What is a guitar? The fascinating background of your favorite instrument

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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You might know what a guitar is, but do you really know what a guitar is?

What is a guitar? The fascinating background of your favorite instrument

A guitar can be defined as a stringed musical instrument that is typically played with the fingers or a pick. Acoustic and electric guitars are the most common types and they are used in a wide variety of music genres including country, folk, blues, and rock.

There are many different types of guitars that are available on the market today and there are visible differences between them.

In this blog post, I’m going to take a look at what exactly a guitar is and explore the different types of guitars that are available.

This post will give beginners a better understanding of these instruments.

What is a guitar?

A guitar is a stringed instrument that is played by plucking or strumming the strings with the fingers or a plectrum. It has a long fretted neck also known as a fingerboard or fretboard.

The guitar is a type of chordophone (chorded instrument). Chordophones are musical instruments that make sound by vibrating strings. The strings can be plucked, strummed, or bowed.

Modern guitars feature anywhere from 4-18 strings. The strings are usually made of steel, nylon, or gut. They are stretched over a bridge and affixed to the guitar at the headstock.

Best strings for electric guitar x
Best strings for electric guitar

Guitars typically have six strings, but there are also 12-string guitars, 7-string guitars, 8-string guitars, and even 9-string guitars but these are less common.

Guitars come in many different shapes and sizes and are made from a variety of materials such as wood, plastic, or metal.

They are used in a wide variety of music genres and can be heard in everything from Spanish flamenco, classical concertos, rock & roll to country music.

The great thing about guitars is that they can be played solo or in a band. They are a popular choice for both beginner and experienced musicians alike.

A person playing the guitar is referred to as a ‘guitarist’.

The person who makes and repairs a guitar is referred to as a ‘luthier’ which is a reference to the word ‘lute’, a precursor stringed instrument that is similar to a guitar.

What is slang for guitar?

You might be wondering what the slang for guitar is.

Some will tell you it’s “ax” while others say it’s “axe.”

The origin of this slang term goes back to the 1950s when Jazz musicians would use the term “axe” to refer to their guitars. It’s a play on words on the “sax” which is another important jazz instrument.

The term “ax” is more commonly used in the United States while “axe” is more popular in the United Kingdom.

No matter which term you use, everyone will know what you’re talking about!

Types of guitars

There are three main types of guitars:

  1. acoustic
  2. electric
  3. bass

But, there are also special types of guitars used for certain music genres like jazz or blues but these are either acoustic or electrics.

Acoustic guitar

Acoustic guitars are made of wood and they are the most popular type of guitar. They are played unplugged (without an amplifier) and are typically used in classical, folk, country, and blues music (to name just a few).

Acoustic guitars have a hollow body which gives them a warmer, richer sound. They are available in different sizes such as grand concert, dreadnought, jumbo, etc.

Classical guitars, flamenco guitars (also called Spanish guitars), and steel-string acoustic guitars are all types of acoustic guitars.

Jazz guitar

A jazz guitar is a type of acoustic guitar that has a hollow body.

Hollow body guitars produce a different sound than solid body guitars.

Jazz guitars are used in many different genres of music, including jazz, rock, and blues.

Spanish classical guitar

The classical Spanish guitar is a type of acoustic guitar. It is smaller than a regular acoustic guitar and has nylon strings instead of steel strings.

The nylon strings are softer on the fingers and produce a different sound than steel strings.

Spanish classical guitars are often used in flamenco music.

Electric guitar

Electric guitars are played through an amplifier and usually have a solid body. They’re made of wood, metal, or a combination of both.

Electric guitars are used in rock, metal, pop, and blues music (among others).

The electric guitar is the most popular type of guitar. Electric guitars can have either single or double coils in the pickups.

Acoustic-electric guitar

There are acoustic-electric guitars too, which are a combination of both acoustic and electric guitars. They have a hollow body like an acoustic guitar but also have pickups like an electric guitar.

This type of guitar is perfect for people who want to be able to play both unplugged and plugged-in.

Blues guitar

A blues guitar is a type of electric guitar that is used in the blues genre of music.

Blues guitars are usually played with a pick and have a distinctive sound. They are often used in rock and blues music.

Bass guitar

Bass guitars are similar to electric guitars but have a lower range of notes. They are mainly used in rock and metal music.

The electric bass guitar was invented in the 1930s and is the most popular type of bass guitar.

No matter what type of guitar you play, they all have one thing in common: they’re a whole lot of fun to play!

How to hold and play guitar

There are many different ways to hold and play a guitar. The most common way is to place the guitar in your lap or on your thigh, with the neck of the guitar pointing up.

The strings are plucked or strummed with the right hand while the left hand is used to fret the strings.

This is the most popular way to play guitar for beginners, but there are many different ways to hold and play the instrument. Experiment and find a way that is comfortable for you.

Learn all about the essential guitar techniques in my complete guide and learn how to play the guitar like a pro

Do acoustic and electric guitars have the same components?

The answer is yes! Both acoustic and electric guitars have the same basic parts. These include the body, neck, headstock, tuning pegs, strings, nut, bridge, and pickups.

