The History of the Spanish Guitar

The origin of the Spanish guitar is still disputed. The Spanish word for guitar, “guitarra”, entered the language through Arabic. But it turns out, even the Arabic qitar might have its origins in the greek kithára. So what are the real ancestors of the Spanish Guitar?

Evidence shows that Arabs have a similar string instrument, whose name in Northern Africa resembles guitarra. But musicologists say the differences between the two suggest they belong to different families. In turn, they are more confident about the Spanish guitar’s link to the zither, whose origins can be traced back to Asia.

Zither, known as kithára in Greek, would have entered Europe through the routes established with Persian empire and the territories of modern-day Turkey and Syria. This instrument was then spread by the Roman Empire across the continent. Historians estimate it entered Spain in 400 B.C.

Over the next few centuries, this instrument began to change. And in 14th century Spain, there were already two kinds of guitars. One of them was called “Guitarra Latina” (en: Latin Guitar), which eventually became Spanish guitar. Over the next two centuries, its popularity rose across Spain, France and Italy.

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The Modern Construction of a Spanish Guitar

Most Spanish Guitars have designs inspired by Antonio Torres Jurado, a 19th century guitar maker. Fun fact: back in the day, there was no distinction between the "Spanish guitar" and a "flamenco guitar".

However, the construction of the guitars has evolved a lot since! You might be surprised to learn that the first strings were made out of tripe, for example. Today (thankfully!) strings are made of nylon. Modern guitars are made from several types of dry wood, such as Brazilian Rosewood, East Indian Rosewood and even Maple.

Difference between classic guitars and Flamenco guitars

Flamenco guitars use almost exclusively Spanish Cypress. They also have less internal bracing, so as to keep the top more resonant. Together, these characteristics are essential to obtain the percussive sound Flamenco is known for. If Flamenco players used a classic guitar, they wouldn't respond as quickly or produce a sound as bright, even if using the same playing techniques.

Celebrated Spanish Guitar performers

The majority of the music for Spanish guitar was written by guitarists themselves. Thus, it is just meant for guitar, without the help of any other instruments. Composers come from all around the world: Spain gave us Federico Moreno Torroba and Joaquín Rodrigo, Italy gave us Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Mexico, Manuel Ponce. Other composers come from countries in Latin America, Britain, Germany and even Australia.

Paco de Lucía, a Spanish guitarist born in Algeciras, Andalusia, is the most well-known performer of the genre outside Spain. Here’s a video of Paco playing his own composition Entre Dos Aguas [Between Two Waters]. Enjoy:

The impact of Spanish Guitar in modern Music

The Spanish Guitar had a profound impact on modern music, even within genres apparently non-related to Hispanic music. As a result, a lot of composers have honoured it in their songs: Gene Clark (in 1971), Gary Moore (1978) and Toni Braxton (2000) have all released songs named "Spanish Guitar". But, perhaps, the most emotional testimony to the influence of Spanish guitar was given by Leonard Cohen during his Principe de Astúrias prize acceptance speech:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUKu2-QEspQ