The Spanish Guitar
By Gabriel Marrero
I still remember the night quite vividly. My family and I had gone out to celebrate a relative’s birthday at a Spanish restaurant. Expecting to delight in the wonderful and savory Spanish paella, I soon discovered there was a pleasant surprise. Spanish flamenco dancers performed while the food was being served, creating an absolutely unforgettable experience. The dancers displayed a technique and passion while dancing that allowed me to escape Miami and be transported to the beauty and magic of Spain. The speed and accuracy in which they tapped their feet was remarkable, while their colorful dresses seemed to fly around their bodies. Nonetheless, although the beauty of their dance was stunning, something quite more spectacular found my attention. Although no colorful attire adorned this participant, she was quite a beauty. With an hourglass figure and dancing in its own frenzy of sound, the Spanish guitar was the sole instrument on stage. Played by an incredible musician, the Spanish guitar seemed to be alive as it enchanted and ensnared the audience. Being a guitar player myself, I was mesmerized by the guitarist’s skill and the beauty of the music created by the Spanish guitar. It is no surprise that the spellbinding sound of the Spanish guitar that entranced me that night has been captivating the world for centuries. Unknowingly to many, the Spanish guitar as it is known today, has ancestors that predate written history, and has endured modifications throughout time to attain its current form and sound. History provides an understanding of how the Spanish guitar evolved and became one of the most popular instruments in the world. As the history of the Spanish guitar is explored an understanding will be attained of how the musical beauty of the Spanish guitar transcended its country of origin and its influence permeated other countries, inspired countless musicians, and infused many genres of music.
The Origins of the Guitar
The word guitar actually originated from the greek word kithara, which was used to refer to a seven-string lyre (Tuzcu). The instrument, however, has no relation to what we now know as the modern guitar. The first real ancestor of the guitar is the oud . The oud, originating from Mesopotamia, has a round body and short neck. It made its way to Spain through the Islamic conquests in around 700 AD. The Spanish previously had similar instruments, and in a few centuries, the oud would become an integral part of the region’s culture. With a variety of different adaptations being made to the instrument, it wasn’t until around the 13th century that two instruments would arrive in Spain and begin to pave the way for the Spanish guitar. The introduction of the guitarra morisca and guitarra latina (Tuzcu) were crucial to the evolution of the kithara. The guitarra latina was the first of these stringed instruments to have more curves on the body which more closely resembled the modern guitar.
By the 15th century, arguably the most significant ancestor to the guitar was created in northeastern Spain: the vihuela. This is the moment in history that Spain can begin to claim the guitar as Spanish, as the vihuela undoubtedly resembled a modern guitar more than any other instrument up to this point. This is also the point in time in which the influence of the Spanish instrument begins its international journey. Along with conquest of the Americas in the 1500s came the transfer of culture, and in this case, music. The vihuela first appeared in the Dominican Republic in 1519 and later found its way to Cuba and Mexico as Spanish musicians began opening music schools in the Americas, making the stringed instrument a staple of the area as well (Tuzcu)
The First Spanish Guitar
In the 16th century, the first real guitar was invented in Spain: the baroque guitar. Most stringed instruments in Europe had four courses of strings (or units of strings), but the baroque guitar had an additional fifth course, which was universally recognized as a Spanish invention and led to all five course guitars being known as Spanish guitars (Wheeldon). This new instrument would disperse throughout Europe and captivate many around the world. The tuning of the strings were also adapted to what is used on guitars today: A D G B E from lowest to highest. Initially, the guitar was mainly used as an accompaniment instrument, however, musicians would soon create masterful solo pieces for the baroque guitar. Spanish composers Gaspar Sanz and Santiago de Murcia set themselves apart as some of the great early guitarists and their work is still popular to this day.
Progression to the Modern Guitar
The baroque guitar remained relatively stagnant in design until the 18th century, when once again a key addition was introduced. When the sixth course of strings was added, the modern guitar was born. The lowest E string allowed the guitarist to play the root bass note while playing the chord tones in the middle strings and the melody on the high strings (Small). This new addition added a level of depth to the music that was unprecedented, even by the previous addition of the fifth course to the baroque guitar. Spanish guitar makers also changed the body of the guitar, designing the body with a wider lower bout and “a narrow waist connecting to rounded shoulders” (Wheeldon). At this point in time, the guitar was mainly used as the instrument of choice for national dance music such as flamenco.
Despite all the alterations and accomplishments of the guitar, there was a declining interest during the late 18th century in the instrument. However, at the turn of the 19th century the concert era arrived. The industrial revolution and creation of the railroad facilitated transportation and provided musicians with the opportunity to reach distant audiences that were previously unreachable. The great Spanish guitarist Francisco Tárrega is credited with laying the foundation for modern playing technique. Despite being blind, his musical ability was world renowned and he is often regarded as the father of classical guitar. As more virtuoso guitarists like Tárrega emerged, a demand for concert guitars emerged. The guitar was no longer viewed as an amatuer instrument but rather as an image of musical skill and finesse. By the 20th century, Spain had become the international hub of guitar activity, even more so than ever before. Spectacular guitar makers, performers, and composers emerged from the country at an exponential rate. The Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia was often regarded as the world’s greatest guitarist throughout the 20th century, his work instrumental to the growth and popularity of the Spanish guitar around the world (Small).
