Rights of Freedom

Ancient stone carving over four thousand years old of an early guitar type instrument.

Origins of the guitar

  • January 2004
  • by Steve Sabz
  • comments
"The guitar is an orchestra in itself." - Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) in reference to Italian guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) whose concerts Beethoven would often attend in Vienna.

Origins of the guitar:
The origins of the guitar can be traced back as far as 1350 B.C. from an area of Asia Minor, now in Modern Turkey. A stone relief discovered in the region depicts an instrument with strings running along a neck with frets which were stopped and plucked to form notes. Just like the guitar we know of today, it also had a resonating sound chamber to increase the volume and a body with in-curved sides.1

Chords and intervals:
Initially, chords were derived from intervals of thirds, such as in A major (A, C#, E), and D minor (D, F, A), etc. For example, in the A chord (A being the root), C# is three scale steps (a third) from A, and E is three scale steps (a third) from C#. So you see that the A chord is formed by combining a third and a third. The same principle applies to the D chord. These chords are known as tertian (Latin for 3) harmony because they are built in thirds.2

After the twentieth century, musicians added chords built in seconds (secondary harmony), fourths, (quartal harmony), and fifths (quintal harmony). Following the same logic in making tertian harmony chords above, secondary harmony chords consist of intervals built in seconds. So instead of A, C#, E, we'll use A, B, C# (B is a second from A and C# is a second from B) to make a secondary harmony chord. Follow the same logic with quartal (intervals in fourths) and quintal (intervals in fifths) harmony chords. You can even go a step further by combining an interval of, for example, a second followed by an interval of a third (A, B, D). Use this concept of chord making in your next song!2

Origins of the 6-string guitar:
The origins of the 6-string guitar actually began with the birth of the 12-string guitar. Back in the early 1400's when the guitar was becoming increasingly popular, guitar makers produced what were called 4-course, 5-course, and 6-course guitars. These guitars consisted of pairs of 4 strings, 5 strings, and 6 strings respectively. So in effect, musicians were playing on 8, 10, and 12-string guitars. The trend toward making guitars with 6 single strings began with the Italians and French in the 1780's. At the same time, however, many Spanish makers continued to produce 6-course instruments.3

The 12-string guitar appeared on the scene again with one of the first popular blues recording artists, Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929). He played a Stella guitar, developed from the type of 12-string guitars common in Latin America which descended from the double-coursed 12-string guitars that were in use in Europe until the 19th century. Blind Lemon Jefferson was from Dallas, Texas and began his recording career in 1926.3

Musicians have bigger brains:
Your brain is actually divided into two parts, referred to as the right and left hemispheres. The left side of the brain is responsible for analytical and verbal skills, while the right side of the brain concerns itself with spatial and artistic intelligence. Joining these two sides is a structure called the Corpus Callosum. One can think of the Corpus Callosum as an information "super-highway" in the brain, sort of like an Internet connection; in this case, the two hemispheres have to continually communicate to coordinate the right and left arms and hands. Research has shown that the Corpus Callosum is larger in musicians (piano or string players) than non-musicians. The greater size is a direct result of an increased number of connections needed to accommodate the increased information traffic necessary for the brain to control the right and left hands and fingers. These effects were greater in musicians who started playing before the age of seven. Is your brain using a phone line or cable connection?4

1. Chapman, Richard. Guitar (music, history, players) - 1st American edition. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc., 2003, pp. 10, 17.
2. Ottman, Robert W. and Mainous, Frank D. Rudiments of Music - 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Simon & Schuster Company, 1995, p. 243.
3. Chapman, Richard. Guitar (music, history, players) - 1st American edition. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc., 2003, pp. 15, 47.
4. Schlaug, G., Jancke, L., Huang. Y., Staiger, J.F. & Steinmetz, I-I. (1995). Increased corpus callosum size in musicians. Neuropsychology, 33: 1047-1055.