Among musical instruments that can represent the soul of a nation, nothing tops the Spanish guitar. Right up there with the red-dressed flamenco dancers and their castañuelas, the bullfighting of Seville, and the dish paella Valenciana, the guitar is inextricably linked to its sunlit native grounds.

Influenced by immigrants from different cultures and various historical developments, the guitar and its music diversified and evolved over the centuries. The country would go from being a Muslim state to a global empire only to again fall under the reigns of a dictator before finally becoming the democracy it is today — and all the the while, the guitar has been an emblematic instrument for the country.


First Strings Attached

Over 4,500 years ago, Mesopotamians had the lyre, a U-shaped instrument consisting of two arms, a crossbar, and gut strings that run down to a tortoise-shell soundbox. This evolved into the Greek kithara, from which the modern guitar takes its name.

While bearing a similar sounding name, however, the Spanish guitar didn't actually come from Greece. In the year 711, North-African Moors invaded Spain. They captured the Iberian Peninsula — which includes Portugal — and renamed this territory “al-Andalus.”

With them came the al’ud (also spelled as oud): a pear-shaped, fretless, 11-stringed instrument.

While Christian nobility regained power during the Reconquista, two types of citterns (a stringed instrument) developed: the guitarra latina (Latin guitar) and guitarra morisca (Moorish guitar). The latter had multiple soundholes (called boca in Spanish, meaning “mouth”), an oval body for portability, a wider neck (mástil, meaning “mast”), and a crescent-shaped headstock (cabeza).

Lutenists and Luthiers

Muslim rule transformed Spain into a manufacturing house of instruments, which eventually spurred the development of the lute. These pear-shaped devices had four or five strings (cuerdas) and were played with an eagle’s quill. They served for secular performances, and lutenists played in the streets or at town square fiestas.

Luthiers, as guitar makers (guitarreros) of today are still sometimes called, were of great importance. They held the power to shape the socio-cultural world of the era and as such were not only well-respected craftsmen, but also enjoyed a high societal status.

With the transformation of Hispania into the Spanish empire, Columbus, a Spain-sponsored Italian, brought the guitar to Central and South America. There, variations such as the Mexican requinto, the Argentinian guittarón, and the Venezuelan cuatro were developed. This ultimately led to Latin-American music going mainstream on a global scale.

Bridging the Gap

A double-stringed instrument called the vihuela was invented in 15th century Europe. It was tuned like a lute but visually embodied the archetype of the modern-day guitar, and multiple versions existed. The vihuela de mano was played fingerstyle, whereas the vihuela de arco required a bow, and the vihuela de púa was built for pick players.

This Golden Age paved the way for classical guitar music with seminal compositions such as:

Where guitars were previously thought to be only worthy of strumming folk songs out to crowds, they now became the preferred instrument among aristocrats.

Whether this was because of its polyphonic potential or novel design with a mustache-style bridge (puente) and ornamentally carved soundhole rosettes (boquilla), or perhaps for the high-grade woods used in the sound board (tapa) such as rosewood (palisandro), spruce (abeto), mahogany (caoba), tacote, and cedar (cedro), no one knows.

But it is a fact that the guitar went from cobblestone roads to the checkerboard marble floors of cathedrals and concert halls. It brought two opposing social realms together — the commoners and the cultured — an act that would ultimately culminate in an intricately woven cultural web with the guitar as its central node.

The first true guitar was born in the 1550s, a period when the arts were flourishing. The Portuguese brought this Renaissance guitar to Hawaii where it transmuted into the ukulele, a name that means “jumping flea.” Portugal also had its own version of the guitar, a drop-shaped type of cittern, and thus referred to the Spanish guitar by the term viola instead.

Baroque Melancolía

Unfortunately, the vihuela’s fame was short-lived. During the Baroque epoch, the Spanish imperial dream (sueño) fell apart as local revolts and the costly navy (armada) led to economic turmoil. A string instrument fit for strumming, perhaps, seemed better suited to such times of violence and unrest.

The guitar with four double strings morphed into the Baroque five-course double-string Guitarra Española de cinco órdenes. Guitar playing became a popular activity for non-musicians to play outdoors, thereby foreshadowing the flamenco movement. (Note that Spanish speakers do not play the guitar, but rather touch it – tocar la guitarra.)

