Why is a Guitar Called “Guitar”? A Full Exploration

by Madonna

The guitar, an instrument synonymous with a plethora of music genres from classical to rock, holds a fascinating history that spans centuries and continents. Understanding why this iconic instrument is called a guitar requires a journey through etymology, historical development, and the evolution of its construction and playing techniques. In this comprehensive exploration, we will uncover the roots of the term “guitar,” trace its historical development, delve into the materials used in its construction, and examine the various playing techniques and varieties of guitars that exist today.

Why is a Guitar Called “Guitar”?

The English word “guitar” traces its origins back to the Spanish word “guitarra.” This term, in turn, is believed to have evolved from the Latin word “cithara,” which referred to an ancient stringed instrument. The Latin “cithara” itself is thought to have been influenced by an even older term from Sanskrit, “tar,” which means “string.” This etymological journey reflects the deep-rooted heritage of the guitar as an instrument, showcasing its evolution from ancient stringed instruments to the modern guitar we recognize today.


Historical Development

The guitar’s historical development is as rich and varied as its etymological roots. The modern guitar most likely originated in Spain during the early 16th century. It evolved from the “guitarra latina,” a late-medieval instrument characterized by a waisted body and four strings. The early guitar differed significantly from its contemporary counterpart; it was narrower, deeper, and had a less pronounced waist.


The “guitarra latina” itself derived from earlier stringed instruments that were prevalent in Europe and the Middle East. As the guitar evolved, it underwent numerous modifications in design, construction, and string configuration. By the Baroque period, the five-course guitar had become popular, featuring ten strings paired in five courses. This instrument laid the groundwork for the six-string guitar, which emerged in the 18th century and became the standard in the 19th century.


The 19th century saw further refinement of the guitar’s design, leading to the development of the modern classical guitar. Pioneers such as Antonio Torres Jurado were instrumental in enhancing the guitar’s construction, particularly in terms of its size and bracing system, which improved its volume and tonal quality. These advancements set the stage for the diverse range of guitars we see today.

String Materials

Historically, guitars were constructed from wood and strung with catgut strings, which were made from the intestines of sheep or other livestock. These strings produced a warm, rich tone that was well-suited to the music of the time. However, the introduction of steel guitar strings in the United States near the end of the 19th century marked a significant turning point in the instrument’s evolution.

Steel strings, with their brighter and more projecting sound, quickly gained popularity, particularly in the burgeoning genres of blues and country music. The development of nylon strings, introduced in the mid-20th century, provided an alternative to catgut, offering greater durability and a consistent tone. Today, guitars are typically strung with either nylon or steel strings, each type suited to different styles of music and playing techniques.

Playing Techniques and Sound Production

Guitars are typically fretted instruments, with most modern guitars featuring six or twelve strings. The playing technique involves using the dominant hand to strum or pluck the strings, while the opposite hand presses selected strings against the frets. This combination of actions allows players to produce a wide range of pitches and harmonies.

Guitarists employ various playing techniques to achieve different sounds and styles. Fingerstyle and finger-picking involve plucking the strings directly with the fingers, allowing for intricate and nuanced playing. Strumming, on the other hand, involves sweeping the fingers or a pick across the strings to produce a fuller, rhythmic sound.

Guitar picks, or plectrums, are commonly used to pluck or strum the strings, providing greater control and precision. The choice of pick material and thickness can significantly affect the tone and attack of the sound produced.

The sound of the guitar can be projected acoustically or amplified electronically. Acoustic guitars rely on their hollow bodies to amplify the sound of the vibrating strings. In contrast, electric guitars use pickups—magnetic devices that convert string vibrations into electrical signals. These signals are then amplified using external amplifiers, allowing for a wide range of tonal possibilities and electronic effects.

Varieties of Guitars

The modern guitar family encompasses a wide array of instruments, each with distinct characteristics and uses. The three main types of guitars are the classical (Spanish) guitar, the steel-string acoustic/electric guitar, and the Hawaiian lap steel guitar.

1. Classical (Spanish) Guitar

The classical guitar, also known as the Spanish guitar, is characterized by its nylon strings and wider neck. It is typically used in classical music, flamenco, and Latin American genres. The nylon strings produce a warm, mellow tone, and the wider neck facilitates complex fingerpicking techniques.

2. Steel-String Acoustic/Electric Guitar

The steel-string acoustic guitar, known for its bright and resonant sound, is commonly used in folk, country, and pop music. Its steel strings provide a louder and more projecting sound compared to nylon strings. The electric guitar, a descendant of the acoustic steel-string guitar, revolutionized music in the 20th century. It features magnetic pickups and electronic amplification, allowing for a vast range of sounds and effects that have become integral to genres such as rock, blues, and jazz.

3. Hawaiian Lap Steel Guitar

The Hawaiian lap steel guitar, played horizontally on the player’s lap, is unique for its sliding technique using a metal or glass bar. This style produces a distinctive, smooth, and gliding sound, which is central to Hawaiian music and has influenced various other genres, including blues and country.

4. Traditional Acoustic Guitars

Traditional acoustic guitars come in various forms, such as flat top and archtop guitars. Flat top guitars, with their flat soundboards, produce a balanced and versatile tone suitable for a wide range of musical styles. Archtop guitars, with their arched tops and backs, provide a warmer, more resonant sound, favored in jazz and swing music.

5. Electric Guitars and Their Impact

Electric guitars have had a profound impact on music, enabling new styles and techniques that were not possible with acoustic instruments. The use of electronic amplification and effects has allowed guitarists to experiment with sustain, distortion, reverb, and countless other sonic possibilities. This versatility has cemented the electric guitar’s place in modern music, influencing countless genres and artists.

SEE ALSO: 6 Types of Electric Guitars


The guitar’s name, rich in historical and cultural significance, reflects its evolution from ancient stringed instruments to the versatile and beloved instrument it is today. From its etymological roots in the Spanish “guitarra” and Latin “cithara” to its development in Spain during the 16th century, the guitar has undergone significant transformations in design, materials, and playing techniques.

The introduction of steel and nylon strings, the development of various playing styles, and the advent of electronic amplification have all contributed to the guitar’s enduring popularity and versatility. Whether it is the classical guitar, steel-string acoustic, or electric guitar, each variety offers unique sounds and playing experiences that continue to inspire musicians and captivate audiences worldwide.

In understanding why a guitar is called a guitar, we not only uncover the rich linguistic and historical tapestry that defines the instrument but also appreciate the remarkable journey that has shaped its identity and legacy. The guitar’s ability to adapt and evolve while retaining its core essence is a testament to its enduring appeal and significance in the world of music.


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