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History of the Guitar
By Walt Robbins, Jr., 1987 (Revised 1996)

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The modern classical guitar has a long and mysterious past which has moved through several hundred years of human history. It has an ancestry which may reach back several thousand years, but the growth and development of the modern guitar has evolved since the sixteenth century. Many people, from several countries, have had a hand in its development and the place it holds in today's world. This instrument has been praised and damned from various quarters of the world, but it has hung on and today is gaining in popularity among both the listening public and the music profession.

The evolution of this marvelous instrument may have had its beginnings in ancient Sumeria and Egypt where stringed instruments with necks have been depicted in the ancient art. These instruments at first had curved necks which curved upward and made a bowl shape if viewed from the side. By c. 1500 B.C. the necks had become straight. It is hard to determine the number of stings or how they were tuned on these early instruments, but it is estimated they had either two or three strings.1 These guitar-like instruments found their way from Egypt to Europe during the middle ages. By the sixteenth century, the guitar had evolved to four courses (four sets of double strings) and was being strummed or played with the fingers. It was quite evident in Spain, France, and Italy during the sixteenth century.2

During the sixteenth century the guitar went through many changes and variations. The number of courses, or strings, varied widely as to location or to the individual guitarist. The four-course, five-course, and five-string guitars co-existed during this period.3

Some of the notable personages of the period included the instrument maker Philippe Flac of France who had his workshop in Lyons from 1568 to 1572.4 The composer and guitarist Luys Milan wrote El Maestro which was one of the earliest books dealing with a fretted instrument on an instructional level.5 Mary Queen of Scots was a lover, and player, of the guitar and owned several of the instruments.6

By the seventeenth century, Italy was the important area for the guitar.7 The five-course and five-string varieties were predominant. The guitarist and composer Francesco Corbetta was born in Italy in 1615. He was the most notable person connected with the guiter in Italy during the century.8 Gasper Sanz was his contemporary in Spain, where he was considered the greatest Spanish guitarist and composer. He played, composed, and wrote several instruction books pertaining to the guitar. Some of his methods are still in use today.9 The greatest guitar maker in all of Europe during the seventeenth century was Joachim Tielke who lived in Germany.10 He is known to have built at least fifteen guitars, one of which is dated 1693.11 The famous violin craftsman, Antonio Stradivarius, is known to have built at least two guitars (1680 and 1681).12

The eighteenth century saw a decline in popularity of the fretted instruments, including the guitar. As the piano and violin gained in popularity, as serious instruments, the guitar was again relegated to a plaything.13 The most famous person of this period in connection with the guitar was 14 Italy was still the center of the guitar world and held this position until it shifted to Spain in the nineteenth century.15

As the curtain upon the new century is raised, we find the six-string guitar has become the standard type of instrument; and with modifications will result in the modern guitar. "The six strings of the guitar represented the ideal number for expressive writing...The instument now assumed an aesthetic and mathematical appearance of logic; between the first and sixth string two octaves range provided a balanced harmonic foundation of symmetry and flexibility, being suitable for the forming of chords, scale passages, and a combination of the two."16

The three men most responsible for the development of the guitar during the nineteenth century were Fernando Sor, Francisco Tarrega, and Antonio Torres.

Fernando Sor was born 13 February 1778 in Barcelona and died in 1839 in Paris.17 He obtained his early musical education at the Monstserrat Monastery. He studied violin, piano, and learned to play his father's guitar. During his lifetime, Sor published many books of compositions and instructions. "Under his own steam he produced his famous 'Method Pour La Guitare,' which appeared in 1830, and remains one of the most fascinating tutors ever written for the guitar." In this great work he instructs the student in the proper methods of sitting, right hand technique, and his comments on using nails to play the strings. "Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable, if he played with nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of sound...Sor brought the guitar into the musical mainstream of his day and through his work with Panormo [English guitar maker, 1774-1842] took a close interest in the problems of guitar construction (though the difficulties were not solved until the arrival of Torres and the greater string length.)"18

