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The History of the Classical Guitar

There are two different threads of thought we have to address when we talk about the history of the classical guitar - the music of the classical guitar and the actual instrument itself. Both of these things have evolved over the centuries and while they go hand in hand there are some differences. I will cover both of these subjects for you.


The Classical Guitar is an instrument (like many others) that has evolved and changed over the centuries. It has many similar cousins like the Lute and the Vilhuela. And, the real roots of the guitar have been lost to time. There is no clear beginnings of the guitar as we know it today although it definitely has been influenced and owes some of its origin to stringed instruments such as the Vilhuela and Lute. It is also unknown as to whether the guitar originated in Europe or was imported (in its early forms) from Middle Eastern culture. This importatation of things from the Middle East was a common thing that happened during the Crusades. Music, architecture, mathematics, astronomy and many other things were brought over in their specific flavors during the crusades. It is not improbable that this also happened with the guitar. Although it isn't known for a fact.

The First known mention of the Guitar in writing is in the 13th century in a poem by Juan Ruiz. The poem is called El Libro de Buen Amor.

The Shape and Look of These Early Guitars

In the early Renaissance around the 15th century guitars started making their appearance. They were the early versions of what we know today but they started to take form and continued to develop on into the Baroque Era (1600-1750). These guitars had the characteristic shape of modern guitars. The biggest difference was in the strings. They were paired in something called courses. And the guitars started out with four courses of strings and later developed into five and six courses of strings.

This guitar is a good example of an early guitar from the baroque era. This is a Vermeer painting.

You can see how it is very "guitar" in characteristic.

The guitar itself continued to evolve over the baroque period and on into the Romantic period. During this time the string configuration continued to evolve. Most notable the pairings or strings or (courses) were dropped in favor of single strings.



Francesco Corbetta was a notable player and composer for the Guitar in the Baroque Period. He wrote five books of music that are still available. All of which was written for the 5 course guitar which was the most popular form at the time. This video shows one of his compositions being played. This has a wonderful sound to it. You are going to like this. It is of course very baroque.



You can Actually get some of Corbetta's compositions.

Three Pieces from La Guitarre Royalle (Compositions Written For 17th Century Guitar)





The Romantic Era

Around 1780-1790 single string guitars with six strings began to come into the forefront. They were quickly being accepted as the defacto form of guitar. Music was being written for them and instructional books were being written. The most famous (and still available) instructional book was Fernando Sor's Method for Guitar.

Fernando Sor Method for Guitar Translated from Spanish to English - Not an all comprehensive method but if you need something to get you started its a good place to start.

This is an illustration from the Sor Method for Guitar. The method includes lots of advice on actually playing the guitar, how to hold the hands etc. And lots of practical exercises for reading music and playing.

With the creation of this method we can say the modern guitar playing technique and notation has come into existence. This method was first published in 1830.



Below is an excerpt of music from the Sor Method. The rest of the musical world had pretty much figured out standard notation and this Method fell right into line with that. You can see it is readable as modern notation.


Matteo Carcassi - He was another renowned Guitarist and composer and in 1836 he wrote a method for guitar that is still in use today.

The Carcassi Method - This is the method for learning how to play guitar but this particular public domain document is in french. All the music is good and you can use this successfully.


The Classical Guitar as we know it today

One of the most important things about the guitar that makes it the modern guitar is the six single strings and the first known example of this was built in 1779 by luthier Gaetano Vinaccia.

During the 1850's a Luthier and player created the guitars that are what we now play. His name was Antonio de Torres and he lived in Seville Spain. His guitars are renowned for their sound and he is considered to be the Stradivarius of the Guitar making world. Some of his guitars still exist in museums and private collections. The Romero family has five of them.

Nylon Strings - Segovia asked Albert Augustine to research the possiblity of making nylon strings fo the guitar. Nylon strings were copyrighted in 1947 and with the help of Segovia promoting them they have become the standard.

Andres Segovia (1893 - 1987) Brings the guitar into the modern world

Right up into the 20th century the guitar was a bit of a sidenote in the world of classical music. It was more an instrument for small venues and minor composers and minor pieces. This was partially due to its reputation as an inexpensive instrument for the people and partially due to the fact that the classical guitar was not very loud and could easily be drowned out by other instruments in a concert setting.

He worked tirelessly in a variety of aspects for the guitar including performing and transcribing classical works for the guitar. He also worked closely with luthiers in efforts to make the guitar better and louder so it could be heard in a concert setting.

All of his efforts paid off. The guitar has taken its place as a standard instrument in any classical music ensemble or symphony. And Segovia is considered to be the inspiration for a whole new generation of classical guitarists.




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