The only difference is that electric guitars have an extra part called pickups (or pickup selectors) which helps to amplify the sound of the guitar.

What are the parts of a guitar?

Body

The body of a guitar is the main part of the instrument. The body provides a place for the neck and strings. It is usually made from wood. Its shape and size determine the type of guitar.

Soundhole

The soundhole is the hole in the body of the guitar. The soundhole helps amplify the sound of the guitar.

Neck

The neck is the part of the guitar that the strings are attached to. The neck extends from the body and has metal frets on it. The frets are used to create different notes when the strings are plucked or strummed.

Fretboard/fingerboard

The fretboard (also called the fingerboard) is the part of the neck where your fingers press down on the strings. The fretboard is usually made from wood or plastic.

Nut

The nut is a small strip of material (usually plastic, bone, or metal) that is placed at the end of the fretboard. The nut holds the strings in place and determines the spacing of the strings.

Bridge

The bridge is the part of the guitar to which the strings are attached. The bridge helps transfer the sound of the strings to the body of the guitar.

Tuning pegs

The tuning pegs are located at the end of the guitar neck. They are used to tune the strings.

Headstock

The headstock is the part of the guitar at the end of the neck. The headstock contains the tuning pegs, which are used to tune the strings.

Strings

Guitars have six strings, which are made of steel, nylon, or other materials. The strings are plucked or strummed with the right hand while the left hand is used to fret the strings.

Frets

The frets are the metal strips on the neck of the guitar. They are used to mark the different notes. The left hand is used to press down on the strings at different frets to create different notes.

Pickguard

The pickguard is a piece of plastic that is placed on the body of the guitar. The pickguard protects the body of the guitar from being scratched by the pick.

Electric guitar parts

Besides the parts that you will also find on an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar has a few more components.

Pickups

Pickups are devices that are used to amplify the sound of the guitar. They are usually placed under the strings.

Tremolo

The Tremolo is a device that is used to create a vibrato effect. The Tremolo is used to create a “shaky” sound.

Volume knob

The volume knob is used to control the volume of the guitar. The volume knob is located on the body of the guitar.

Tone knob

The tone knob is used to control the tone of the guitar.

Learn more about how the knobs and switches on an electric guitar actually work

How are guitars constructed?

Guitars are constructed from a variety of different materials. The most common materials used to construct guitars are wood, metal, and plastic.

Wood is the most common material used to construct acoustic guitars. The type of wood used will determine the tone of the guitar.

Metal is the most common material used to construct electric guitars. The modern guitar can also be made of other materials such as carbon fiber or plastic.

The guitar strings can be made of different materials such as steel, nylon, or gut. The type of material used will determine the tone of the guitar.

Steel-string instruments have a bright sound, while nylon string instruments have a softer sound.

History of the guitar

The oldest surviving guitar-like instrument is the tanbur. It’s not really a guitar but it has a similar shape and sound.

The tanbur originated in ancient Egypt (about 1500 BC) and is thought to be the forerunner of the modern guitar.

The modern acoustic guitar as we know it today is thought to have originated in medieval Spain or Portugal.

Why is it called a guitar?

The word “guitar” comes from the Greek word “kythara”, which means “lyre” and the Andalusian Arabic word qīthārah. The Latin language also used the word “cithara” based on the Greek word.

The ‘tar’ part of the name probably came from the Sanskrit word for ‘string’.

Then, later the Spanish word “guitarra” based on the previous words directly influenced the English word “guitar”.

Guitars in antiquity

But first, let’s go back to antiquity and ancient Greek mythology. It’s there that you first see a God named Apollo playing an instrument that looks similar to the guitar.

According to the myth, it was actually Hermes who made the first greek kithara (guitar) out of tortoiseshell and a wood soundboard.

Medieval guitars

The first guitars were probably made in Arabia during the 10th century. These early guitars were called “qit’aras” and had four, five or six strings.

They were often used by wandering minstrels and troubadours to accompany their singing.

During the 13th century, guitars with twelve strings began to be used in Spain. These guitars were called “vihuelas” and looked more like lutes than modern guitars.

The vihuela was used for over 200 years before being replaced by the five-string guitar we know today.

Another precursor to the guitar was the guitarra latina or latin guitar. The latin guitar was a four-string guitar-like medieval instrument but it had a narrower body and the waist wasn’t as pronounced.

The vihuela was a six-stringed instrument that was played with the fingers whereas the guitarra latina had four strings and was played with a pick.

Both of these instruments were popular in Spain and they developed there.

The first guitars were made of wood and had gut strings. The wood was usually maple or cedar. The soundboards were made of spruce or cedar.

Renaissance guitars

The renaissance guitar first appeared in Spain in the late 15th century. These guitars had five or six double strings made of gut.

They were tuned in fourths like the modern guitar but with a lower pitch.

The body shape was similar to the vihuela but smaller and more compact. The soundholes were often shaped like a rose.

You can also say that the first guitars were similar to the lute in terms of sound, and they had four strings. These guitars were used in Renaissance music in Europe.

The first guitars were used for music that was meant to be accompanying or background music and these were acoustic guitars.

