A Brief History of the Classical Guitar

The guitar has a fascinating history of development over more than 400 years, although its origins are open to debate. Some believe it is indigenous to Europe, while others think it is an imported instrument.  Ancient carvings and statues recovered from Egyptian, Sumerian, and Babylonian civilizations  show guitar-like instruments. The tambur and setar of Iran are distantly related to the European guitar, as they all derive ultimately from the same ancient origins, but by very different routes and influences. A brief history of the guitar as we know it.

During the late Middle Ages gitterns called “guitars” were in use, but their construction and tuning were different from modern guitars. The Latin Guitar in Spain, had curved sides and a single hole whereas the Moorish guitar had an oval sound box and many sound holes on its soundboard.

guitar history

Guadalupe six-course Spanish Renaissance Vihuela 1529

history of the guitar early baroque

Matteo Sellas (c.1599-1654) – Baroque Guitar – Venice (ca.1630-50)

By the 15th century, a four course double-string instrument called the Vihuela de Mano, that had tuning like the later modern guitar except on one string and similar construction, first appeared in Spain and spread to France and Italy. In the 16th century, a fifth double-string course was added.

In the middle of the 16th century, influences from the vihuela and the renaissance guitar were combined and the baroque five string guitar appeared in Spain. The baroque guitar quickly superseded the vihuela in popularity in Spain, France and Italy and Italian players and composers became prominent. Vihuela, renaissance guitars and baroque guitars have a bright sound, rich in overtones, and their courses (double strings) give the sound a very particular texture.

In the late 18th century the six string guitar quickly became popular. The earliest six-string guitar is believed to have been made in 1779 by Gaetano Vinaccia (1759 – after 1831) in Naples, Italy; however, the date on the label is a little ambiguous. The Vinaccia family of luthiers is known for developing the mandolin. This guitar has been examined and does not show tell-tale signs of modifications from a double-course guitar. The authenticity of guitars allegedly produced before the 1790s is often in question. This also corresponds to when Moretti’s 6-string model appeared in 1792.

Early guitars of the classical and romantic period (early romantic guitars) have single strings, but their design and voicing are still to produce tonal energy more in the overtones (but without starved fundamental).

handmade guitar

1862 Antonio de Torres

Later in Spain a style of music emerged that favored a stronger fundamental. The fan bracing system provided this and replaced the earlier ladder bracing.  The guitar tone changed from a transparent tone, rich in higher partials to a more ‘broad’ tone with a strong fundamental.

During the 19th century the Spanish luthier and player Antonio de Torres Jurado gave the modern classical guitar its definitive form, with a broadened body, increased waist curve, thinned belly, improved internal bracing. It is with his designs that the first recognizably modern classical guitars are to be seen.

Some outstanding work has continued in other Luthiers’ contributions to the Torres classical guitar design. Refinements made to the basic design by Hermann Hauser Sr, Ignacio Fleta and others continue as benchmark standards for many current luthiers including myself and the majority of the new classical guitars are still built this way.

classical guitar bracing designs However a seamingly vast assortment of bracing patterns have appeared over the years as can be seen in the image here. I will discuss some of these designs and the reasoning behind the modifications to the typical fan bracing design.

Apart from the natural progression and evolution of the basic modern classical guitar design, some other interesting developments have grown in popularity. Alternative bracing designs have been developed including:

Lattice bracing

Developed by Greg Smallman in Australia.

Smallman’s design uses a highly arched and carved back for the guitar,  considerably thicker and heavier than a conventional guitar made into an extremely rigid structure. The soundboard is made much thinner, braced by a lattice arrangement of balsa and carbon fibre. The idea is to minimize losses through the rest of the structure and concentrate sound production to the soundboard only, producing more volume and projection.

Michael Kasha/Richard Schneider

In the 1960’s Dr. Michael Kasha, a biophysicist at Florida State University, became interested in the classical guitar he had bought for his son to learn on. He took a look inside and was surprised at the structure of the top. One thought lead to another and soon he had a great many ideas for improving the mechanics of the instrument. Kasha was not a luthier and needed the skills of one in order to see and hear his design innovations realized. At some point he made contact with Richard Schneider who was very intrigued with Kasha’s ideas. The Kasha/Schneider team designed and built many instruments from the late 1960’s until Schneider’s death in 1997.

The great  performer Andrés Segovia proclaimed  “To Richard Schneider, in whose hands is the future of the guitar.”

hand made kasha classical guitar

Lucia interior with Kasha influenced bracing.

I’m particularly interested in the Kasha/Schneider approach to classical guitar bracing. I have been experimenting with a variety of Kasha inspired bracing patterns, producing some remarkable sounding instruments.