The guitar, as it is commonly defined today, first really came into being in medieval Europe, mainly in Spain, Italy and France. Its evolution however, owes a debt to a host of stringed instruments which are either bowed, plucked or struck to produce sound. In this summary, I’ll go into a generalized history of the predecessors of the modern guitar.
Variations of instruments which follow the general concept of what a guitar is, have been popular in cultures for at least 4000 years. The oldest recorded representation of an instrument displaying features generally consistent with what we think of today as a guitar, is found on a 3300 year old Hittite stone carving. The Hittites were a bronze age culture, who lived in what is geographically, present day Syria, Turkey and Iran.
In ancient Mesopotamia there was an instrument called an tanbur, which in essence, is similar to a long-necked lute. There are versions of this instrument around today which generally feature 2 strings, tuned 4ths or 5ths apart. This has possibly influenced other instruments such as the tambur – used in classical Turkish music, the dombura – used in Eastern Asian countries, and the Eastern European tambour.
Instruments that resemble what we recognize as the modern day Sitar developed on the ancient Indian sub continent as well as in Central Asia. Distinctive features of the Sitar include curved frets which are movable, sympathetic strings (resonant strings which actually sit underneath the frets) and 2 bridges – one for the strings that run over the top of the frets and one for the resonant strings. The sitar can have 21 – 23 strings, although only 6 or sometimes 7 are actually played.
Not to be confused with the Sitar is the Persian Setar which features 25 -27 movable frets, 3 or 4 strings and is a direct descendant of the tanbur.
Also notable was an instrument called the cithara. It was brought to Spain around 40 AD by the Romans. Greek in origin, the cithara was essentially a 7 string lyre which was played with a plectrum or pick.
Another instrument of note, the fret-less Oud was introduced by Arabs who invaded Spain during the 8th Century AD. The Oud had a pear shaped body and is considered to be a predecessor of the western lute.
Many variations of the oud were gradually developed in civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East regions in the period 800 AD to 1200 AD.
By the year 1200, four-stringed instruments in Spain had evolved into either the Moorish guitar, which had a rounded back, wide fingerboard and several sound holes, or the Latin guitar, which resembled the modern guitar with one sound hole and a narrower neck.