The Impact of the Spanish Guitar on the Americas
As mentioned previously, one of the early ancestors of the guitar, the vihuela, made its way to the Americas in the 16th century and became a central part of music culture in countries all around the world. Many of the “traditional” instruments from South American countries today actually originated from the vihuela and the Spanish guitar, with each region making unique adaptations tailored to their music and culture. The people native to the Andes region invented the charango, a reconstruction of the vihuela from armadillo hide. Today, it is an integral part of Andean folk music. Mexican Mariachi music has roots from Spain as well. The guitarrón, a required instrument of the Mariachi, is a deviation from the Spanish bass guitar bajo de uña. In Cuba, the Spanish bandola was adapted to form the tres, a three stringed instrument now used in the style of Cuban music known as son (Tuzcu). Although only a few have been mentioned, there are many more folkloric instruments from American and Caribbean countries that originally came from the Spanish guitar.
Undoubtedly, although the people of the Americas created their own adaptations of the guitar, they never ceased to adore the authentic Spanish guitar. In the 19th and 20th centuries, famous Spanish guitarists often traveled to the Western world to perform their magnificent pieces. In fact, the guitar gained such an immense amount of popularity in the Americas that the classical guitar was more widely acclaimed in Buenos Aires, Argentina than in Barcelona. On top of that, many great guitarists and composers such as Agustín Barrios of Paraguay, Leo Brouwer of Cuba, and Antonio Lauro of Venezuela emerged and contributed to the classical guitar scene, further establishing the impact of the Spanish guitar on Latin culture and vice versa (Tuzcu). The Spanish guitar’s popularity in North America, however, was never as widespread as it was in the Latin countries. Although it did gain some traction in the United States, the influence the Spanish guitar would have on North America was very different from that in its Southern neighbors.
The Influence of the Spanish Guitar on Modern Music
As the guitar spread throughout North America, it began to slowly creep in American culture, but not in the form of classical guitar. As guitar production companies such as Martin and Gibson began to set up in the United States, the invention of the acoustic guitar and archtop guitar eventually was one of the most important additions for the development of modern music (Tuzcu). These two instruments became integral parts of jazz, blues, and folk music in the early 20th century. Nowadays, the acoustic guitar is probably the most iconic instrument in country music, which is ranked the third most popular genre of music in the United States today, and can also be heard in certain types of pop music. As the century progressed, the invention of pickups and amplifiers paved the way for the creation of the electric guitar, one of the most influential and genre defining instruments of the 20th century. The electric guitar was also used in jazz and blue music but was most important to rock music, which is almost completely defined by the use of an electric guitar. Popular bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Queen were all global music phenomena which heavily utilized the electric guitar. Although the Spanish guitar was not as popular in North America as it was in other parts of the world, the music that eventually became mainstream benefited from the influence of the Spanish guitar. Lead guitarist of the Beatles, George Harrison, recognizes the importance of the Spanish guitar to the music he and his band members created, famously stating that “Segovia is the daddy of us all” (Small). The Beatles were one of the biggest bands of the time and sold millions of records and inspired countless to play the guitar, yet they recognized that Segovia, the great Spanish guitarist of the time, was an immense influence and father of the music world through his magnificence use of the Spanish guitar.
The history of the Spanish guitar portrays an amazing trajectory through time. Having evolved from the 700’s AD, the Spanish guitar continued its dynamic path through history impacting cultures, musicians, music, and listeners.The Spanish guitar was a major influence throughout the world. Its descendant, the modern guitar, is one of the most popular instruments today- used worldwide in all genres of music – classical, ballads, jazz, country, rock. The guitar is played by the professional, the amatear, and the student. Most importantly the beautiful harmony and sound of the guitar is enjoyed by all. The worldwide popularity of the guitar is probably attributed to its ability to endure throughout history as it conformed to diverse cultures who embraced the instrument and made it their own. Although the guitar was tailored by each country, its sound transcends language and culture. The guitar is both modern and traditional, acoustic or electric, its music can be specific to a culture and yet it is a common thread of universal music. However, just as I cannot forget the wonderful night when I discovered the magic of the Spanish guitar in a quaint restaurant in Miami, the world cannot forget that it was the Spanish guitar that contributed not only its original eloquent form and sound but subsequently evolved into the modern guitar adored around the world. Undoubtedly, the Spanish guitar… she’s a beauty.
“Guitar History: How the Guitar Has Evolved: Musicians Institute.” Musicians Institute Hollywood, 11 Apr. 2022, https://www.mi.edu/education/guitar-history-how-the-guitar-has-evolved/.
Small, Mark. “How the Guitar Evolved and Flourished in Spain.” Stringletter’s Musical Traveler, Acoustic Guitar Magazine, 17 Oct. 2019, https://musicaltraveler.com/destinations/how-the-guitar-evolved-and-flourished-in-spain/.
Tuzcu, Alper. “How Classical Guitar Arrived in Spain and Then the Rest of the World.” Berklee Online Take Note, 2 June 2021, https://online.berklee.edu/takenote/how-classical-guitar-arrived-in-spain-and-then-the-rest-of-the-world/.
Wheeldon, Daniel. “The Spanish Guitar.” Metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2017, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/spgu/hd_spgu.htm.