Today, guitars are one of the most popular instruments in the world, dominating popular musical culture and defining most modern music. The oldest depictions of instruments that resemble guitars come from Babylonia and the Hittite Empire circa 1600 BC. Since prehistoric times, humans have built stringed resonator instruments, initially bowl harps and tanburs, made from tortoise shells with bent sticks as necks and gut/silk strings. Around 2500 BC more advanced harps like the intricate 11-stringed instruments found with Sumerian queens began to emerge. The oldest surviving guitar-like instrument belonged to an Egyptian singer named Har-Mose, buried with his tanbur near Queen Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt in 1503 BC. The instrument had three strings and a plectrum attached to the neck by a cord, and was made of cedar wood with a rawhide soundboard.

The modern word guitar comes from the Spanish guitarra, itself a development of Andalusian Arabic from the Moorish occupation of Spain (qitara, sometimes spelt as cithara). Qitara, in turn, developed from the Greek kithara and the Latin cithara. By 1200 records show that there were two instruments called variants of ‘guitar’ in Spain, the guitarra latina and the guitarra moresca. The moresca, associated with the Moors, had a rounded back, a wide fingerboard and several sound holes, while the latina had a single hole and a narrower neck. These designs gradually blended together and by the fourteenth century they were simply guitars.

From the 15th and 16th centuries there are records of vihuela, (viola da mano in Italian), guitar-like instruments that influenced the development of modern guitars. A vihuela has six courses, lute-like tuning in fourths and a sharply cut waist, although it still superficially resembles a guitar. Despite the influences this instrument had on the development of modern guitars, it was largely superseded by the lute and the viol, and the last surviving published vihuela music was written in 1576.