A History of the Classical Guitar: The Instrument's Evolution and Its Key Players

During the five centuries of the classical guitar’s existence, the instrument has completely changed in physical dimensions, shape, stringing, and tuning.

While a guitarist of the Renaissance may have played their way through delightful court music on a tiny instrument designed for strumming, by the time the 20th century rolled around the guitar had increased drastically in size and totally changed construction. You’d be more likely to hear an avant-garde sonata than courtly trifles. Somehow, these incredibly dissimilar instruments both come under the category of “classical guitar.”

For how we got from petite Renaissance and Baroque instruments to modern instruments designed for maximum projection, we’re tracing the history of classical guitar.

I’ve followed the most commonly accepted method of dividing up classical music history: the Renaissance (1500-1650), the Baroque (1650-1750), Classical (1750-1830), Romantic (1830-1890), and Modern (1890-2000). This sort of splitting-up of history naturally involves a bit of oversimplification, but it does neatly cover most major composers and players.

The Renaissance
(1500-1650)

The Renaissance guitar is different from the modern instrument in almost every way. For starters, the Renaissance instrument was much smaller—to the point where it’s more like a large ukulele than anything else.

Each of the fourth, third, and second strings was paired, in the same fashion as each of the string pairs on a modern twelve-string guitar. These pairs and the single string on the Renaissance guitar are known as “courses.” Although there were plenty of different tunings—this early in the guitar’s life, there was no standardization— one of the more popular ones was G/G-C/C-E/E-A.

A rendition of Adrian Le Roy’s “Fantasie seconde”

Though it was quite similar to a lute, not everyone was a fan. Sometime in the 1550s, one anonymous critic wrote, “We used to play the lute more than the guitar, but for 12 or 15 years now, everyone has been guitaring, and the lute is nearly forgotten in favor of heaven knows what kind of music on the guitar, which is much easier than that for the lute.” (This statement was later compiled in Michael Fink’s research on the early instrument.)

Another dig appeared in a dictionary from the time, written by Sebastián de Covarrubias Oroszco in 1611: “But now the guitar is no more than a cowbell, so easy to play, especially when strummed, that there is nary a stable boy who is not a guitar player.”

The instrument tended to be used in ensembles, or as an accompanying instrument for a singer, more than in solo works, but there’s still some lovely unaccompanied repertoire for it. French guitarist, composer, and music publisher Adrian Le Roy’s collection of sheet music is some that has survived fully intact:

Adrain Le Roy’s Second livre de guiterre, 1555
The Baroque
(1650-1750)

Sometime in the early 17th century, someone had the bright idea of adding an extra low string to the guitar.

Now a five-course instrument, the Baroque guitar was a fashionable item in France thanks to King Louis XIV’s fondness for it. It’s also thanks to him that composers Francesco Corbetta and Robert de Visée had jobs, since both of them were employed as court guitarists. Unfortunately their music doesn’t get played particularly often on the modern guitar, mainly because of the huge timbral differences from Baroque instruments to modern.

Diogo Rodrigues - “Canarios”

Gaspar Sanz was the most important Spanish guitar composer of the time, and music from his three-book Instrucción de Música sobre la Guitarra Española actually does get played. A fair few of the pieces are based on dances, and the “big hit” is "Canarios," based on a dance from the Canary Islands.

Speaking of Baroque guitars, here’s a fun fact for the history lovers: There are only five Stradivarius guitars in the world, and only one is in playable condition. Only restored a few years ago, it’s literally invaluable.

Rolf Lislevand plays A.Stradivari Sabionari, 1679 guitar - Santiago de Murcia - Tarantela
Classical
(1750-1830)

Early Romantic guitar (ca.1830, Paris)
by Jean-Nicolas Grobert

This entry could really be called “The Great Single-String Migration.” In the late 1700s, guitars started to be strung with single strings instead of paired courses. Naturally, there are heaps of theories as to why, but one of the most convincing is also the most prosaic—six single strings are much cheaper than doubled strings. Generally, the instrument at this time was still fairly small and didn’t have a raised fingerboard, instead having the higher frets inlaid straight into the wood.

