History of lute-family instruments

Lutes are stringed musical instruments that include a body and "a neck which serves both as a handle and as a means of stretching the strings beyond the body".


  1. Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, English translation by Saralyn Daly, The Book of True Love: a Bilingual Edition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, c1978): 311–329.
  2. Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, (New York: Macmillan Press Limited, 1984).
  3. Grove Music Online
  4. "Guitarra Española y Vandola en Dos Maneras de Guitarra, Castellana y Cathalana de Cinco Ordenes".
  5. Graham Wade, A Concise History of the Classic Guitar (Pacific: Mel Bay, 2001): 25–31.
  6. "The first incontrovertible evidence of five-course instruments can be found in Miguel Fuenllana's Orphenica Lyre of 1554, which contains music for a vihuela de cinco ordenes. In the following year Juan Bermudo wrote in his Declaracion de Instrumentos Musicales: "We have seen a guitar in Spain with five courses of strings." Bermudo later mentions in the same book that "Guitars usually have four strings," which implies that the five-course guitar was of comparatively recent origin, and still something of an oddity". Tom and Mary Anne Evans Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock. Paddington Press Ltd 1977 p. 24
  7. "We know from literary sources that the five course guitar was immensely popular in Spain in the early seventeenth century and was also widely played in France and Italy...Yet almost all the surviving guitars were built in Italy...This apparent disparity between the documentary and instrumental evidence can be explained by the fact that, in general, only the more expensively made guitars have been kept as collectors' pieces. During the early seventeenth century the guitar was an instrument of the people of Spain, but was widely played by the Italian aristocracy." Tom and Mary Anne Evans. Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock. Paddington Press Ltd 1977 p. 24