Ask any aspiring musician which instrument they’d like to play, and roughly 90 percent of them will point to the guitar sitting in the corner of their living room. Not only is the guitar pretty ubiquitous across all music styles and genres, but it’s often the first instrument that any new musician reaches for (or begs their parents for during the holidays). All you need to play a whole host of popular songs is a few basic chords and a little rhythm work. What makes the guitar even more compelling is its rich and complex history. While some of the guitar’s roots are somewhat well-known, other aspects of the instrument’s evolution will probably surprise you. To give you an even greater appreciation for this critical source of music, let’s take a closer look at the history of the guitar.

The History of the Guitar

Although the guitar has an extensive and sometimes complicated history, we can start the conversation by answering the following:

  1. Who invented the guitar?
  2. When was the guitar invented?

Answering these seemingly basic questions takes us down some interesting and occasionally winding roads. In the following sections of this guide, we’ll answer both for the acoustic and electric guitar. 

Who Invented the Guitar?

Let’s start with the electric guitar. Who built it, and where was the guitar invented? Most people agree that the first example of an electric guitar as we know it today was developed by the Rickenbacker company in 1931. Known as the “Frying Pan,” it was initially carved out and built entirely by hand. 

While this is an incredible feat of engineering, the Frying Pan wasn’t well-received, especially in its infancy. Not only were people conflicted about whether or not it was a true instrument, but the Great Depression also made the Frying Pan a completely illogical luxury item for years.

The acoustic guitar, on the other hand, was designed out of necessity. The first examples were built by Christian Frederick Martin, who invented the first guitar that most resembles the acoustic guitars we still buy today in the 1930s. As music evolved during the time period, guitarists began experimenting with a variety of stringed instruments. There was just one problem: Guitars of the time used much softer strings than instruments like the banjo. To make the transition between these instruments easier, Martin designed an acoustic guitar that used steel strings. 

The Rickenbacker and C.F. Martin companies are who invented the first guitars we know and play today. But were they the first guitars invented? You can probably guess that the answer to that question is a resounding no.

When Was the Guitar Invented?

Again, this is a two-pronged question. Let’s start with the electric guitar.

While the Rickenbacker Frying Pan is the first example of a fully electric guitar, some experts argue that the first “electric” guitar gained notoriety in 1936, when a jazz guitarist named Charlie Christian installed an electronic pickup onto an acoustic guitar. 

Much like the fully electric guitar, acoustic-electric guitars are still prevalent in music. They’re popular in live settings, especially those featuring full bands that would otherwise drown out the guitar.

When it comes to the acoustic guitar, you’ve probably guessed that the Martin acoustic wasn’t the first recorded example in the instrument’s history. The very first acoustic guitar had just three strings and wasn’t widely available like the acoustic guitars we know today. In fact, just one Egyptian musician had the privilege of owning that instrument. 

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Notable Events in Guitar History

The evolution and history of both the acoustic and electric guitar didn’t end once they were invented. Several notable events spanning decades have shaped not only the tones we’ve come to expect from each instrument, but also their notoriety across every genre of music. 

While we could spend hours talking about the history of the guitar, here are some of the most notable events in the guitar history timeline that drove its popularity and changed the way musicians approached playing the instrument.

12-String Guitars Get a Major Redesign

The most popular versions of guitars used in the 1500s actually had 12 strings. You can still find 12-string guitars in any music shop, and in many cases, recording artists prefer them. But early in the history of the guitar, 12-string guitars proved to be insanely difficult to tune. 

guitar strings
Source: wikimedia
Here’s an example of a 12-string guitar that you might find in a music store today.

Eventually, the guitar would get a major redesign out of necessity. In the 1600s, musicians began adopting simpler four- to five-string guitars that were much easier to keep in tune and to play for longer periods of time. Later on in the 1800s, guitar makers began crafting acoustic guitars that are more like the instruments that are likely sitting in your closet right now.

Gibson Guitars Make Their Presence Known

Gibson is one of the most legendary guitar manufacturers on the planet. According to Smithsonian magazine, the company enlisted musician Alvino Rey to help them design a prototype pickup. 

guitar with amp
Source: wikimedia
While the ES-150 by Gibson is one of the earliest examples of an electric guitar, it’s still renowned as one of the most legendary guitars on the planet.

