Compared to some musical instruments, the guitar is a relative newcomer dating from the Middle Ages. It’s origins, go back to long before the beginnings of recorded history.
The first instrument was probably nothing more than a bow in the hands of a prehistoric hunter. One day, some nameless innovator attached a hollow gourd to the shaft of a bow. By hugging the gourd to his chest and bending the shaft back and forth with one hand (to change the tension on the string), he produced resonant notes by plucking the string with his other hand. Primitive instruments of this type are still played in various parts of Africa.
A natural outgrowth of the single-string bow was the “bow-harp”, consisting of several strings attached to a single soundbox and strung so as to yield different notes when plucked by the fingers.This “one string, one note” principle was common to all instruments of the harp family known to early inhabitants of the lands around eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.They included the Nubian kissar, the Greek kithara and the lyre of the Greeks, Assyrians and other Near Eastern peoples. David, King of Israel and slayer of Goliath, was said to have been proficient on the lyre.
Although the Egyptian nefer (which had both soundbox and a neck) was in use well before the time of Christ, the first “neck” instrument about very much is known was Chinese. The tzi-tze, as it was called after the emperor who invented it in the fifth century B.C., was a small square box, punctured at the top, with four strings running the length of a thick bamboo cane. Historians believe that this instrument influenced the development of Western stringed instruments, particularly the Arab ud which eventually became the lute.
From the Greek word kithara came the names of both guitar and zither. In ancient Rome, the kithara was also called the fidula, which in time gave rise to the words vihela, once used in Spain for “guitar”, and violao, still used in Portugal. “viola” and “violin” stem from the same source, as does “fiddle”. The ud (in Arabic, Al ud) had a soundbox shaped like a melon or a giant pear sliced in half. When the Arabs and Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century, they took many examples of the instrument with them. Gradually “Al ud” spread from Spain, whose people called it the “laud”. to become the French liuth, the German laute and the English lute.
Centuries before this, after the fall of Rome, the music-loving Celts of Western Europe had added a fingerboard to the kithara, and called the resulting instrument the chrotta, which may simply have been their way of pronouncing the old name. In Provence, in South of France, the new instrument was called the crota. It was there, in all probability, that the guitar had its first beginnings, for Provence experienced a cultural flowering during the 11th and 12th centuries, in which music played a paramount role.
Troubadours who accompanied themselves on the crota as they sang songs of love and war were key figures in Provencial society. often of knightly rank, they were poets and lyricists who generally composed works as they sang.
To keep up with the ever-more sophisticated tastes of their noble audiences and so win fame and distinction over their rivals, some troubadours began to tinker with their instruments. by slow stages, the crota was refined to produce clearer notes of purer pitch and wider range, until it came to resemble in a general way, the modern guitar.
The transition was interrupted by a bitter religious war which ultimately destroyed the Provincial civilization and it’s way of life. Some of the Provincial troubadours fled to Italy, but more sought refuge in Spain, especially in nearby Catalonia. The Catalans, long familiar with the lute, eagerly adopted the improved crota and began to “cross-breed” it with the older instrument. Thus was laid in the thirteenth century, the foundations of that devotion to the guitar which was to make Spain the leading center for that instrument after well into the 20th Century.