Today’s parlour guitars have much the same size and shape.

The guitar died off a little in the main chunk of the classical period (Mozart never had anything to do with the guitar, for instance), but the early 19th century saw another explosion of interest thanks to the two big names: Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani, both of whom are sure to appear on any classical guitar “best of.”

Sor was a bit obsessive about correct compositional rules in his pieces (his method book spends dozens of pages carefully analysing hand positions, let alone actually playing anything), but his pieces are gorgeous nonetheless.

Julian Bream - Ferndano Sor’s “Study in B Minor”

Giuliani was popular enough to inspire one of the very first guitar magazines, called The Giulianiad. He also gets bonus points for being one of the very first to stick the guitar in front of an orchestra, and his Guitar Concerto, Op. 30 still gets played regularly today.

Romantic
(1830-1890)

Sadly, the guitar really couldn’t keep up with the lush, chromatic musical style of the time, and, for the most part, the guitar was dead in the water at this point. There were a few composers who stuck with the instrument, however. The works of Johann Kaspar Mertz (aka Caspar Joseph Mertz) works are heavily inspired by the popular piano works of the time.

Tatyana Ryzhkova - “Liebeslied” by Johann Kaspar Mertz

Child prodigy Giulio Regondi, whose music was only rediscovered in the 1980s, was also writing in a fairly similar style.

The end of the 19th century was, without a doubt, one of the most important times in the development of the guitar. Luthier Antonio de Torres collaborated with composer Francisco Tárrega to completely redefine the instrument, and their changes represent the classical guitar today. Physically larger than previous instruments, it’s the quintessential classical guitar sound.

Tavi Jinariu plays “Canco del Lladre on an 1888 Antonio de Torres guitar
Modern
(1890-2000)

The biggest classical guitarist of the early 20th century was easily Andrés Segovia. What made him so vital was his active promotion of new music for the guitar—a solid proportion of the classical guitar music played today is written by the composers he worked with.

Some of these composers are Heitor Villa-Lobos (best known for the Five Preludes), Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (best known for the Guitar Concerto No. 1, Op. 99), and Federico Moreno Torroba (best known for the three-movement Sonatine).

Andrés Segovia - “Sonatina” (Torroba)

In the mid-20th century, Julian Bream and John Williams became household names. They even released a couple of albums together, but what’s interesting is their totally different approaches to playing the instrument.

Bream’s performances are wild and passionate, with frequent odd movements and grimaces as he plays. Bream was key in modernising the instrument, and his love of more hard-edged composers sent the classical guitar into new and uncharted territory (Bream’s 20th Century Guitar album is a must-own). By far the most significant work he inspired was Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, Op. 70, a dark and complex reflection on a lute piece from the 1500s.

Julian Bream - “Nocturnal: Musingly”

John Williams, on the other hand, is known for his perfect control when performing. Perhaps slightly more musically conservative than Bream, he’s explored a massive variety of guitar music ranging from Venezuelan traditional music to collaborations with jazz guitarist John Etheridge… but let’s not discuss his ‘70s foray into an odd classical-rock hybrid with Sky. On the solo side, he’s been instrumental in promoting the music of the early 20th century Paraguayan composer Agustín Barrios.

Thanks to these three, the latter half of the 20th century saw a huge upswing of interest in classical guitar, to the point where it’d be impossible to list all of the terrific new players and pieces. Still, players started exploring more music from around the world, such the music of Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and Russian composer Nikita Koshkin.

And of course, more recent performers play more than just classical guitar. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint is a piece for pre-recorded guitars and one live guitar. Although it was originally written for jazz player Pat Metheny, plenty of classical guitarists have had a go too (as well as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood). Mats Bergström plays it on electric here:

Mats Bergström - Electric Counterpoint

So, the classical guitar has been through many, many different guises over 500 years. It might have taken a bit of a convoluted path with a few dead ends along the way, but these days the instrument is in excellent health, with plenty of new music being written and performed.


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