The Early History of the Guitar in America

An 1819 magazine article noted that the guitar “is in this country little valued, because little known,”(1)While the instrument was perhaps “little known” in 1819, it was far from a new instrument in America: there had been guitars in the New World for nearly as long as there had been a New World. The guitar first came to the Americas with some of the earliest Spanish explorers, soldiers and missionaries. The first guitarists reached the future United States – specifically the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida – somewhere in the mid-1500s.

Early Spanish colonists and missionaries brought the aristocratic, six-course vihuela de mano as well as smaller four-course and five-course guitars to the New World. “Course” refers to the strings assigned to a single note, which in the case of guitars made prior to the late eighteenth century was typically two strings per note, much like the modern 12-string guitar.(2) The vihuela, an instrument with a comparatively large body shaped much like a modern guitar, six courses and tied-on gut frets, had a brief but brilliant life in the highest realms of cultivated music, with some of Spain’s finest composers of sixteenth century writing for it. The instrument continued to be played in the New World long after it had gone out of vogue in Spain.

The four-course guitar was widely played until about the mid-sixteenth century, when the five-course instrument came into favor. These smaller instruments were popular with amateur musicians, especially those who didn’t care to put in the study and practice necessary to master the vihuela or the lute. “Since guitars were invented, those who devote themselves to a study of the vihuela are small in number,” lamented Don Sebastian de Covarrubias Orozco in 1611. “It has been a great loss, as all kinds of music could be played on it: but now the guitar is no more than a cow-bell, so easy to play, especially rasgueado [strumming style], there is not a stable lad who is not a musician on the guitar.”(3) A body of sophisticated music was composed for the instruments – especially the five-course guitar – but most players valued the guitar for simple strummed accompaniments to songs, or for vigorous, rhythmically strummed dance music.

The French were nearly as passionate as the Spanish about the guitar in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and guitarists were among the early French explorers and settlers in America. French colonization of the Americas ranged from Canada and the northern regions of the current United States, down the Mississippi Valley to Louisiana, and throughout the Caribbean. The Ursulines, who arrived in Quebec in 1639, taught guitar and other instruments to Native Americans as well as to French settlers, and the Augustines of the Hôpital Général de Québec taught viol and guitar at the boarding school they ran from 1725 until 1868.(4) In Louisiana and the Caribbean, the guitar was a deeply entrenched in Creole musical culture, and an important part of the vibrant musical life of nineteenth century New Orleans.

Research by Barbara Lambert on the first 100 years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630-1731) found that, contrary to popular perception, early English settlers were highly musical people. The most popular household instrument was the cittern, a plucked string instrument shaped something like a lute, but with a flat back like a guitar and strung with nine or ten wire strings. Gut strung guitars were less common, but were also a part of the musical life of these early settlers.(5)

There are many accounts of American guitar players in the mid-eighteenth century, but these are most likely players of the wire-strung cittern, or “English guitar.” The gut-strung guitar fell out of favor for a few decades in eighteenth century, but the English guitar continued to be a favorite among colonists. Professional musicians occasionally played the English guitar in concert, but principally it was a domestic instrument played by both men and women. Benjamin Franklin played the instrument, and Thomas Jefferson’s family owned several.

By the early nineteenth century, gut strung guitars were almost universally referred to as “Spanish guitars” in advertisements by American instrument makers and teachers. The term “Spanish guitar” had been used in America to describe gut-strung instruments at least as early as 1764, though English versus Spanish was not the only distinction among instruments called guitars during this period. An announcement of a recital by Lewis Vidal in 1774 stated that Mr. Vidal would play “a Sonetta on the Guitarre Italian.” Vidal also advertised himself as a teacher on the “English and French guitars.”(6)Other sources also made reference to Italian and French guitars. How these instruments differed from the Spanish guitar is unclear, and perhaps inconsequential. “Italian” and “French” dropped out of the vocabulary as types of guitars by the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Guitars with single strings – first five, then quickly followed by six – most probably were first built in Italy in the 1770s. They soon spread to France. Members of Thomas Jefferson’s family may have become acquainted with the instrument in Paris, where they lived for several years during the 1780s when Jefferson was the United State’s minister to France. Jefferson bought a guitar in while in Paris for his daughter Maria. This instrument very likely was a gut-strung guitar – and perhaps a six-string guitar – rather than an English guitar. While Jefferson’s principal instrument was the violin, he was familiar enough with the six-string “Spanish” guitar to have made a sketch of the instrument’s fingerboard with notes on how to play it. This was probably produced around 1815 for his granddaughter, Virginia Randolph.(7)

English and Spanish guitars co-existed for several decades – a number of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century music teachers advertised instruction on both instruments. However, the English guitar disappeared from view somewhere around 1825 while the Spanish guitar continued to gain momentum. By about 1830, a rage for the guitar that began in Europe in the 1810s, la guitaromanie, had seized America.


Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford


1 “Harp and Spanish Guitar,” The Villager, a Literary Paper, vol 1, no 5, June, 1819, p. 77

2 Often the highest-pitched course was a single string due to the difficulty of finding two thin gut strings that would stay in tune together.

3 Don Sebastian de Covarrubias Orozco, Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana, o España [1611], quoted in Harvey Turnbull, The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974, p, 41

4 Juliette Bourassa-Trépanier, “Quebec City,” Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, Historica Foundation of Canada, 2007,

5 Doc Rossi, “Citterns and Guitars in Colonial America,”

6 Rossi, pp. 2-3

7 Marie Kimball, Jefferson, the Road to Glory, 1743 to 1776; (New York: Coward-McCann, 1943) 58, Questia, <>.


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