The history of the acoustic guitar

Ancient beginnings

  • A fascinating predecessor to the acoustic guitar is the oud, originating from Persia and commonly played in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. With its unique pear-shaped body and six strings that were plucked with a plectrum, the oud holds a significant place in history.
  • Another instrument that paved the way for what would become the acoustic guitar is the lute. Its rounded back and sound hole allowed for richer resonance, captivating audiences from Ancient Greece to various corners of Europe during the Roman Empire.
  • Alongside the lute, intriguing instruments like the vihuela, cittern, and mandolin also contributed to shaping early stringed instruments. They each possessed distinct shapes, sizes, and playing techniques, yet shared striking similarities with our present-day conception of an acoustic guitar.

These ancient wonders laid a solid groundwork for forthcoming innovations in designing and constructing acoustic guitars. As we embark on a journey through different historical periods, it becomes apparent how these humble beginnings gradually transformed into what we now recognize as our beloved modern acoustic guitar.

Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire

During ancient times, the development of music and musical instruments played an essential role in various cultures. Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, in particular, witnessed significant advancements in the world of music, including the acoustic guitar.

The oud: One of the earliest stringed instruments that can be considered a predecessor to the modern acoustic guitar is the oud. With its origins traced back to Mesopotamia and Ancient Persia, this pear-shaped instrument was widely popular during ancient times. It featured a bowl-like body and multiple strings usually made from gut or silk.

The lute: Emerging during the Byzantine period in Greece, the lute had a similar structure to the oud but with some notable modifications. Its rounded back and elongated neck gave it a distinctive appearance. The lute’s popularity spread throughout Europe, eventually becoming one of the most prevalent instruments during medieval times.

The vihuela: Rising to prominence during the Renaissance period, the vihuela gained favor among both musicians and aristocracy alike. This six-stringed instrument resembled a large classical guitar but had double strings for enhanced resonance.

The cittern (cithren): Another influential instrument closely associated with Ancient Greece and Rome is the cittern. Having various shapes and configurations over time, it evolved into a precursor to modern-day guitar-like instruments with flat backs akin to early guitars.

The mandolin: While not directly related to Ancient Greece or Rome, it is worth mentioning that variations of plucked stringed instruments similar to mandolins were present throughout history as well as ancient Egypt dating back thousands of years ago.

Each of these ancient instruments contributed valuable knowledge that laid crucial groundwork for further innovation in acoustic guitar design and playing techniques. Their influence on later periods cannot be understated, ultimately shaping what we know today as an integral part of music culture across centuries.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the acoustic guitar went through significant changes and developments. This era saw the emergence of several stringed instruments that played a crucial role in shaping the modern acoustic guitar as we know it today. In this section, we will explore the oud, lute, vihuela, cittern, and mandolin – all fascinating predecessors of the acoustic guitar. By delving into their unique characteristics and contributions, we can gain a deeper understanding of how these instruments laid the foundation for later advancements. So let’s journey back in time to uncover the captivating story of acoustic guitars in the Middle Ages.

The oud

During the Middle Ages, several stringed instruments emerged and played a significant role in shaping the history of the acoustic guitar. One of these early predecessors of the modern-day guitar was the oud.

The oud is believed to have originated from ancient Mesopotamia and spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, and North Africa. Its shape and design closely resemble that of a lute but are simpler in construction. The oud typically had five courses or pairs of strings and a flat back made from wood, such as walnut or rosewood.

In terms of playing techniques, musicians would pluck the strings with their fingers and use their other hand to fret notes on the fingerboard. This approach allowed for expressive playing styles, including intricate melodic passages and rhythmic accompaniment.

The oud played an important role not only in courtly music but also in folk traditions across various cultures. It influenced other stringed instruments like the lute, which developed during the same period.

Next, we will explore another key instrument from this era: the lute. But before we move on, let’s take a closer look at what exactly set the oud apart as an essential forerunner to the acoustic guitar.