Baroque guitars

The Baroque guitar is a five-string instrument that was used in the 16th and 17th centuries. The gut strings were replaced by metal strings in the 18th century.

The sound of this guitar is different from a modern classical guitar because it has less sustain and a shorter decay.

The tone of the Baroque guitar is softer and not as full as the modern classical guitar.

The Baroque guitar was used for music that was meant to be played solo. The most famous composer of Baroque guitar music was Francesco Corbetta.

Classical guitars

The first classical guitars were developed in Spain in the late 18th century. These guitars were different from the Baroque guitar in terms of sound, construction, and playing technique.

Most classical guitars were made with six strings but some were made with seven or even eight strings. The body shape of the classical guitar is different from the modern guitar in that it has a narrower waist and a larger body.

The sound of the classical guitar was fuller and more sustained than the Baroque guitar.

Guitar as a solo instrument

Did you know that the guitar was not used as a solo instrument until the 19th century?

In the 1800s, guitars with six strings became more popular. These guitars were used in Classical music.

One of the first guitarists to play the guitar as a solo instrument was Francesco Tarrega. He was a Spanish composer and performer who did a lot to develop the technique of playing the guitar.

He wrote many pieces for the guitar that are still performed today. In 1881, he published his method which included fingering and left-hand techniques.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the guitar became more popular as a solo instrument.

In the early 1900s, Andres Segovia, a Spanish guitarist, helped to increase the popularity of the guitar as a solo instrument. He gave concerts all over Europe and the United States.

He helped to make the guitar a more respected instrument.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Segovia commissioned works from composers such as Federico Garcia Lorca and Manuel de Falla.

The invention of the electric guitar

In 1931, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker were awarded the first patent for the electric guitar by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Similar efforts were being made by a number of other inventors and guitar makers to produce an electric version of these older instruments.

Gibson Guitars’ solid-body guitars were invented by Les Paul, for example, and the Fender Telecaster was created by Leo Fender in 1951.

Solid-body electric guitars are still in use today because of the influence of classic models like the Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, and Gibson SG.

These guitars were amplified and this meant that they could be played louder than acoustic guitars.

In the 1940s, electric guitars became more popular in Rock and Roll music. But this type of guitar really took off in the 1950s.

Invention of the bass guitar

American musician Paul Tutmarc, based in Seattle invented the bass guitar in the 1930s.

He modified the electric guitar and turned it into a bass guitar. Unlike the stringed double bass, this new guitar was played horizontally like the others.

Who invented the guitar?

We can’t credit just one person with inventing the guitar but the steel-stringed acoustic guitar is believed to have been invented in the 18th century.

Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1867), a German immigrant to the United States, is widely credited with inventing the steel-stringed acoustic guitar, which has since become popular around the world.

This type of guitar is known as a flat-top guitar.

Catgut strings, made from the intestines of sheep, were used on guitars at the time and he changed all that by inventing steel strings for the instrument.

As a result of the flat top’s tight steel strings, guitarists had to alter their playing style and rely more on picks, which had a significant impact on the types of music that could be played on it.

Classical guitar melodies, for example, are precise and delicate, whereas music played with steel strings and picks is bright and chord-based.

As a result of the widespread use of picks, most flat-top guitars now feature a pickguard below the soundhole.

The invention of the archtop guitar is often credited to American luthier Orville Gibson (1856-1918). The tone and volume of this guitar are enhanced by the F-holes, arched top and back, and an adjustable bridge.

Archtop guitars were initially used in Jazz music but are now found in a variety of genres.

Guitars with cello-like bodies were designed by Gibson to produce a louder sound.

Why the guitar is a popular instrument?

The guitar is a popular instrument because it can be used to play a wide variety of music.

It is also relatively easy to learn how to play but can take a lifetime to master.

The sound of the guitar can be mellow and soft or loud and aggressive, depending on how it is played. Therefore, it’s such a versatile instrument that it can be used in many different genres of music.

The steel-string guitars are still the most popular guitars because they are versatile and can be used to play a wide variety of music.

The electric guitar is also a popular choice for many guitarists because it can be used to create a wide range of sounds.

The acoustic guitar is a popular choice for those who want to play unplugged or in intimate settings. Most acoustic guitars are used to play musical styles like folk, country, and blues.

The classical guitar is often used to play classical and flamenco music. Flamenco guitars are still popular in Spain and are used to play a type of music that is a mix of Spanish and Moorish influences.

Famous guitarists

There are many famous guitarists throughout history. Some famous guitarists include:

These are just a few of the remarkable guitarists that have shaped the sound of music as we know it today.

Each of them has its own unique style that has influenced other guitarists and helped to create the sound of modern music.

Takeaway

A guitar is a stringed musical instrument that is typically played with the fingers or a pick.

Guitars can be acoustic, electric, or both.

Acoustic guitars produce sound by vibrating strings which are amplified by the body of the guitar, while electric guitars produce sound by amplifying electromagnetic pickups.

There are many different types of guitars, including acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and classical guitars.

As you can tell, these stringed instruments have come a long way from the lute and the Spanish guitarra, and these days you can find new fun twists on the steel-string acoustics like the resonator guitar.

          Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of his passion, and together with his team, He's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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