The guitar is one of the most popular – if not the most popular – instruments in existence.
Name just about any rock band, and you will find that 99% of their songs feature the guitar prominently.
But what family of instruments to the guitar belong to? Where did the guitar come from? What types of guitars are there?
We cover all this and more in this in-depth guide on guitars.
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What Is A Guitar? – Quick Answer
The guitar is an instrument belonging to the string / stringed instrument family.
Where instruments like the violin or cello are bowed, the guitar rarely is. The guitar is usually plucked or strummed with one’s thumb and fingers, a guitar pick (or plectrum), or a combination thereof.
The guitar is a fretted musical instrument, and as such, it features frets (or fret wires) on the fingerboard / fretboard. These are thin strips of metal indicating a half note difference in pitch.
A guitar may be equipped with nylon, bronze / phosphor bronze, or steel and nickel strings depending on the guitar, but there are other types of strings available.
There are many types of guitars, with the three most common being classical, acoustic, and electric. These and other types of guitars are covered later in this guide.
What Family Of Instruments Does The Guitar Belong To?
The guitar is considered a part of the string instrument family, more specifically the plucked or strummed variety of string instruments. If you want to take it a level deeper, it’s a fretted, plucked or strummed, string instrument.
Where traditional string instruments like violin, viola, cello, and contrabass are all bowed (although they can be plucked too), guitars are rarely played with a bow and are instead played using one’s fingers, a pick, a combination of the two, or multiple fingerpicks.
Where Does The Guitar Come From?
The origins of the modern guitar are largely unknown. The term “guitar” was originally used to describe a wide array of similar instruments / chordophones, which were developed in Europe during the 12th century. But similar instruments, like the lute, were known to exist long before that.
Guitars as we know them today were being developed in 1850 by Spanish luthiers like Manuel de Soto y Solares and Antonio Torres Jurado.
What Types Of Guitars Are There?
When you start looking into it, there is a vast array of guitar types out there, and history is even having a hard time keeping up with all the new developments. What follows should only be considered an overview, not a comprehensive list of guitar types.
The term “acoustic guitar” itself applies to a wider subcategory of guitars like the 12-string guitar, classical guitar, flamenco guitar, folk guitar, and more.
But when people say “acoustic guitar” they usually mean a six-string spruce or mahogany top dreadnought guitar with a soundhole and black pickguard.
Classical guitars are also known as Spanish guitars. These guitars are typically equipped with nylon strings and also feature wider necks / fingerboars.
Classical guitars are often played with the fingers, but depending on the player, they may be played with a pick as well.
Resonator / Resophonic / Dobro
This type of guitar features a steel, brass, or nickel-silver body combined with wood. Its construction takes after a loudspeaker, with resonator cones mounted in the top.
These instruments were originally created to produce more volume, but that became a moot point with the introduction of electric guitars and amplification. Dobros are now sometimes thought of as slide guitars.
Often used in country or blues music, steel guitars are to be played with a steel bar, also known simply as a “steel.”
There is no fretting involved with a steel guitar. You can use the steel to glide over the string and pluck using your other hand to produce notes.
The steel guitar has a sound quality that has been compared to the human voice.
The acoustic bass guitar looks a lot like a standard acoustic guitar, except that it’s a bit bigger, and instead of six strings, it usually has four.
Its tonal range is also lower, providing the “bottom end” in a band context.
Electric guitars share many things in common with acoustic guitars, but they usually feature much thinner bodies and pickups, which can translate the string vibrations into signals that can be sent through an amplifier.
There are a few major types of electric guitars, including solid, hollow, and semi-hollow body electrics.
12-string guitars (featuring a double course of strings) is not the exclusive domain of acoustic guitars, though, and you can find 12-string electrics too.
There are also double and triple neck guitars, in addition to seven-, eight-, nine-, 10-string electric guitars, and beyond.
Electric basses look a lot like electric guitars, except they are often bigger and only have four strings instead of the standard six. Bass guitars are also pitched an octave lower than guitars, for that bottom end thump.
How Many Strings Does A Guitar Have?
Most guitars have six strings. But as we’ve already seen, there are seven-, eight-, nine-, 10-, 12-string instruments and beyond.
What Is A Guitar Made Of?
Guitars are mostly made of wood. That includes the body, neck, fretboard, headstock, and more. Many types of woods are used in guitar construction, including spruce, maple, mahogany, ash, rosewood, basswood, alder, poplar, and walnut, among others. Just about any wood can be (and often is) used if it’s available in sufficient quantity.