The lute

The lute, a prominent instrument during the Middle Ages, played a significant role in the history of the acoustic guitar. Its emergence and development gave rise to various playing techniques and impacted the construction of subsequent stringed instruments.

Playing Techniques – Medieval lute players discovered innovative techniques that allowed them to produce beautiful melodies and rich harmonies. These techniques included plucking individual strings with their fingers or using a plectrum. – The lute was also known for its versatility, allowing players to play both melodic lines and accompanying chords simultaneously.

Construction and Design – Lutes consisted of a rounded body made from different tonewoods, including spruce, cedar, or maple. The choice of tonewood heavily influenced the instrument’s sound quality. – They typically featured multiple strings arranged in courses that were tuned in fourths or fifths. This tuning system allowed players to explore complex harmonic structures.

Transitioning into Modern Times – The lute served as an essential stepping stone in the evolution of the acoustic guitar. Its design principles laid the groundwork for future iterations of stringed instruments. – The use of frets on lutes greatly influenced the transition from fretless to fretted guitars. – As musical tastes shifted over time, new instruments such as the vihuela and cittern emerged as variations on the lute family.

The historical significance and influence of the lute cannot be overstated when discussing acoustic guitars. By understanding its impact, we can appreciate how this ancient instrument paved the way for modern-day guitar playing techniques and instrument craftsmanship.

The vihuela

The vihuela, an integral instrument in the history of the acoustic guitar, played a significant role during the Renaissance period. This 5 or 6 course string instrument originated in Spain and gained popularity throughout Europe.

  • The vihuela resembled a guitar-like shape with a flat-backed body and a rounded sound hole.
  • It featured double strings known as courses, which were often made of gut material.
  • The fretboard was typically smaller than its predecessor, the lute.

Influence on guitar evolution:

  • The design and structure of the vihuela heavily influenced later iterations of the guitar.
  • Techniques and playing styles developed for the vihuela were passed down to future generations of guitarists.

During the Renaissance period, composers wrote intricate pieces specifically for the vihuela. As its popularity grew, many music schools offered instruction on this instrument. Notable works by composers such as Luis de Milán highlighted the versatility and expressive potential of the vihuela.

The significance of the vihuela eventually waned as new innovations led to further advancements in acoustic guitars. However, its impact on acoustic guitar development cannot be understated. By understanding its history and importance within musical traditions, we can gain a deeper appreciation for how this humble instrument has evolved over time.

The cittern (cithren)

During the Middle Ages, the cittern, also known as the cithren, emerged as one of the prominent acoustic guitar-like instruments. This stringed instrument had a flat back and was widely popular in Europe from the 14th to the 18th century. The cittern played an essential role in shaping the development of acoustic guitars.

The cittern had courses of strings that were either plucked or strummed with a plectrum, giving it a distinct sound and character. It featured a pear-shaped body with a rounded bottom and a short neck that held multiple frets. The instrument was typically tuned in courses with metal strings for added resonance.

The cittern’s design evolved over time, adopting features from other similar instruments like the lute and vihuela. It became popular among musicians and gradually found its way into various traditional European folk music genres.

However, by the 18th century, changes in musical tastes led to a decline in popularity for the cittern. It was eventually replaced by more modern instruments like the guitar and piano.

Despite its waning popularity, understanding the impact of the cittern on acoustic guitar development provides valuable insights into how musical instruments have evolved over centuries. It showcases how earlier instruments laid foundations for future advancements in both sound quality and craftsmanship.

In summary, during medieval times, the cittern played a crucial role as an early precursor to modern-day acoustic guitars. Its unique design and expressive capabilities influenced subsequent generations of musicians and instrument makers alike.

The mandolin

The mandolin, a stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body and a distinctive bright sound, has played a significant role in the development of acoustic guitar music. While it may not be as widely known or popular as the guitar, the mandolin has its own unique charm and a rich history.

Ancient beginnings The roots of the mandolin can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is believed that these early instruments served as precursors to the modern mandolin we know today. They were initially crafted using simple materials like wood and animal gut strings.

Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire During this period, the mandolin-like instruments gained popularity in Greece and Rome. These instruments were known for their beautiful tones and were often used to accompany vocal performances in theaters. The design of these early mandolins continued to evolve, with additions such as frets and additional strings.

The Renaissance period In the Renaissance era, the mandolins underwent further developments. The instrument was brought to Italy by sailors returning from trade expeditions in Africa and Asia. Italian craftsmen embraced the instrument and refined its design, which led to its widespread popularity throughout Europe.

The Classical period During the Classical period, composers started incorporating the mandolin into larger compositions, adding depth and complexity to their works. This period saw an increased use of tremolo techniques on the mandolin – rapid repetition of notes or chords – which added an exciting dynamic element to performances.

The Romantic period In the Romantic era, the expressive capabilities of the mandolin were explored, leading to more intricate compositions focusing solely on this instrument. Composers such as Beethoven saw potential in its unique sound for both solo pieces and ensemble settings. Notable works from this time include Beethoven’s “Mandolin Sonatas” and Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Mandolin”.

The mandolin has continued to evolve and adapt, remaining a prominent instrument in various musical genres. Its distinct sound adds texture and depth to ensembles, while its versatility allows it to take center stage as a solo instrument. Whether played in classical settings or modern genres like bluegrass and folk, the mandolin continues to captivate audiences with its unique charm and timeless appeal.

The Renaissance period

During the Renaissance period, the acoustic guitar went through significant changes and advancements. This era, which spanned from the 14th to the 17th century, witnessed a revival of interest in music, arts, and culture. As a result, the design and construction of the acoustic guitar also underwent transformations to meet the evolving musical needs.

1. The oud: The oud played a crucial role in shaping the early Renaissance acoustic guitar. Originating in the Middle East, this pear-shaped instrument with a rounded back and short neck laid down the foundation for future guitar designs. It had gut strings that were plucked or strummed with fingers or plectrums.

2. The lute: Another significant development during this period was the evolution of the lute. With its characteristic pear-shaped body and fretted neck, it became immensely popular among musicians across Europe. The lute had multiple courses of strings that were played using fingers or picks. Its influence on subsequent guitar designs is still evident today.

3. The vihuela: The vihuela emerged as a prominent instrument during the Renaissance period. Resembling a guitar but smaller in size, it featured doubled strings or paired courses similar to those found on lutes. Vihuelas were typically played with fingers or plectrums and contributed significantly to instrumental music compositions of that time.

4. The cittern (cithren): Although not directly linked to modern guitars, mention should be made of the cittern (also known as cithren). This wire-strung instrument had metal strings attached to a shallow bowl-shaped body with a flat soundboard and fretted fingerboard. It enjoyed popularity across Europe during this period thanks to its versatility and vibrant sound.

5. The mandolin: Towards the end of this period, the mandolin gained prominence. Although not strictly an acoustic guitar, the mandolin showcased similar elements such as a rounded body, a sound hole, and metal strings. Its emergence marked the beginning of modern guitar features that would be refined and developed in subsequent centuries.

The Renaissance period was pivotal in shaping the future of acoustic guitars. The developments during this time laid important foundations for later innovations and paved the way for further enhancements to the instrument’s design, structure, and musical capabilities.

The Classical period

During the Classical period, which spanned roughly from the mid-18th to the early 19th century, the acoustic guitar underwent significant changes that contributed to its evolution as a musical instrument. This era not only witnessed advancements in guitar construction but also marked a shift in the way the instrument was played and perceived.

1. The rise of classical guitar compositions

One of the most notable developments during this time was the emergence of dedicated compositions for the guitar. Composers like Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Dionisio Aguado composed intricate and expressive pieces specifically for the acoustic guitar. These compositions showcased the technical capabilities and tonal range of the instrument, elevating it from a mere accompaniment to a solo instrument worthy of attention and respect.