Antonio de Torres (1817-1892), of Spain, is considered to be the man most responsible for the size and construction features of the modern guitar as it is known today.19 He extended the string length from the common sixty-two to a standard of sixty-five centimeters. Torres felt the tone was affected only by the front of the guitar. This is the area, in his judgement, in which only the finest quality timber should be used. "The construction of a fine instrument can only be as good as the timber being selected." After a wealthy businessman decided that for a young guitarist to be really successful he must use a Torres guitar, one was produced in 1869 for a young Spaniard of seventeen - Francisco Tarrega.20

Francisco Tarrega was born in Vallencia, Spain on 21 November 1852. He studied piano at the Real Conservatorio in Madrid starting about 1874. All during this period of his life he played the guitar, which had been taught him by Manuel Gonzalez, a blind guitarist. One of his great contributions to the guitar was the transcription of music written for other instruments, especially the piano, for playing on the guitar.21 His contribution in this area is still being felt today. He also wrote many compostitions of his own, which he played along with the transcriptions, in the many recitals he presented. Tarrega was the first guitarist to try to change the opinion of the public toward his beloved instrument. Through his instructional books, he laid the foundations for the modern guitar technique.22 Some of his instructions referred to resting the instrument on the left leg, altered position of the right hand, new ways of striking the strings (without nails) and a change in fingering.23

His students, Miguel Llobet and Emilio Pujol, were to carry the tradition set up by their master into the twentieth century. But, the job of lifting the guitar to the greatest heights it had ever seen was left to a man born in the last years of the nineteenth century. Ironically, he began his career in the same year that Tarrega passed away - 1909. This young man was to become the most famous guitarist the world has ever known - Andres Segovia.

Segovia was born 21 February 1893 in a small town in Spain. When he was quite young, his parents left him in the care of his aunt and uncle and they started him on violin lessons when he was six years old. Some time later, a traveling flamenco player came around the area; and when young Andres heard him play, it was love at first sight. The violin no longer satisfied his yearning for musical expression. He convinced his uncle to hire the flamenco player to teach him how to play. After spending about a month with this man, Segovia felt he had learned all he had to offer him.

It was in Granada where Segovia was sent for his formal education. While there, he met Miguel Ceron who took him to visit the guitar shop of Benito Ferrer. Miguel loaned him the money to buy his first guitar and Andres repaid the loan from the money given to him for school snacks.

He was doing very poorly in school, because he was spending all of his time away from the classroom practicing on his new guitar. His uncle thought the guitar was a lowly instrument in comparison to the violin or the piano; therefore, he was set against him playing the instrument. Segovia made arrangements to practice in the attic of a neighbor's house. He would tell his uncle he was going next door to study with his classmate and spend the evening instead playing the guitar.

Segovia was basically self-taught, because first, his uncle did not have a favorable attitude; second, the family didn't have the money for the expensive lessons; and third, they would not let him drop out of school to study full-time an instrument they felt was only good for playing at taverns and wild parties. His self-education began with a borrowed manual and some music he had managed to dig out of book shops and libraries. The amount of music available for the guitar was quite limited and this bothered the young man a great deal. Andres yearned to play the romantic music of the great composers. He knew the lovely guitar had great potential and desired the music which would show the world what a truly magnificent instrument the guitar was.

He stated later that, "I had been captured for life by the guitar. With complete dedication, I have been totally faithful to it all my life. Faithful only to the guitar." When Segovia was around ten years old, his uncle passed away. From that point, his school books were virtually forgotten. The only thing he wanted to do was play his first love - the guitar.

A move was made to Cordoba where Segovia rented a small room that was sparsely furnished. A bed, table, and some chairs were in the room. It did offer one thing he had been looking for - peace and quiet in which he could concentrate on his work.

Finally, Segovia was fortunate in coming across some of Tarrega's works. A former student, Tomas Garrido, had a collecion of original works by the master and he allowed Andres to copy all of this material. This allowed him to have a larger selection of music from which he could choose.

In the latter part of 1909, Segovia gave his first public recital, in Cordoba. He received favorable reviews and decided he was going to be "...the apostle of the guitar."24 Thus, is the story of Andres Segovia to the ripe old age of sixteen.

