Early Egyptian drawings show stringed instruments that resemble very complex lyres and harps. Ancient Rome was heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, and as a result there were many versions of these two instruments in early Western cultures. Around a. d. 400, for instance, the Romans brought their
The Greeks had a stringed instrument call the
Varying types of stringed instruments developed in the pre-Christian Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hittite cultures of the Middle East as well as in the Roman Italy, Greece, and Turkey in the Near East. All these instruments had certain aspects in common. Each had some sort of sound box and a long neck. Cords or strings were stretched down the neck and over the sound box. Players used one hand to strum (perhaps with a plectrum, or pick, of some sort) and the other to stop the strings at various points along the neck; as a result, they could sound a wide variety of notes, both singly and together.
In the early Middle Ages, as the Moors passed through Egypt on their way to conquer North Africa and Spain, they brought the
The Four-Course Guitar
It is possible that makers of the Roman-style
The guitar has many forebears and cousins — the lute, the Middle Eastern oud, the Indian sitar, the banjo, the koto of Japan, the
In 1487, a musical theorist named Johannes Tinctoris described an instrument he called the
The Six-Course Guitar
These virtual one-man bands had to master a variety of instruments, including pipes, whistles, and flutes, plus perform songs, tell stories, and provide any other form of entertainment that would earn them money and keep them from facing the displeasure of aggravated patrons.
Here's how an eleventh-century Swiss poet named Amarcius described a minstrel's performance: “When the citharist appears, after arranging for his fee, and proceeds to remove his instrument from its cover of oxhide, the people assemble from far and near, fix their eyes upon him and listen with soft murmurs as he strikes the strings with his fingers stretched far apart, strings which he himself has fashioned from sheep gut, and which he plays now tenderly, now with harsh booming sounds.”
A keen musician himself (and rumored to be the composer of “Greensleeves”), King Henry VIII had more than twenty guitars among his collection of musical instruments in Hampton Court Palace.
The lute held court as the major stringed instrument for a long while, but it had a number of drawbacks. First of all, there was no standard lute, so some were large and some smaller. Some had eight strings, while others had twelve or even more. They were difficult to balance and play, and forget about keeping one in tune!
Soon after the reign of King Henry VIII, around 1550, the guitar became one of England's more popular stringed instruments. But for some time to come, rival camps of lutenists and guitarists would lose no opportunity to badmouth each others' instrument and musicianship. In 1556 in France, for example, it was reported that while the pear-shaped lute had been a popular instrument, people were playing the guitar even more.