What Gibson ended up with was a distinctive hexagonal pickup, which was installed on an F-hole archtop guitar known as the ES-150. Some musicians might not know it by its ES-150 codename, but the image above resonates with virtually every guitarist on the planet. It didn’t take long for jazz great Charlie Christian to adopt the ES-150 model as his primary instrument, which many jazz players still regard as the finest guitar ever produced.

Gibson Guitars has done several “re-issues” of the ES-150 in the time since the original hit the market. These tend to be very expensive and, for many players, they remain aspirational instruments that warrant depleting your bank account to own. 

B.B. King Plays the Blues—and Revolutionizes Guitar Techniques

If you’ve ever been to a major city, there’s a decent chance you’ve walked by a bar that’s named in honor of B.B. King’s music—or at the very least, aspires to emulate the time period in which he began his music career. That’s because in the early 1950s, B.B. King began changing the way musicians across all genres approached the acoustic and electric guitars. 

BB King
Source: wikimedia
B.B. King is widely considered one of the best guitarists of all time.

According to Marshall Amplifiers, he did two things in particular that changed the industry. First, he’d “shake” notes, bending them slightly to add a unique vibrato effect. He also mastered a “call and response” playing style that still can be found in music today. 

Fender Guitars Introduces the Infamous Stratocaster

When most people hear “electric guitar,” they think of the Stratocaster.

The Stratocaster (also known as a Strat) was released by the Fender company in the 1950s as a utilitarian tool. According to Fender’s website, it wasn’t initially popular among musicians. Over time, as Fender marketed the guitar as a competitor to Gibson’s famous Les Paul, its distinctive three-pickup system with switches quickly earned its place in the guitar racks of the most well-known guitarists in the world. Today, it remains one of the most essential pieces of equipment that any serious guitarist requires.

The Explosion of Pop Music Thrusts the Guitar Into the Spotlight

There was an explosion of creativity in the 1960s, especially in the world of popular music. 

Paul McCartney and George Harrison
Source: wikimedia
Paul McCartney and George Harrison of The Beatles in 1964.

Unknown bands such as The Beatles were suddenly booking appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Solo acts like Jimi Hendrix were redefining what “rock” music would sound like. And at the center of all of this creative expression? The electric guitar. 

As people like to say nowadays, the music and guitar tones that were born during this era have aged very well. Today’s most successful musicians still cite The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix as major influences on their work—and in so many cases, those musicians aspire to replicate the guitar sounds they heard on those original records.

Woodstock Becomes a Thing

In 1969, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (or simply Woodstock) was held on a farm in Upstate New York. Not only is this considered one of the most pivotal moments in popular music history, but the guitar was also at the center of one of its most memorable performances. Again, enter Jimi Hendrix.

jimi hendrix
Source: Vinylmeister via Flickr Creative Commons
Jimi Hendrix performs one of the most memorable renditions of The Star Spangled Banner in history.

While you might not know all of Hendrix’s music, you’ve probably heard the rendition of The Star Spangled Banner he performed at Woodstock. We’re also willing to bet that you’ve heard a friend or two try to recreate this performance on an electric guitar.

Black Sabbath Introduces Us to Metal

Modern examples of metal take a lot of different forms. Some play “thrasher” riffs that are incomprehensibly fast. Others play intricate riffs in odd time signatures that are equally intellectual as they are rocking. All styles of metal evolved from the work of one band: Black Sabbath. 

Source: Anthony Catalano via Flickr Creative Commons
Black Sabbath performing in the 1970s.

In 1971, Black Sabbath released “Iron Man,” which is widely regarded as one of the best (and most influential) metal songs in music history. Not only did the act spawn a new genre of music, but “Iron Man” is still used in a variety of applications. You’d even be hard-pressed to attend a college football game without hearing the band break into the iconic riff.

An Intoxicating Instrument With a Unique History

The guitar is a versatile stringed instrument with a deep history that transcends all genres, playing styles, and musical tastes. Every composer in music history has found an application for a guitar-like instrument—and we have no reason to believe that musicians will ever stop using guitars in studio or live applications.

Some history lessons can be boring, but few would say that about the evolution of both acoustic and electric guitars over the last few decades. Not only are the basics easy for beginners to learn, but the possibilities of what you can accomplish with a guitar are endless, which makes it impossible not to marvel at its unique history.

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Written by:

Richard Moy