The Origin Story of Your Favorite Instrument

The Origin Story of Your Favorite Instrument

Here at Hard Rock Hotels, we have built our reputation around music and believe that there are few things better than taking in a concert with your friends, enjoying live music and dinner, or just messing around with an instrument or two. Speaking of instruments, do you know the origin story of your favorite? You might be surprised to learn how today’s instruments came to be!

Guitars

Man playing guitar.

Guitars have long reigned as the core of rock and roll, but they date back much further than Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty. It’s unclear where guitars first originated, but they date back to over 4000 years ago! There are Egyptian wall paintings from 1420 BCE that depict individuals playing similar instruments, and it is believed that today’s modern day guitar is part of the “tanbar” family. A tanbar is a long-necked, stringed instrument with an egg-shaped body. Throughout the world, this instrument has presented itself as lutes in Spain, kitharas in Greece, and setars in the Middle East.

The modern classical guitar that we know and love dates back to around 1850, when guitar-maker Antonio Torres gave the instrument a fuller body to improve volume, tone, and projection. Interestingly, this shape hasn’t changed much in over two decades. Steel string and electric guitars came later, with most credit going to Lloyd Loar of Gibson Guitars, who coined the “jazz guitar.”

Want to experience the beauty of this versatile instrument? Check out Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty, or Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.

Drums

Man playing the drums.

Drums are one of the oldest musical instruments in existence and date back to essentially when humans first learned how to keep rhythm. They are relatively easy to make, so the first drums were as simple as a membrane (such as an animal hide) stretched over a shell. Indigenous Mesopotamians, Peruvians, and American Indians are all known for their drums made out of gourds or wood. Often times, these first drums were used in religious celebrations.

Originally, every percussion instrument was played by a different person, but the need to consolidate these instruments led to the drum sets we recognize today. In 1909, Ludwig & Ludwig Co. of Chicago introduced the first foot-operated bass drum to free up marching band members’ hands. In the 1930s, today’s arrangement of a bass drum, snare, raised tom-tom and floor tom-tom gained popularity.

Some of the best drum solos of all time have been played by Blink-182’s Travis Barker, Guns N’ Roses’ Steven Adler, and The White Stripes’ Meg White.

Tambourines

Tambourine.

The advent of tambourines rode on the tail of drums, as the first tambourines were actually shells of a drum frame with bells and rattles attached. They originated in the Middle East and in most cultures, women were the primary tambourine players. Tambourines were used in processions, festivities, funerals, and other cultural gatherings. By the Middle Ages, tambourines were common all over Europe and were popular with traveling entertainers. Tambourines are found in Europe, China, Peru, Greenland, Asia, and more.

Tambourines are more popular in today’s music than you might think. Check out Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” or Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet (and of course, Bob Dylan has a whole song dedicated to Mr. Tambourine Man)

Violins

Violin.

You can thank the Italians for pizza, spaghetti, and – violins! The violin, viola, and cello date back to the early 16th century, where Italians perfected a three-stringed instrument similar to today’s string choices. Violins drew their inspiration from vielles, rebecs, and lira da braccios and continue to evolve for the needs of classical musicians around the world. There are paintings, such as Madonna of the Orange Tree, that clearly depict violins being used in the 1500s.

While violins are usually seen in classical pieces like Bach’s Chaconne, they can also be found in rock hits, including Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony.

Harmonicas

Harmonicas.

Today’s harmonica is based off of an ancient Chinese instrument called the Sheng. The instrument was then more finely-tuned (literally) in Europe and even today, Germany is home to the best known harmonica company, Hohner. Mattias Hohner brought the harmonica to the US in the 19th century and it was an instant favorite because of its portability and affordability.

The harmonica has become a key part of many blues, folk, and rock hits. Some of our favorites are Billy Joel’s Piano Man, Roadhouse Blues by The Doors, and Heart of Gold by Neil Young.

Many of our favorite instruments have been around for centuries and whether they continue to evolve or have stayed the same throughout the years, they all play an important role in the world of today’s music. Regardless of your personal taste, each of these is versatile enough to transcend across genres – it’s just a matter of picking the one that best helps you tell your story through music. 

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