From the fado music that trickles from bars in Lisbon’s Alfama quarter, to the sharp and brilliant tones of Andalusian flamenco, the guitar sits right at the heart of traditional Mediterranean folk culture. Likewise, Jamaican reggae, American blues, jazz, rock and many classical pieces are just as reliant on the guitar.
But can we trace the origins of this iconic and versatile instrument, or have they been lost in the mists of time? Luckily, our musical ancestors have left us both linguistic and physical evidence that, although not always conclusive, suggests that the guitar or something very much like it, has been around for a very long time indeed.

Calling The Tune – Where Does The Name ‘Guitar’ Come From? 

Most people agree that the word ‘guitar’ made its way into the English language relatively recently, crossing over from the Spanish word ‘guitarra’ and starting to appear in the early 1600s. Despite this confident reference, the guitar itself was still evolving and it takes another 250 years before Antonio Torres Jurado produced the epitome of the modern classical guitar, back in 1859.
We also need to consider that the term ‘chitara’ was in use in ancient Rome. And, prior to this, we can trace the ancient Sanskrit word ‘tar’ (meaning ‘string’) through a diverse selection of instruments from the Indian sitar, through the dotar (from Turkestan) and eventually the quitarra, an early Spanish form of guitar with 4 strings. A similar etymological journey from east to west is suggested by the Old Persian word ‘chartar’ that translates, simply, as ‘four strings’; suggesting that the guitar’s ancestors have been making their way westwards to Europe for many centuries.


We’ve Been Strumming For Millennia
The physical evidence points to a very similar journey. It’s pretty clear that early stringed instruments like bowl harps and tanburs, although undeniably ancient, are, in principle, mightily close to our notions of the guitar. Since prehistory people have made bowl harps using tortoise shells and calabashes (a hollowed out gourd) as resonators. Add a fashioned stick for a neck and one or two strings made of gut or silk and you’ve something to make music with: something that, although primitive, isn’t a million miles away from a guitar.


Strike Up The Band!
Best of all, you only had to find some like-minded friends, adept at blowing or bashing things, and ‘hey presto’ you had yourself a band! Interestingly enough, there are Egyptian tomb paintings depicting exactly such activity - and these paintings date back 4,000 years!
But it wasn’t just the Egyptians that liked to get together and make a little music. The world's museums contain many such ‘harps’ from the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations. Similar artefacts are found in the ruins of the ancient Persian and Mesopotamian cultures too.
If you’re cruising to Greece and Turkey you’ll notice contemporary folk musicians playing the Turkish saz and the bouzouki, instruments that have changed very little over the centuries and provide an obvious link with the guitar.


So, Where Is The World’s Oldest ‘Guitar’
If you’re planning a cruise that will take in an excursion to Egypt’s pyramids, than you might also want to run along to the Cairo Museum where, amongst the stunning treasures of the ancient Egyptians, you’ll also find the world’s oldest preserved guitar. Astonishingly, the guitar is 3,500 years old and, just as astonishingly, we know that it belonged to a singer named Har-Mose.


Is A Guitar A Good Cruise Souvenir?
Whether you play or whether you’re thinking of learning or even if you’re looking for something to hang on the wall, a guitar is a great souvenir. If you’re cruising to the Mediterranean then ports like Barcelona, Cadiz and Malaga are great places to buy a guitar. But don’t forget Lisbon where shops like Salão Musical de Lisboa have a massive selection of instruments including, of course, classic, fado guitars.


Of course, if you’d rather listen than play, you’ll find plenty of live music and top class entertainment aboard MSC Magnifica and all the ships in our fleet.