Important pieces that capture the zeitgeist are Gallardos by Gaspar Sanz and Canario by Francisco Guerau.

Fiery Flamenco

Source: Unsplash

Starting in Medieval times, Indian nomads (known as the Romani) and the Jewish diaspora began leaving important marks on Spanish music. Their riffs and rhythms can still heard in flamenco, a musical style which literally means “from Flanders.”

In contrast to high brow and studiously composed classical music, flamenco is raw, improvised, and full of passion. Its mysterious power, known as duende, perfectly resonates with the expressive and musical spirit of Andalusian people.

The guitar takes a secondary role behind lead singers (cantaors) and is supported in turn by dancers (bailaoras) and hand-clapping percussionists (palmeros). Paco de Lucia revolutionized the art during the 1970s by bringing Peruvian cajón drums (batería) into the repertoire.

Whereas the guitar’s musical grammar serves to convey romantic and poetic themes in classical works, in flamenco it accompanies the cantaor's cries about unfolding personal dramas.

Although criticized as a fancy form of finger plucking or “musica ruidoso” (noisy music), you can listen (escuchar) to players such as Sabicas, Paco Peña, and Moraíto Chico, and decide for yourself whether the music is bonita (beautiful), alegre (joyful), triste (sad), aburrida (boring), pésima (abysmal), or simply terrible.

Despite these differences, flamenco does cross over into classical-music territory in some places. For example, the tremolo technique in Recuerdos de la Alhambra (“Memories of the Alhambra”) by Francisco Tárrega is well-known to gypsy players. And in case you’re wondering how to pronounce that, check out our detailed guide on the basics of learning Spanish.

To give another example, Manuel de Falla, known as the greatest Spanish composer of the 20th century, utilized folklore for The Miller’s Dance in the ballet El sombrero de tres picos (“The Three-Cornered Hat”), including cante jondo-style strumming and rasgueado patterns.

So, like the modern pop group Gipsy Kings, academic musicians may also have some bamboleo (means “swaying”) within them after all.

The Classical Period

After 1750, operas and orchestras emerged. These new musical forms of music placed more emphasis on melody, turned the piano into a key instrument, and put spotlight on lyrics that were inspired by nature and poetry. More formal music notation and the advent of railways during the First Industrial Revolution helped these musical trends to spread across European cities like Vienna, Rome, Saint Petersburg, and Prague.

Architecture and art entered a phase of classicism and strove to revive the ideals of order and cleanliness that had been laid out by the ancient Greeks. They believed that the chic serenity of this new music should float lightly on top of the heavy political realities of the day.

Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado were the most prominent Spanish guitar virtuosos of this time. They wrote seminal pieces such as Gran Solo and Rondo in A minor Opus 2.

Sor was an adamant nationalist, which was reflected in his lyrics... but that all changed when the Bourbons conquered Spain and he accepted a position in the new regime. Based in Paris, he went on to write several operas and symphonies that would dominate the 19th century musical scene.

Ausente de mi dueño When absent from my master
más años vivo, I live longer,
porque sin él for when I'm not with him
se me hacen las horas siglos. the hours turn into centuries.

Ausente de mi dueño by Fernando Sor

Spanish Fidelity

Despite the myriad of melodic instruments that came to be, Spaniards never faltered in their loyalty to the guitar nor doubted the place it held in the world of classical music. To become the "king of instruments" and bring its chords, scales, and cascading arpeggios to concert halls across the country, however, it still needed to undergo one more evolution. The man to make that change came around approximately 1850: Antonio de Torres Jurado.

Considered to be the Stradivarius of the modern guitar, Torres devised an internal ribbed chassis for the guitar that let it achieve an optimal frequency distribution (called fanbracing) and enlarged the body outline (plantilla). He also revised the heel (tacón) in order to integrate the guitar's neck and head block into a single piece of carved wood.

The Tárrega method of fingerplay sprouted around the same time and demanded that each note be played with a specific finger. In music notation today, we still see the PIMA encoding, where P stands for pulgar (thumb), I for indice (index), M for medio (middle), and A for anular (ring).