2. Influential tonewood choices

In terms of acoustic guitar tonewoods, builders began to favor spruce for the top (soundboard) due to its excellent resonance properties. This choice enhanced the projection and clarity of sound produced by classical guitars. In addition, rosewood became popular for back and sides, providing rich overtones and warmth to complement the bright trebles.

3. Evolution of guitar body shapes

With a focus on improving volume and projection, luthiers experimented with various body shapes during this period. The “fan-braced” construction method gained popularity, enhancing stability while allowing for greater vibrational response. Builders also refined design elements such as widening lower bouts and narrowing waists to enhance tonal balance.

4. Technical innovations

The Classical period brought about acoustic guitar technology advancements that improved both playability and sound quality. Notable innovations included friction tuning pegs that replaced earlier frictionless pegs, making string tuning more precise and stable.

It is fascinating to reflect on how these developments laid the foundation for future generations of acoustic guitars. The Classical period recorded key milestones in the instrument’s history and left a lasting impact that still resonates with musicians today.

The Romantic period

During the Romantic period, the acoustic guitar saw a surge in popularity and innovation. This era, which spanned from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, was characterized by its focus on expression, emotion, and individualism. Musicians and composers explored new techniques and pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved with the instrument.

One of the key developments during this time was the refinement of acoustic guitar body shapes. Guitar makers experimented with different designs to enhance volume, projection, and tonal quality. This led to the emergence of various body styles such as dreadnought, grand auditorium, and parlor guitars.

In addition to advancements in guitar manufacturing, notable figures emerged as virtuosos on the instrument. Famous acoustic guitarists like Francisco Tárrega and Andrés Segovia showcased their technical skills and brought widespread recognition to the acoustic guitar. Their performances captivated audiences and inspired generations of aspiring guitar players.

The Romantic period also witnessed an increased interest in acoustic guitar education. Aspiring musicians sought out opportunities for formal training and enrolled in conservatories or received private lessons from renowned teachers. The demand for acoustic guitar books surged as beginners looked for instructional resources to guide their learning journey.

Furthermore, this period saw a blossoming of classical compositions specifically written for solo acoustic guitar. Composers like Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani composed intricate pieces that showcased both technical prowess and musicality. These compositions became cornerstones of the classical guitar repertoire.

Overall, the Romantic period marked a significant chapter in the history of the acoustic guitar. It was a time of innovation, artistic expression, and growing appreciation for this versatile instrument.

The early to mid-20th century

The early to mid-20th century was a pivotal time for the development and popularity of the acoustic guitar. During this period, several important advancements and changes took place that shaped the instrument as we know it today.

1. The Rise of Jazz and Blues
The early 20th century saw the emergence of jazz and blues music, which heavily featured the acoustic guitar. Musicians like Robert Johnson, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt pushed the boundaries of what could be done with the instrument, showcasing its versatility and expressive capabilities. Their innovative playing techniques and improvisation skills laid the foundation for future generations of guitarists.

2. The Birth of Country Music
Country music also began to grow in popularity during this time, with artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and Maybelle Carter incorporating acoustic guitars into their performances. The fingerpicking style used in country music became synonymous with the acoustic guitar and continues to be a fundamental technique taught to aspiring guitarists.

3. The Evolution of Guitar Design
Innovation in guitar design was also a significant aspect of this era. Manufacturers started experimenting with different tonewoods, body shapes, and bracing patterns to achieve specific sounds. These advancements allowed players to have more control over their tone and projection.

4. The Influence of Technology Advancements in recording technology allowed for better-quality recordings of acoustic guitars. This meant that musicians could now reach wider audiences through radio broadcasts or vinyl records, furthering the popularity and recognition of the instrument.

Overall, the early to mid-20th-century marked an essential period in shaping the role of the acoustic guitar in various genres of music. Its versatility, expressiveness, evolving design features, and technological advancements all contributed to its enduring popularity among musicians.