Other parts of the guitar include tuners, frets, the bridge, and in the case of electric guitars (although there are acoustic-electric guitars also), pickups. These parts are typically made of metals and plastic. That goes for the nut (thin strip of material separating the fretboard and headstock – it has string grooves) as well, though sometimes nuts are made of bone.
What Styles Of Music Can You Play With The Guitar?
The classical or Spanish guitar is strongly associated with classical, Latin, and sometimes R&B or jazz styles.
The acoustic guitar is strongly associated with singer-songwriter, folk, blues, country, and bluegrass.
The electric guitar is strongly associated with rock, alternative, punk, metal, funk, and blues.
But the truth is no such hard demarcations exist, and you can play just about whatever you want on any type of guitar! It doesn’t matter whether it’s rock, metal, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, R&B, soul, funk, classical, or otherwise. Any and all styles of music can be and are played on the guitar.
What Artists Are Most Associated With The Guitar?
Once we start down this line of thinking, we could be here for a near eternity. So, I’ll try to limit myself to seven famous guitarists. Ready? Let’s go!
Guitarists like to talk about cliché guitar licks now, but one man was responsible for establishing most of these clichés. It was Chuck Berry.
Chuck was also known as the “Father of Rock and Roll,” and even The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards backed him onstage on many occasions.
In a time when The Beatles were still cranking out tunes like “Penny Lane” and “Lady Madonna,” and The Beach Boys were responding with “Wild Honey” and “Aren’t You Glad,” Jimi Hendrix was busy bringing a whole new meaning to the term “psychedelic music.”
Effortlessly blending blues, R&B, funk, rock and roll, and more, there was no one else like him. Jimi would go onto rewrite the rulebook on guitar, influencing every player that would come after him.
A former Yardbird, guitarist of Cream, “Derek” of Derek and the Dominos, and much, much more, English rock and blues legend “Slowhand” and “God” himself Eric Clapton’s contribution to music is near incalculable.
His solo discography is quite robust too, with 22 albums.
Also a Yardbird alumni, Jimmy Page set out to do something new with the blues in Led Zeppelin. You could even say he was planning his next moves during his tenure with The Yardbirds.
Page’s contribution to riff rock is beyond reproach. “Kashmir.” “Stairway to Heaven.” “Black Dog.” “Whole Lotta Love.” “Immigrant Song. “Rock and Roll.” Enough said.
Eddie Van Halen
Springboarding off Hendrix, Page, and especially Clapton, a new type of guitarist was born. Eddie Van Halen’s tone and approach to the instrument is still emulated today, and there’s no one that has come after him that hasn’t been influenced by him.
From pinch harmonics to whammy antics, from two-hand tapping to tremolo picking, Van Halen iterated and innovated, setting in concrete the template for the modern guitarist.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Blues rock’s association with Texas is firmly established, but there are only a handful of guitarists responsible for upholding that reputation.
The late Stevie Ray Vaughan was an absolute legend, and his aggressive, percussive approach to the guitar still lives on. What he did for blues rock will not be easily forgotten.
British rock band Queen blazed a trail with their valiant rock operas. The band never seemed afraid of trying anything new, however, whether it was blues rock, funk / disco, pop, or otherwise.
Armed with his homemade “Red Special” guitar, Brian May nailed that “in-between” Stratocaster / Les Paul tone for Queen and brought his orchestration minded genius to every riff and solo he played.
Does What You Learn On The Guitar Translate Well To Other Plucked String Instruments?
So, you love the guitar, but you might want to try your hand at other “similar” instruments like bass, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, and maybe even a bouzouki?
From experience I can tell you that bass and ukulele are easiest. Bass does require a different mindset to play, but it’s basically the guitar minus the top two strings. Ukulele is similar because it’s basically the guitar minus the bottom two strings, five frets up.
Banjo, mandolin, and bouzoukis are also learnable, but because they feature different tunings and sometimes require different technique, can take a little longer to figure out.
What Is A Guitar? Final Thoughts
Today, you will be hard pressed to find an instrument as popular as the guitar. It has been – and continues to be – used in every musical style imaginable. It’s a very versatile, expressive instrument capable of a variety of tones and sounds, depending on the player, technique, guitar, amp, effects, and more.