The History of the Modern Classical Guitar and its Deep Iberian Roots

spanish classical guitar painting

Guitar aficionados are generally aware that our beloved instrument traveled a very long and somewhat uncertain path to Spain. Many significant developments in classical guitar design and technique, and many important performers and composers, flourished in Spain during the past few centuries, but the story indeed began many years—perhaps millennia—earlier. Scholars, however, are not in agreement on where the instrument that ultimately became the modern classical guitar originated before arriving in Europe.

Among several scholarly speculations, The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians includes one theory that the guitar descended anciently from the Greek kithara. Alexander Bellow’s Illustrated History of the Guitar includes numerous photos of artifacts tying the guitar to various ancient cultures. One photo of a stone relief from the Hittite Empire (modern-day Turkey) dating from 1300 BCE depicts a musician playing a stringed instrument with a long neck and a body with curved sides that vaguely resembles a guitar. Another theory is that the guitar is a distant cousin to the long-necked lutes of early Mesopotamia. Coptic lutes discovered in Egypt dating from 300–700 AD had flat backs and sides and superficially resemble the shape of a modern guitar body. Other historians posit theories that the pear-shaped oud found in pre-Islamic Arabian lands influenced the development of the lute, which appeared in Europe in the 15th century and is part of the guitar’s lineage. Many parties throughout the centuries in several Western Europe countries contributed to the evolution of the modern guitar before Spain became a dominant force from the late 18th century forward in producing many groundbreaking, composers, performers, and luthiers.

"The Guitar Player" by Johannes Vermeer, 1672
The five-course Baroque guitar originated in Spain and gradually overtook the four-course instrument there in the 17th century. (“The Guitar Player” by Johannes Vermeer, 1672)

Gaining and Losing Strings

Beyond the guitar’s morphology, tunings and playing techniques must also be considered when tracing its genealogy. The vihuela, popular during the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy and Spain, fits directly into the evolutionary line and came in three varieties. The vihuela de penola was played with a pick, while the vihuela de arco was played with a bow. The vihuela de mano, however, had five or six double courses of strings and was plucked with the fingers. One of the latter’s tunings was G C F A D G (low strings to high). With the exception that the major third occurs between the fourth and third strings, its tuning relates to the interval pattern of a modern guitar and was pitched like a modern guitar with a capo placed on the third fret. (Of course on the modern guitar the major third occurs between the third and second strings and the whole is pitched a minor third lower than the vihuela.)

In the 16th century, small-bodied, four-course guitars made in France and Spain were used to play polyphonic music in a variety of tunings. Composers used different systems of tablature in France, Italy, and Spain to notate their music. Among the significant early composers were Alonso Mudarra (c. 1510–1580) from Spain, and Guillaume de Morlaye (c. 1510–1558) of France. Manuscript collections that include works by unnamed composers from England and Italy survive in European libraries. Even though the evolution of the guitar moved forward, these relatively diminutive instruments continued to be played into the 19th century.

Baroque Guitar

In The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day, Harvey Turnbull writes that the five-course Baroque guitar originated in Spain and gradually overtook the four-course there in the 17th century. Its tuning is like that used today, with strings tuned (from lowest to highest) A D G B E. Composers of Baroque guitar music used at least four different arrangements of the octaves among the double strings. These included re-entrant tunings in which the strings were not pitched strictly from low to high. One or more of the doubled strings in the middle courses were pitched an octave higher. (Vestiges of re-entrant tuning are found in modern ukulele, five-string banjo, and 12-string guitar tunings.) In his collection of pieces titled Poema Harmónio, Francisco Guerau of Spain (1649–ca. 1722) utilized a tuning of the top three strings in unison and the bottom two strings in octaves.

Baroque guitars were often used for song accompaniment, and the playing technique mixed strumming and notes plucked by the thumb and first two fingers. Many great instrumental solo works were created in this period. The music of Italian composer Francesco Corbetta (1615–1681) is less popular today than the works by his Spanish contemporaries Gaspar Sanz (1640–1710) or Santiago de Murcia (1673–1739), but Sanz hailed Corbetta in the day as “el mejor de todo” (the best of all).

Among the surviving instruments from this era, many are very elaborately inlayed with delicate, multilayered roses in the soundhole (made of parchment and other materials) and upward curving “mustache” figurations carved on either end of the bridge. Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari is famous for his extraordinary violins, violas, and cellos, but he also made some mandolins, harps, and an unknown number of Baroque guitars. Interestingly, his guitars have a plain look, exhibiting few of the flamboyant decorative features seen in Baroque guitars by other Italian makers. Among the five surviving Stradivari guitars, only one—the 1679 Sabionari—is still playable.

