It’s hard to even imagine what our contemporary music would be like if the guitar didn’t exist. None of the music we listen to would exist. We wouldn’t be able to hear our favorite songs on the radio or on streaming platforms, we couldn’t listen to our favorite bands, we would be unable to appreciate the traditional music of several countries, and we would definitely fail to play much of what we play at family gatherings. The guitar has earned the place it holds in the world thanks to its versatility, its portability, and its relative ease of use.
The guitar has been present in the history of many civilizations. It’s said that this instrument is based on much older instruments, all of which had strings that could be strummed. There is, for instance, the kithara, a direct relative to the Indian sitar, which also inspired the name of the latter. We can see how the lyre influenced the guitar too. This instrument was the Greeks’ favorite melody maker, which they got from the Persians. Moving forward, some years later, the Arab al’ oud came about, which became known as the lute in Europe. All of these instruments underwent an evolution that inspired many communities and musical traditions until it became the instrument that we know today: the Spanish or classical guitar, the Flamenco guitar, the many kinds of electric guitars, they’re all the same. As we can see, the guitar is an instrument that has crossed continents and epochs. Its wood and its strings do not only speak through the chords they emit, but they also tell a deep, deep story.
There is an Arabic legend that tells us more about the universality of this instrument. It is said that, in the eighth century, a musician called Zyryab from Baghdad arrived to the city of Córdoba, carrying an instrument unknown to the locals. They had string instruments too, but the way that this one was strung was weird: it only had four strings, and was incredibly clear and loud. Zyryab explained to the locals that this instrument was no more than an extension to his body, and that he was able to make it sound the way it did because his instrument would resonate with the very force of his human life. He explained how each string represented each one of the four humors in the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), which allowed for a balanced system. This way, Zyryab was able to bring joy to every broken heart, to light the spark of courage in those who lacked willpower, to soothe those with angry temperaments, and encourage those with a melancholic spirit. Zyryab was the world’s first musical therapist.
Zyryab’s guitar could sing and bring life to people’s bodies, using no more than its four strings. Zyryab thought that finding balance in his body’s humors and creating harmony using the strings of his guitar was what made him a healthy individual. However, a Spanish poet thought that there was still something missing if this instrument was to totally accompany a human life with its music. A fifth element, a spiritual element, was missing. Vicente Espinel added a fifth string to the guitar in the year 1550, so that it could resonate with people’s “soul”--meaning, to add the depth of spirituality to the previously existing harmony of the instrument. This is how the guitar got its almost definitive configuration, before receiving the addition of a sixth string (the lowest one) that would help it become a more versatile instrument.
Next time you hear or play a guitar, think of all the cultures, traditions, languages, timeframes, and even elements of our own lives we can see living in just a few pieces of wood and string. The guitar itself is a witness to the harmony, the creativity, and the diversity that the human spirit can bring into this world. Every chord we play, every story humans have ever told, and the force of our own lives dance together in unison. Let’s all dance and sing along with the guitar!
Give yourself a moment of beauty and inspiration with the next pieces of guitar music.
Nothing is lacking by Parijat
Samba pa ti by Santana (Live at Montreux, 2011)
Share with us the guitar music close to your heart!
Thanks to Adán Aguilar, LUAN 's collaborator, for this joyful article.