The First Guitar in Guitar History

The history of the guitar is seldom discussed. Many people think it’s a brand-new instrument for folk and pop music, but guitars and other related instruments existed well before familiar instruments like the piano or violin.

The guitar is thought to have originated from the lute, which was common among troubadours during the Renaissance. You had to pluck four strings on the lute. While fretted and plucked instruments such as the lute were around much earlier, it’s safe to say that the guitar was popular in some form by 1500. The main distinction is that all of the strings were paired, similar to a typical 12-string guitar. Here’s a 1510 engraving that demonstrates the presence of these instruments. Try different guitar types.

Guitars with just one string

The transition from double-strung (and sometimes triple-strung) instruments to guitars with only one string per note was the first major advancement in the guitar. The single-string guitar took hundreds of years to catch on after hundreds of years of playing double- and triple-strung instruments.

Also back then, the highest string was just a single at first. Previous multi-strung guitar tunings were wildly inconsistent, and didn’t always fit with different parts. Try more acoustic guitar.

Steel Strings and a New Design

Christian Martin (does the name Martin Guitars ring a bell?) invented a new way of bracing guitars sometime in the 1840s. The X-brace was more durable and simpler to manufacture than previous designs.

The stiffly braced tops were found to be too quiet by others, resulting in the first development of guitars with metal strings. This was historically unlikely due to the older designs’ inability to withstand the friction of metal strings.

Electricity and Amplification in Guitar History

Les Paul did not invent the electric guitar, contrary to popular belief. The “Frying Pan” was invented by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker (whose company still bears his name) in 1931, around a decade before Les Paul’s prototype.

Although attempts to electrically amplify the guitar had previously been made, it was not until Beauchamp and Rickenbacker developed their magnetic pickup that it became a reality. Beauchamp was a Hawaiian Steel guitarist, the genre that most influenced the development of the electric guitar. Hawaiian style guitar featured the guitar as a more popular melodic instrument than many other styles, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to hear over the growing bands.

The First Pebble

Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, and the Delta Cats were on their way to record in 1951 when the guitarist’s amp fell off the car’s top. (Here’s a tip for potential touring bands: rent a big van!)

The impact tore the speaker cone inside the amp, completely destroying the loud, clear echo. Not wanting to give up and lacking the funds to purchase a new amplifier, the band embraced the new sound and invented the first guitar distortion. Five years later, the band Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio discovered that by loosening electronic components in their speakers, they could produce the same sound.

The Guitar Network, computers, and the Internet

I debated whether or not to include a few items in this segment. So much has changed in the last 60 years in terms of the guitar and how it is played. Shortly after the distortion, a plethora of computerised effects started to appear.

The idea of bowing an electric guitar was popularised by Jimmy Page. Yngwie Malmsteen and others elevated electric guitar virtuosity to new heights. Both of these, however, seemed to me to be minor moves. If I had to choose one thing that has had the greatest effect on guitar playing in the last 60 years, I’m guessing you’re using it right now as you read this!

The majority of you who are reading this have most likely never seen Led Zeppelin perform live. You were most likely not alive when the first effects processors were created. How do you get to see Led Zeppelin concerts on film or hear the first commercial electric guitar model? I believe that the internet has allowed more guitarists than ever before to learn from masters (and less-than-masters) from all over the world.

Sites like make it simple to see transcriptions of almost every song you want to learn from other guitarists (not to mention see various versions, transpose, and a host of other tools). We can watch performances or up-close lessons on YouTube that we might never see otherwise, and you can sign up for live, one-on-one lessons right here at TakeLessons (plus free live online classes for a limited time).

The internet continues to rewrite guitar history by providing limitless learning and growth opportunities for new players. You will find artists that inspire you, learn new techniques, network with other guitarists, and much more!