At MIM, there are nearly 450 guitars from all over the world. Together, they speak to the instrument’s status as a worldwide favorite, with enormous influence across continents, genres from country to rock, and musical eras from the Baroque period onward. How did this instrument come to be the musical powerhouse it is today? Four examples from MIM’s collection take us on a journey through just a few turning points in the guitar’s development, from its earliest origins in Renaissance Europe to its amplification in the twentieth century.

The world’s oldest guitar

c. 1590 Baroque guitar made by Belchior Dias
The story of the guitar as we know it begins with this instrument, made in Portugal in 1590. The guitar grew out of traditions of curve-waisted stringed instruments, like the Spanish vihuela, in this part of the world. This instrument by Dias, with a different shape and string configuration, is the oldest known example of the fuller-sized instrument that can be termed a guitar (though it is much smaller and lighter than later versions). Typical of the earliest guitars, it has five sets of gut strings in double courses, and frets made from gut knotted around the neck. The guitar has friction tuning pegs and a fingerboard flush with the soundboard.

A “futuristic” model

1823 Louis Panormo guitar
This guitar by London-based maker Louis Panormo may not look futuristic in a sci-fi sense, but the model was at its time a true look ahead to the future of guitar making. In fact, some of its progressive features were not widely adopted until more than a century after it was made. Its advanced style of tall upright fan bracing didn’t become common until the mid-20th century. This was also one of the first guitars to use an elevated fingerboard, which allowed higher string tension, increased volume, and greater structural integrity—a big shift away from earlier designs and toward the modern guitar. While the guitar has gut strings, like others of its time, another forward-looking feature is its pin bridge (strings are held in place with pins rather than tying in a loop, a technique borrowed from harp design). This innovation became important for later guitars that used steel strings.

The Dreadnought

1957 D-28 model by C. F. Martin & Co.
Martin introduced the Dreadnought style—named after a battleship to indicate its power—in the 1930s, and they are still Martin’s largest standard acoustic guitar. This guitar shape came to define the acoustic guitar across many genres. Its size and bracing enabled louder playing in the days before amplified music, when country or bluegrass groups often gathered around a single shared microphone. With a combination of volume, bass response, and clear tone, the model became extremely popular. Today, almost every contemporary maker has a version of the Dreadnought, and it’s been played by artists from Hank Williams to Joni Mitchell to Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. MIM’s D-28 has desirable Brazilian rosewood back and sides (rarely used since 1969) and a custom oversized pickguard.

The electric guitar’s “Big Bang moment”

1934 Rickenbacker A-22 electric Hawaiian guitar
Known as the “Frying Pan,” this was the first commercially successful amplified guitar. MIM curator Rich Walter calls this instrument the electric guitar’s “Big Bang moment,” as amplification opened up a new universe of possibilities for guitar making—including creative use of materials like metal or plastic—since electric guitars produced sound in a fundamentally new way. The “Frying Pan” was made for Hawaiian playing across the lap with a steel bar and crafted with a minimalistic solid cast aluminum body. Of course, Hawaiian music was just the beginning for the electric guitar and its impact on popular music. This early model paved the way for every electric guitar since, including Gibson’s Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster.

Each of these instruments demonstrates innovations whose impact would have been practically unimaginable at the time of their making, but they all helped to shape the guitar and the music industry as we know it today.

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