The guitar may not hold the same prestige as say, a violin, it may not be held in as high a regard as the piano, it may not have the complexity of a harp but it’s hard to imagine any form of popular music without one. It’s a simple instrument that makes a wonderful sound which means anyone can pick one up, learn to play and put something together. But what came before the guitar? We’re going to take a look at the instruments of old that led to this amazing stringed instrument.
The Tanbur is an ancient instrument and likely the first precursor to our friend the guitar. It is so old in fact that it predates recorded history, the first recorded evidence of the instrument was made in ancient Babylon. Later we see statues depicting an instrument that looks very much like a tanbur from ancient Egypt which date back around the year 600 BCE and also in Greece, though here it was called a pandoura. Originally the Tanbur only had 2 strings, though later a third string was added, this begun the evolution of the instrument in build, technique and form.
The oud, first created in Arabia more than 3500 years ago, it is quite similar to the tanbur however here we have an instrument with a much shorter neck, a rounder body, three separate sound holes and between ten and twelve strings. This too is thought to be one of the oldest instruments in the world and was supposedly one of the most prominent instruments in the Middle East back in its day. This instrument was brought to Europe when the North African Moors invaded Spain during the 9th century CE where it would eventually transform into the Lute.
Before we jump to the lute let us travel to East Asia to China. Created around the year 200 BCE, the Qin-Pipa was a sort of early guitar that looks something like a banjo. It is played on its side and produces a sound reminiscent of the area. Here’s a fun fact about the Qin-pipa, supposedly the workers that were forced to build the Great Wall of China played this instrument and used it to play songs that expressed their resentment for having to do so.
The lute is perhaps the most obvious and best-known predecessor to the guitar, like the oud, the lute has a round body though in this case it has anywhere between 15 and 24 strings. Like the oud, it was played using a feathered quill and was a very popular instrument in its time. Interestingly as its popularity grew in Europe, makers began to change the fretting to adhere better to scales popular in western music, this was a key difference between the lute and the oud. The lute was a mainstay instrument in European music until advancements lead to a new stringed instrument, our old (or in this case new) friend, the guitar.