It was the string-savvy wizardry of guitarist Andres Segovia that further established the guitar's position as a concert instrument, thereby successfully catapulting it into the 20th century. Composer Joaquín Turina even wrote several pieces specifically for Segovia, such as Fandanquillo and Hommage à Tárrega.

Segovia’s purely classical idiom brought out the guitar’s potential for polyphony and sensuous melody — he generally disapproved of mixing styles. And if you want to go on a musical journey through Spain like the maestro did, be sure to join fellow guitar aficionados at the Córdoba International Guitar Festival.

Mosaic Society

Despite Segovia's reservations, a pastiche of musical styles took to prominence. Just as medieval Andalusia had grown to be a patchwork of local Muslims, Jewish people, Romani, and Spaniards, the world was rapidly globalizing in the face of divisive political climates and paradigm-shifting technological advancements. Industrial growth spurred new artistic activity such as the Art Nouveau movement (with Gaudí as its main representative in Spain.)

The classical guitar kept on plucking away at the nation’s heartstrings, however, weaving various social and professional contexts together into a single musical tapestry. Women started to play as well, on smaller sized models. Some popular guitar compositions in the twentieth century include:

In the 1920s, the cobla genre emerged in Catalonia. It entailed a song accompanied by a band and dancers who performed in a circle. Cobla was dominated by love stories, and there's no better toolkit than the Spanish language and guitar for conveying the dialogue between sweethearts.

Spanish is ripe with special vocabulary for expressing the dramatic occurrences of one’s lifetime. Words with ethereal meanings like duende (a heightened state of emotion, often associated with flamenco) and madrugada (the time of night just before dawn) know no direct English translation. For this reason, many Persian hymns and Indian ragas were transcribed to Spanish.

Empieza el llanto The weeping
de la guitarra. of the guitar begins.
Se rompen las copas Wine glasses shatter
de la madrugada. in the dead of night.

La Guitarra by Federico García Lorca

Jazz took off in the rest of Europe with trailblazers such as Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, accompanied by the emblematic "arch-top" guitar. It suffered a slow start in Spain, however, due to the limitations placed on creative expression by the Franco regime. (Pop music did reach the general public — The Beatles, Boney M, and Elvis Presley each had number one hits in Spain.)

In the 1960s, an old Spanish tradition re-entered the limelight: tuna singing. The story goes that, in the 13th century, students used to deliver guitar serenades in exchange for alms. In Modern day Spain, however, they sought no recompense beyond the satisfaction of their prank: they played while dressed in a grillo outfit, which includes a cloak and shoulder band (beca) that identifies the wearer’s university. The custom has since caught on internationally. Several Dutch cities have their own tuna band, including Eindhoven, Tilburg, and The Hague.

After democracy was installed in the 1970s, Spanish culture exploded like a kaleidoscope of musical progress. The psychedelic revolution took place under the influence of Janis Joplin, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix, among others, instilling the public with a subconscious belief that diversity is the spice of life.

For flamenco, this time period proved that a mix with any genre was possible. The band Pata Negra is a prime example, being heavily infused by rock and blues. Camarón’s novelties of the electric bass and sitar can be heard on the album La Leyenda del Tiempo (‘The Legend of Time’). African instincts together with jazz and soul conjoin with flamenco in the work of Concha Buika.

Classical guitar also mingled with contemporary trends. Australian maestro John Williams, for example, joined the Canadian rock band Sky on a concert tour.

After a century of expansion across an expressive range of musical styles (and an increasingly hard-to-please crowd), today’s conservatory players are burdened with the task of mastering an enormous variety of techniques and styles.At the same time, this allows them to develop a unique artistic identity in this fragmented, ideology-less global society.

Despite fluctuating interest, the classical guitar has kept on stirring souls in recital halls all over the world — from Christopher Parkening in the U.S., to Julian Bream in the U.K., to Kazuhito Yamashita in Japan.

Final Note

The history of the guitar is still being written. While the new generation of centennials is growing up in a postmodern, commerce-driven world with increasingly intermixed lingo and musical styles on top of new manufacturing capabilities, there’s no way to know what the future holds for Spain’s main cultural tradition and the instrument that captured its national spirit.

We can only aim to head forward a todo ritmo (at full throttle) and see where the road takes us.

Nicholas Rubright


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