Baroque to Romantic era guitars (left to right): ca. 1830 Lacôte , ca. 1830 Panormo, 1813 Pagés , 1882 Fabricatore, Staufer (date unknown) -- St. Cecilia's Hall Collection, University of Edinburgh
Baroque to Romantic era guitars (left to right): ca. 1830 Lacôte , ca. 1830 Panormo, 1813 Pagés , 1882 Fabricatore, Staufer (date unknown) — St. Cecilia’s Hall Collection, University of Edinburgh

Adopting Lasting Standards

The transition from the five courses of the Baroque guitar to six single strings of the small-bodied Romantic guitar occurred toward the end of the 18th century in either France or Italy. At this point, the guitar begins to have less in common with the lute and its other predecessors and significant features of the modern guitar begin to emerge. A guitar with six single strings, a small body, and narrow waist became the standard in Spain in the early 19th century. The musical ramifications of the addition of the low E string included the possibility for part-writing on guitar. The extended range with the low E string allowed for playing the roots of I, IV, V chords on the lower strings with chord tones on the middle strings and melodic passages above.

Structural advances included machine heads replacing wooden tuning pegs, and fixed frets of ivory, ebony, and eventually metal, replacing tied gut frets. A flat back and a neck with the 12th fret located where the neck meets the body became standard. As well, fingerboards went from being flush with the guitar top to being raised about 2mm.

Another structural feature was fan strutting, reputedly first used by luthier Joséf Pagés (1740–1822), a leading member of the famed Cádiz school of guitar makers in Spain. Pagés began using three fan struts below the soundhole and later five. He is also credited with adding a slight dome to the guitar top. Celebrated Spanish composer/performers Fernando Sor (1778–1839) and Dionisio Aguado (1784–1849) both praised the quality of Pagés’ instruments. His innovations were influential on other Romantic guitar makers such as Louis Panormo of London. Labels in Panormo’s guitars state that he made guitars “in the Spanish style.” French maker René François Lacôte was another noted builder of Romantic-era guitars.

Around the middle of the 18th century, tablature gave way to the adaptation of conventions of violin notation. Guitar scholar Thomas Heck writes that the movement away from tablature to standard notation began in Italy. From that point onward, music for the guitar has been notated on a single staff in the G (treble) clef with pitches sounding an octave lower than written. (Some 20th and 21st century composers, however, occasionally use two staves with G clefs to more clearly notate music with complex textures and rhythms.)

19th Century Virtuosi

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century brought rail transportation to Europe, increasing the opportunities for virtuoso performers to reach audiences across the continent. This reversed a declining interest in the guitar seen in the late 18th century. German virtuosi Simon Molitor (1766–1848) and Leonhard von Call (1767–1815) and Italian-born Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) made Vienna a musical hub for the guitar. The wave washed across Europe to Paris and London, as well as Russia, in the early and middle decades with the renown of Spanish-born Sor and Aguado; Italians Niccolo Paganini, Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, and Luigi Rinaldo Legnani; and Austro-Hungarian Johann Kaspar Mertz and Swiss-born Giulio Regondi. Each contributed a variety of works to the repertoire, and Sor, Aguado, Carulli, and Carcassi wrote notable guitar methods.


Also swept up in the new instrument’s popularity were 19th century master composers Franz Schubert, Hector Berlioz, Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles Gounod, and Niels Gade, who played the guitar and wrote minor pieces for it. Opera composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner wrote guitar parts into their works Il Trovatore and Enzio respectively. Standing apart from their composer-performer peers, Sor and Giuliani are notable for their large-scale and technically dazzling solo guitar works—some in sonata form—as themes and variations, and for their prodigious catalogs. Sor also wrote in other genres including orchestral music, opera, ballet, string quartet, and more. Giuliani wrote three concertos for guitar and orchestra.