Segovia went on to fulfill his declaration, and to this day he is considered the greatest guitarist who ever lived. He has devoted his entire life to just one endeavor - the raising of the guitar in stature from the hostile environment it had to contend with in the early twentieth century to the respected place it holds today. He was given very little help in his efforts by the former students of Tarrega. They thought him an upstart, because he dared play in large halls; and also because, he used his fingernails to pluck the strings.25 Tarrega had taught that the only way to play properly had been to use only the flesh pads on the tips of the fingers. Segovia felt the guitarist must use both the flesh pads and the nails. Each in its own way adds to the timbre of the instrument.26

Segovia made many contributions to the world of the guitar. Probably the most important of these was to convince composers to write more and better material for the guitar. This was a necessary step in the evolution of the instrument on its way to being taken seriously in the world of music.27 Another of his gifts to guitarists was proving that the guitar could indeed be played in large halls, without electronic enhancement, and still be heard. Followers of Tarrega had not thought this possible and had, in Segovia's opinion, sold the potential of the instrument short.28

During his long career, Segovia gave concerts in most countries of the world. His recitals usually contained a mixture of original compositions for the guitar and transcriptions of music originally composed for other instruments. Music from the romantic period had always been his favorite.29 While performing, Segovia demanded total silence of the audience. If he was not given this abscence of sound he desired, he would simply stop playing until the offending noise subsided. He was in every way the professional and believed that to be a good listener also required some talent. He also believed the audience and performer should have mutual respect for one another.30

Segovia continued to perform on a limited basis up until his death in 1987. He lived with his third wife Emilia, who was forty-five years his junior; and his seventeen year old son, Carlos, in Spain at the time of his death. During an interview in the 1970's concerning his son he commented, "I think I am more celebrated for being a father at 76 than for being a guitarist."31

Segovia admired the work of Tarrega but felt most of his followers were mere shadows of the original. The exception this statement, he felt, was Miguel Llobet with whom he became good friends. They met in Valencia and Llobet offered to help the young guitarist with some playing tips. Llobet taught Segovia many of the Tarrega pieces that were in his repertoire. Segovia summed up his feelings toward Llobet by saying, "My attitude towards him was one of admiration for the artist and affection for the friend."32

The only other outstanding student of Tarrega was Emilio Pujol who was born in 1886. He played extensively during the 1920's and 30's. He is the only twentieth century player of any worth who continued to scorn using the nails and played only with the fingertips.33

It was the 1940's before a new crop of virtuosi came along to aid Segovia in promoting the guitar. These new players came from various parts of the world and each added their own flavor to the instrument.

Laurindo Almedia of Brazil became the most famous guitarist around the time of World War one. By the 1950's he and Segovia were the only two major players who were recording any appreciable classical guitar music. Some classical guitar purists do not approve of his style - yet he contributed a great deal to the form. He wrote and played many miniatures and encouraged Brazilian composers to write for the guitar.

Alirio Diaz has been "acknowledged as the greatest emerge from South America...[He] plays in a style quite distinct from that of Segovia." In a recital in 1967, in Cambridge, he played from a variety of composers including J.S. Bach, de Falla, and Turina.

Narciso yepes of Spain was born in 1927. He began playing the guitar at a very young age and began his recording career in the 1950's; and since has recorded a great many works by a variety of composers. Yepes played works by Gaspar Sanz, Sor, J.S. Bach, Ponce and others at his recital in London, in 1961.

Ida Presti (1924-1967) and Alexandre Lagoya (b. 1929) achieved fame as a married duo who performed and made many recordings. They each had given solo recitals, but their fame rested mainly on the work they achieved together. Her tragic death in 1967 ended this combination. "In the Presti-Lagoya duo two guitars seem animated by one spirit in a creative fusion of identities."

David Starobin, Eliot Fisk, and David Tenenbaum are recent additions to the increasing number of guitarists who are performing and recording for the classical guitar.