The 1960s and beyond

In the 1960s, the acoustic guitar experienced a profound transformation and its impact on music continues to this day. This period marked the rise of folk music as a popular genre, with iconic artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell using the acoustic guitar as their primary instrument of choice. The introduction of amplified instruments further expanded the possibilities for the acoustic guitar’s sound, allowing it to be heard in larger venues and compete with electric guitars.

During this time, acoustic guitar performances gained immense popularity. Musicians utilized innovative techniques and styles that pushed the boundaries of traditional playing, creating influential trends that can still be seen today. Acoustic guitarists began experimenting with alternate tunings, percussive techniques, and intricate fingerpicking patterns. These innovations gave birth to new genres such as fingerstyle and were instrumental in shaping modern acoustic guitar culture.

Moreover, advancements in technology played a significant role in shaping the acoustic guitar industry. Manufacturers started producing guitars with different body shapes to cater to various playing styles and tonal preferences. Materials used in construction were improved as well, resulting in better resonance and projection. Additionally, acoustic guitar accessories became more diverse – from innovative capos to high-quality strings – offering players endless options for customization and sound exploration.

As interest in acoustic guitars grew, so did learning resources. Acoustic guitar books became widely available, providing aspiring players with comprehensive instruction on technique, theory, and even maintenance tips. Lessons offered by professional musicians also became increasingly accessible thanks to online platforms.

Today, the popularity of the acoustic guitar shows no signs of waning. Modern acoustic guitars continue to evolve and incorporate cutting-edge technologies while respecting traditional craftsmanship principles. From boutique manufacturers crafting unique instruments to mass-produced models suitable for beginners or professionals alike – there is an endless variety available for anyone interested in exploring this timeless instrument.


When was the acoustic guitar invented?

The acoustic guitar dates back to ancient times, but it became more popular during the Renaissance period.

What is the oud?

The oud is an ancient stringed instrument that is considered to be the ancestor of the modern acoustic guitar.

What is the lute?

The lute is a plucked string instrument that was widely used during the Middle Ages.

What is the vihuela?

The vihuela is a guitar-like instrument that was popular in Spain during the Renaissance period.

What is the cittern?

The cittern, also known as the cithren, is a stringed instrument that was popular during the Middle Ages.

What is the mandolin?

The mandolin is a stringed instrument that is similar to the guitar and became popular in the 18th century.

What are the main periods in the history of the acoustic guitar?

The main periods in the history of the acoustic guitar include ancient beginnings, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance period, the Classical period, the Romantic period, and the early to mid-20th century.


In conclusion, the history of the acoustic guitar is a fascinating journey that spans centuries. From its ancient beginnings to its evolution during different periods, the acoustic guitar has left a lasting impact on music and culture.

Throughout history, various civilizations and cultures have contributed to the development of the instrument. Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire introduced early versions of stringed instruments, paving the way for innovations in sound and design. The Middle Ages saw the emergence of instruments like ouds, lutes, vihuelas, citterns (cithrens), and mandolins.

As time passed, new techniques and styles emerged during the Renaissance period and Classical period. These eras brought significant advancements in craftsmanship and musical complexity. The Romantic period further expanded upon these developments with more expressive playing techniques and an increased focus on individual expression.

In the early to mid-20th century, innovations in manufacturing led to mass production of acoustic guitars, making them more accessible to a wider audience. This era also witnessed the rise of iconic guitarists who pushed boundaries with their playing styles.

The 1960s marked a turning point for acoustic guitars as they became an integral part of popular music genres such as folk and rock. Since then, advancements in technology have allowed for further experimentation with sound and materials.

Today, acoustic guitars continue to be popular worldwide due to their versatility, rich sound quality, and cultural significance. Guitar festivals, competitions, documentaries, museums, manufacturers, and accessories all contribute to maintaining a vibrant acoustic guitar culture.

By exploring the timeline of this incredible instrument’s development throughout history, we can appreciate how it has shaped music across generations. Whether you’re a professional musician or an enthusiastic beginner learning your first chords on a modern acoustic guitar – this instrument’s impact on our lives cannot be understated.

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