Francisco Tárrega with classical guitar
Francisco Tárrega

Toward Modern Guitar Design

From the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, Spain increasingly became a very fertile ground for guitar activity, producing monumental performers, guitar builders, and composers. The innovations of luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817–1892) added momentum. Even his name, Torres, testifies to his being a towering figure in Spanish guitar construction who set standards still in use today. Torres’s guitar making falls into two epochs in his life. The first, spanning the years 1852–1869, began at the urging of noted guitarist Julian Arcas (1832–1882). Sadly, Torres struggled to earn a consistent income from guitar making throughout his life, and left building guitars in Seville in 1870 to open a china and crystal shop in Almería. Fortunately, he returned to guitar building in his second epoch from 1875 until his death in 1892.

Torres adopted the best practices of luthiers who preceded him and added his own ideas to lay the foundation for a much-revered modern school of Spanish guitar making. He increased the size of the guitar body to about 20 percent larger than guitars made by Pagés, Panormo, and Lacôte. His figure-eight-shaped guitar body design added more area to both the upper and lower bouts and was reputed to have been inspired by a young woman he saw in Seville.

Torres considered the soundboard the most important part of the instrument and made his tops thinner for increased resonance. He also used a bracing system that generally featured seven struts fanning out from below the soundhole supporting the top. Torres also settled on a 650 mm scale length for concert guitars, a dimension widely adopted by other luthiers and still a standard today. Additionally, Torres added a saddle to the bridge to facilitate string height adjustment.

Impressed after hearing him play, Manuel Ramirez generously gave Segovia a concert guitar telling him, “Take it with you through the world and may your work make it fertile… Pay me for it without money.”

Since 1600, Madrid has been a significant site for Spanish guitar making. The Ramirez guitar dynasty, the most famous throughout the 20th century, began in Madrid, where José Ramírez I (1858–1923) set up his shop in 1890 and where the company continues today. He largely adopted the methods of Torres, but developed the popular tablao guitar, a flamenco instrument with a larger body and narrower sides than Torres’ guitars. Among many builders trained by José I was his brother Manuel Ramírez (1864–1916), best remembered for his 1912 encounter with the then-unknown Andrés Segovia, who came to his shop seeking to rent a concert guitar. Impressed after hearing him play, Manuel generously gave Segovia a concert guitar telling him, “Take it with you through the world and may your work make it fertile… Pay me for it without money.”

Among Manuel’s most famous apprentices were Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso, Enrique Garcia, and Modesto Borreguero. The Ramírez family business passed in a direct line from José Ramírez I to José Ramírez II (1885–1957), José Ramírez III (1922–1995), and José Ramírez IV (1953–2000). Amalia Ramírez, also a highly skilled luthier and the sister of José IV, currently manages the Ramírez shop.

Each member of the family has contributed to making their brand distinctive. José III increased the size of the sound box, introduced new varnishes, and was the first maker to use red cedar for a guitar soundboard. Beginning in 1937, Segovia played guitars made by German luthier Hermann Hauser, but in 1963 he began playing guitars by José III, alternating with an instrument built by Ignacio Fleta of Barcelona. In 1979, the Maestro began playing a model by José Ramírez IV. Among the many celebrated guitarists who embraced Ramírez guitars are Christopher Parkening, Kazuhito Yamashita, and Narciso Yepes. (As well, George Harrison played a Ramírez on the Beatles song “And I Love Her.”)

Notable 20th century luthiers working in Madrid tied to the Ramírez legacy are Marcelo Barbero, Manuel Contreras, Paulino Bernabé, and the Rodríguez family (Manuel Rodríguez Pérez Sr., Manuel Rodríguez II, and Norman Rodríguez).

Antonio de Torres Jurado
Antonio de Torres Jurado

Into the Modern Era

Guitarist and composer Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909), armed with the structurally and sonically improved instruments of Torres, ushered in the modern era of guitar. Though partially blind since childhood, Tárrega grew the guitar’s repertoire through his transcriptions of music by Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Haydn, his Spanish contemporary Isaac Albéniz, and others. His own compositions number around 80 and include such enduring classics as “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and “Capricho Arabé,” in addition to etudes, preludes, and many short pieces in dance rhythms.

Tárrega contributed to the development of modern technique by endorsing the placement of the guitar on the left leg raised on a footstool and discontinuing the practice of resting the right-hand pinky finger on the soundboard. He also advocated the use of both free stroke and rest stroke for the right hand. Throughout the 19th century, there was debate over whether the guitar should be played with or without fingernails. Sor played with the flesh only and Aguado advocated for nails. In 1904, Tárrega cut his nails and promoted playing without them. Two of his famous students, Emilio Pujol (1886–1980) and Miguel Llobet (1878–1938), took different sides, with Pujol agreeing with Tárrega’s use of flesh and Llobet opting to use nails. The debate was effectively settled with the appearance of Segovia on the world stage, playing with nails and becoming renowned for his remarkable use of tone color.

