How Old Is the Guitar? Guitars belong to a family of musical instruments known as the tanbur family. But guitars have distinctive characteristics that make them different, such as their long, fretted neck, their flat back, and flat wooden soundboard. Most guitars also have incurved sides.
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The modern guitar that we know today, has origins that can be traced back to more than 4,000 years! Based on the abovementioned definition, the guitar’s oldest iconographical representation is a 3,300 year-old stone carving. In it, a man carries a Hittite guitar with a long, fretted neck, incurved sides, and a flat top, perhaps even a flat back. The carving was found in an archaeological site in Alaca Huyuk in Turkey.
The Earliest Ancestors Of The Guitar
A man has an inherent desire to pluck, pick and strum on strings strung over a hollow body. Archaeologists have discovered bowl harps and tanburs, the earliest stringed instruments known to man, in numerous sites, and across civilizations.
Prehistoric people made bowl harps from tortoise shells and calabashes, which served as the resonators, as well as bent sticks for the neck and gut for strings. Many of these so-called harps from the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures are preserved and displayed in museums.
The tanbur, the earliest known ancestor of the guitar, was depicted in Egyptian stone carvings and tomb paintings. These works of art are proof that tanburs, as well as harps and flutes, were being played as early as 3,500 to 4,000 years ago.
And it’s not just in paintings that we know of the tanbur’s existence! Har-Mose, an Egyptian singer who lived 3,500 years ago, was buried with his tanbur, an instrument with a plectrum, three strings, and a soundbox made of cedarwood. It’s not displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
The Variations Of The Guitar
We also know of the variations of the guitar across the world. Many of these variations are still being utilized today. The Moors, for example, brought their oud to Spain, where it became the lute. The name is derived from “Al’ud,” an Arabic word that means wood, and “laud,” a Spanish name.
While the lute has evolved through the years, it has retained most of its basic characteristics. These include its short neck, numerous strings, and a large pear-shaped body. A modern example is the Sala Mahogany String Instrument Oud.
There’s also the Indian sitar, a plucked stringed instrument commonly used in Hindustani classical music. It was invented in medieval India and has since then been associated with the Indian subcontinent. Today, the sitar has many variations, too, but the Sorab sitar is a classic example.
The guitar’s ancestors usually had four strings, at most. The word “guitar” itself is a derivation of “chartar,” an Old Persian word meaning “four strings.” But as the years pass by and the guitar was brought to other places. It changed in its form, including the number of strings.
Today, most acoustic, electric and classical guitars have six strings.
To conclude, guitars are old instruments, indeed, but it’s still evolving! Guitar luthiers and guitarists are continually tinkering with its form and function, and we may see it becoming more revolutionary in our lifetime. Think of the next Orville Gibson.