The guitar is likely the most popular instrument in the world today. It is heard on nearly every music release in the modern era and has fully claimed its place as one of the most important instruments of all time. So much of the music that we enjoy features the rich tones of the guitar, and yet, we know very little about the history of the most influential instrument of the last 100 years. Until recently, even I knew little about the guitar’s place in history. Please join me in this “Guitar History” blog series in opening the door to the guitar’s past, and together we will develop an even deeper appreciation for “the instrument that took over the world.”
Like so many other inventions, the guitar, is really the culmination of thousands of years of change and innovation through the contributions of many men. The earliest ancestor of the guitar is commonly accepted by scholars as the “tanbur,” a long-necked stringed instrument with a small egg- or pear-shaped body, with an arched or round back, usually with a soundboard of wood or hide. The tanbur’s origins can be traced to South-Central Asia.
Egyption tombs have long been giving archaeologists a glimpse into the ancient past. In fact, tomb art etched onto the walls reveal that the Egyptian musicians joined together with their different instruments to form an ensemble similar to how we form bands and orchestras today! Further investigation reveals tanburs as one of the instruments being played in these 3500-4000-year-old paintings! The oldest surviving guitar ancestor was also found in an Egyptian tomb. It was discovered in the tomb of its owner, Har-Mose. He was a musician/singer employed by Sen-Mut who was the chief architect to Queen Hatshepsut (approximately 1508-1458BC), The 3500-year-old Har-Mose tanbur is now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Cairo, Egypt. It had three strings, a long neck, and was played with a pick that was connected to the instrument by a cord. The sound box was made of beautifully polished cedarwood and had a rawhide “soundboard”. It is interesting that the sound box is a key characteristic of the modern guitar while the rawhide soundboard is very similar to another of its descendants, the banjo. The tanbur is not just the ancestor to the guitar but also to most of the stringed instruments that are popular today!
Archaeological proof of these guitar forerunners are not limited to just Ancient Egyptian culture. The oldest image we have of a guitar ancestor is a stone carving of a Hittite bard (poet-singer) playing a tanbur stringed instrument. Evidence of similar instruments has been found from the ancient Persian and Mesopotamian societies. In fact, descendants of these instruments still survive relatively unchanged today! The Greek Bouzouki is likely the most well known to us although many other ancient folk instruments are still being played.
The tanbur spread in its popularity to other regions of the ancient world, and, as we will see in our next blog, different variations began to be made. The tanbur and its variations would have potentially been known to the Biblical Israelites as far back as the time of Moses, and they would have likely seen types of tanburs during the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. The guitar certainly has roots that go back a long way in time!
Sources: Wikipedia articles on the tanbur, Assyrian Captivity, and Babylonian Captivity.
“A Brief History of the Guitar” Article by Paul Guy
“Guitars Illustrated in Black & White” by George Frangoulis