The two most prominent names in todays world of guitarists are Julian Bream and John Williams. They have given duo concerts because each recognizes and appreciates the greatness of the other. They have also recorded duo records including the album "Live." As a comparison, they were both child prodigies. To show a contrast; their playing styles are very far apart. Bream is extremely straight-laced and proper and wears a white tie and tails; whereas, Williams is very loose and wears colorful guru shirts. There seems to be an endless parade of people who wish to argue the merits of Bream and Williams. Let it suffice to say they are both very talented individuals who attack the subject of the guitar from different directions.34

Julian Bream was born in 1933 in England. He began playing the guitar at age twelve, and like Segovia, was mostly self-taught. He studied music at the Royal College of Music, without the opportunity to study the guitar, because it was not offered.35 By the late 1940's, Bream was giving concerts; and by the mid 1950's, he had began his recording career. He presented a balanced mixture of musical selections in his concerts; included would be Baroque, Spanish, Bach, nineteenth-century and contemporary pieces. "What always impresses the public and critics about Bream's playing is his empathy with all kinds of music. His intensity and concentration absorbs all styles and all periods. From his hands, the audience will accept any musical expression, yielding to his powers of persuasive shaping. His control of tone colour, quite different from Segovia, has brought new sound into the world. But it is the clarity of his phrasing, the magnetic charisma of his personality, and the endless soulful depths of his music which makes him perhaps the greatest successor and heir to Segovia's laurels." Bream's music continued to increase in quality and complexity. Several British composers, including Benjamin Britten, began writing for him. These pieces, such as "Nocturnal", in 1963, were achieving the same thing as did Segovia's wooing of the earlier composers. It was putting new music in the mainstream for the guitar playing world.36

John Williams of Australia, was born in 1941. He began his study of the guitar at age six with his father as teacher. He studied under Segovia at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy. He was the first student to ever give a full recital at the school.37 Segovia mentioned that this boy was extremely talented and would one day be the heir to his fame.38 Williams studied music at the Royal College of Music and left there in 1959. He was not gone long, however, for he returned as a professor of guitar in 1960. Commenting on Williams' playing style; Segovia said, "His playing demeanor was that of restraint, control and order..." To many of the purists of the guitar, he was a disappointment, because he experimented with the electric guitar and formed a rock group, which naturally played music that was far from the purely classic.39

The classical guitarists have fought to bring the instrument to where it is today, but still the music public and music professionals do not give it the appreciation and place it deserves. Part of the reason for this is the fact that for so many years the guitar has been associated with "folk and country music." This has had a negative impact on this great instrument.40 The opposite reaction should be the case. Any instrument capable of being utilized in so many different forms of music should be sought after, not scorned.41

Because of the fact that the guitar has been in Europe so much longer, it is more advanced there than in the United States. Anyone fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study there will be given a leg-up in their pursuit of the guitar.42 The guitar is not neglected in the United States, however. It is now being taught as a serious study in most American schools of music.43 The list of colleges and universities offering classical guitar as part of their curriculum is increasing yearly.

The classical guitar of today is holding its own. Through the efforts of countless players and composers down through the years, it is slowly being elevated in importance as a serious instrument of music. The recording industry has had a great impact on this gain in popularity. They have made it possible for countless millions of people, worldwide, to hear and enjoy the instrument that has been described as the "portable orchestra."

Revised 1 February 1996


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End Notes

  1. Bellow, 18
  2. Ibid., 53
  3. Wade, 56
  4. Bellow, 78
  5. Wade, 32
  6. Bellow, 77
  7. Ibid., 125
  8. Ibid., 109
  9. Ibid., 99
  10. Ibid., 90
  11. Turnbull, 21
  12. Bellow, 121
  13. Wade, 93
  14. Ibid., 118
  15. Bellow, 125
  16. Wade, 99
  17. Turnbull, 82-85
  18. Wade, 114-116
  19. Shearer, 64
  20. Wade, 133-134
  21. Ibid., 145
  22. Turnbull, 107
  23. Horn, 4
  24. Segovia, 1-20
  25. Wade, 149-151
  26. Ibid., 120
  27. Ibid., 164
  28. Ibid., 186
  29. Ibid., 144
  30. Clinton, 10
  31. Ibid., 23-24
  32. Segovia, 99-102
  33. Wade, 120
  34. Ibid., 197-210; 227, 229
  35. Turnbull, 117
  36. Wade, 204-207
  37. Turnbull, 115
  38. Rich, 73
  39. Wade, 208-210
  40. Rich, 74
  41. Gidcomb, 22
  42. Gregory, 14-15
  43. Rich, 73


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