Facts About The World’s Most Popular Instrument: The Guitar

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The guitar, especially the electric guitar is the most popular musical instrument today. It has overtaken the violin as the most popular instrument for children to learn. Once seen as an instrument endemic to the Western world, it has made its presence felt in all corners of the world.

FACT 1: The history of the guitar is actually quite recent and cannot be traced beyond than the Renaissance. Sometimes guitar like artefacts seen in Ancient Egyptian paintings are thought to be the first guitars. However these were actually religious objects. They were not even played.

FACT 2: The Greeks had a stringed instrument called the Kithara. Despite the similar sounding names, the Kithara was more like a harp and had nothing to do with the guitar. The most likely predecessor of the guitar is the lute. It is a four stringed instrument that is plucked, making it more like a bass guitar. The lute cannot be strummed. The rounded back of the lute does not permit loud sound. A lute is too soft to be a band instrument.

FACT 3: In 15th century Spain, the vihuela was developed. This instrument closely resembled a guitar. It had a pinched waist, treble strings that could be strummed and a smaller body than the lute. At the same time a similar instrument, which could be recognized as a guitar was developed. This instrument was smaller than the modern guitar. It had four double courses of strings. It had frets, tuning pegs and a bridge. This instrument was popular in the 16th century.

FACT 4: By the 17th century the guitar had overtaken both the lute and the vihuela. It was the popular instrument of secular genres like dances, chansons and fantasias. The guitar was widely used in France, Italy, England, Spain and Portugal. The Baroque guitar was used at the courts of Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England. The guitars had 5 double courses of strings.

FACT 5: The first 6 single stringed guitars were probably made in Naples in the 1770’s or 80’s. These guitars called classical guitars were louder and less ornate than the baroque guitars. Baroque guitars were often works of art and have been depicted in the paintings of Vermeer, Fragonard and Watteau.

FACT 6: Bands needed louder guitars as audiences started to grow. In the 19th century steel strings were used which gave the instrument greater volume.

FACT 7: In the 1920’s guitars were used at dances, that were becoming increasingly popular. The recording industry was just finding its feet in USA. If a performance was to be captured, it needed to be loud. Efforts to amplify the guitars sound using electricity started about 1920.

FACT 8: By the 1930’s electric amplification of guitar sound successfully increased the volume of the guitar. Traditionalists rejected the electrification of the guitar, but country and jazz musicians welcomed it.

FACT 9: C.F. Martin and Orville Gibson were innovators in the late 19th century. Their designs helped increase the guitars volume and paved the way for the flat top electric guitars. The first commercially viable electric guitar was the ‘Frying Pan’. This guitar was a lap-steel mounted with the first electromagnetic pick up. The pickup was developed in 1931 by George Beauchamp and Adolf Rickenbacker.

FACT 10: As the guitar gained popularity, musicians began to use customised guitars. Some iconic guitars include Bo Diddley’s ‘Twang Machine’, which had a rectangular body. Rick Neilson had a guitar with FIVE necks. Prince’s ‘Cloud’ guitar is probably the sexiest guitar ever created.

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