It is not clear when or where the first guitar was ever made. We do know that the Hittites, in 1400BC, were playing an instrument with a long neck and strings that could be the ancestor of the guitar that we know today. The written history of the guitar, however, doesn’t start until the 15th century.
A Brief History of the Classic Guitar
An instrument was developed in Spain that was very much like today’s guitar. This was called the ‘viola da mano’ or the ‘vihuela’. Genteel folk would play this instrument. Additionally, there was the ‘ghiterne’ or the ‘guiterra’, which was a similar instrument but was tuned differently. Around 1550, the two instruments effectively merged into one.
This new instrument had eight strings and it would be tuned in four courses or pairs. After 50 years, a fifth pair had been added to this. Very quickly, the instrument became popular in other countries as well, where people started calling it the ‘Spanish Guitar’. King Henry VIII, king of the United Kingdom, was believed to have owned four Spanish vialles or gitterons in his extensive collection of instruments.
Before the guitar, people would generally play the lute instead. However, the guitar turned out to be much easier to play. This meant that those who did not have a significant musical background were able to use this instrument and play a few chords. Those who had more cultured tastes were disgusted by this. One example was Samuel Pepys, who recorded that he was ‘mightily troubled’ about the fact that such a terrible instrument was becoming so popular. Others observed that the sound of the instrument was painful to the ears. However, despite these scathing reviews, the instrument gained even more popularity and by the 18th century, it was one of the best known instruments in the world.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the five different courses were replaced, using just six single strings and the tuning became what we know it today. At this point, guitars were very quiet and had narrow bodies. However, its popularity plumetted suddenly when the piano was introduced. But it wasn’t long before the guitar was changed again and once again became popular.
In 1840, Antonio de Torres, a carpenter from Spain, started to make new guitars. He change the way it sounded by giving it a much larger body. Additionally, he introduced fanstruts that were placed under the soundboard with glue. This enhanced and strengthened the tone of the guitar. De Torres had an almost natural knowledge and understanding of the wood with which he was working, much of which came from dismantled old furniture. To date, no one else has been able to create a guitar that sounds quite as beautiful as the De Torres models. New strutting patterns have been developed, but the design of the Spanish carpenter is still the basis of guitars today. Indeed, he is the believed to be the Stradivarius of classical guitar makers.
How to Recognize a Good Quality Acoustic Guitar
The best classic acoustic guitars are handmade guitars. Of course, not every handmade guitar is a good guitar either. One thing to look for is the ‘soul’ of the guitar. It has to sound right, feel right and play right. Additionally, those who build the guitar have to have a connection with their instrument. They must love what they do and love the results of their efforts.
Naturally, a good quality handmade guitar is not solely about love and emotion. It has to be constructed of good quality materials and bonded the right way. Another element is the distance between the frets and the strings. A good quality classical guitar has the frets and strings placed very closely together. This is because, if played in a purist fashion, it allows for extremely rapid finger picking. At the same time, however, the purist movement is slowly disappearing and many people now choose a classical guitar because it is more gentle on the finger tips than steel strings. In this case, the frets and strings are much farther apart, which allows for the playing of chords.
As such, what matters when choosing a guitar is also how you want to play it. Again, purists will only ‘allow’ people to finger pick with their own nails. They will also hold the guitar differently, using a stand to rest the top part of the guitar on the leg. But there are no laws stating that this is how it must be played. If you wanted to play singalong songs around a campfire, something far less intricate will work just as well.