Known as a Tárrega disciple, Llobet traveled as a concert artist throughout Europe and North and South America. His top students included Cuban virtuoso Rey de la Torre (1917–1994) and Argentine-born Maria Luisa Anido (1907–1996). While Segovia (1893–1987) always declared himself to be self-taught, in his early years, he studied with Llobet, seeking to get closer to the pedagogical legacy of Tárrega. Llobet’s most famous contribution to the repertoire is Canciones Populares Catalanes, a collection Catalan folksong settings, which includes “El Noi de la Mare,” a piece widely popularized by Segovia. In the early decades of the 20th century, some concert promoters billed Llobet as “the world’s greatest guitarist.” Similar accolades would be subsequently bestowed upon Segovia.

Andrés Segovia with his 1912 Ramirez guitar
Andrés Segovia with his 1912 Ramirez

Segovia: The ‘Daddy of Us All

George Harrison is often quoted saying: “Segovia is the daddy of us all.” Indeed, the growth in the worldwide popularity of the Spanish guitar and guitar in general since the early decades of 20th century owes much to the life and work of Segovia. Harrison’s quote is interesting in that during the 1960s the Beatles spurred a huge surge in acoustic and electric guitar sales and inspired millions to play the instrument. Many baby boomers introduced to the guitar by the Beatles and other pop artists later pursued classical guitar studies. They ultimately discovered Segovia, sometimes through those who followed in his footsteps: Julian Bream and the Romeros, as well as Segovia students John Williams, Christopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia, Alirio Díaz, and later, Eliot Fisk, Sharon Isbin, and Virginia Luque. Segovia kicked off a movement that motivated four generations of classical guitarists.

To list Segovia’s numerous accomplishments is beyond the scope of this article. His New York Times obituary states that he set out to “redeem my guitar from the flamenco” and establish it as a respected instrument suitable for the classical concert stage, draw the public to the guitar, build the repertoire, and see the guitar placed alongside the violin and piano in conservatory and college and university music departments worldwide. Put a check mark next to all items. During Segovia’s long career, he sold hundreds of thousands of concert tickets and millions of albums. At the time of his passing, in 1987, future concert bookings were on his calendar. As well, a look at music departments of the world’s most prestigious conservatories and universities indicates the embrace of the guitar in higher education.

But perhaps it was the expansion of the guitar’s repertoire backwards and forwards—through transcribing tremendously appealing works from the past and inspiring composers to write new ones—that enabled him to reach his other goals. Upon hearing Segovia’s arrangements of “Spanish Dance No. 5” by Granados, “Sevilla” or “Asturias” by Albéniz, J.S. Bach’s “Chaconne” or “Fugue in A Minor,” Domenico Scarlatti’s “Sonata in E Minor K. 11,” countless guitarists just had to learn them. His renditions of Sor’s op. 9 “Variations on a Theme by Mozart,” Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and “Capricho Arabé,” and many others elicited the same response. This dynamic expansion of the repertoire has been taken up by others and continues with vigor to this day.

Composers such as Mexico’s Manuel Ponce (1882–1948) enjoyed a long friendship and collaboration with Segovia that yielded five multi-movement sonatas, several themes and variations (including the epic Variations and Fugue on ‘La Folia’), and Concierto del sur for guitar and orchestra, among many other titles. Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) dedicated his masterful Douze Etudes and Guitar Concerto to Segovia. While Segovia never had any connection to Joaquín Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez (the most popular concerto of the 20th century was premiered by Regino Sainz de la Maza), the revered Spanish composer dedicated his concerto Fantasía para un Gentilhombre and the solo work Tres Piezas Españolas to Segovia. Additional works dedicated to Segovia flowed from the pens of Federico Moreno Torroba, Alexandre Tansman, Joaquín Turina, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Francis Poulenc, and many others.

As Spain’s foremost classical guitarist, Segovia carried the Spanish guitar through seven decades of the 20th century and delivered it to the waiting hands of new generations. New champions now hold the torch and are preserving and expanding legacy of the Spanish guitar.

Mark Small is a music journalist, classical guitarist, and composer. He has recorded eight CDs featuring his arrangements and compositions ranging from solo works to orchestral pieces.

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Classical Guitar: the digital archive instand download