The guitar is among the most widely played instruments internationally, but this instrument is predominantly played in Western musical styles. However, the guitar is not the only instrument that functions in the same way. Many guitar-like instruments have been developed internationally, and all of these instruments are interesting and sound wonderful.
There are several instruments that are very similar to the guitar, including the Ukulele, Banjo, Mandolin, Oud, Theorbo, Renaissance Guitar, Baroque Guitar, and even the Balalaika. These instruments developed alongside or before the guitar and are used widely in their respective regions.
The family of string instruments is vast, and many of them are very similar to the guitar that we know so well. Understanding some of the other guitar-like instruments in the world is helpful for helping guitar players to understand their own instrument better. Let’s explore a few important guitar-like string instruments.
Let’s begin our list of guitar-like instruments with an instrument that most people are familiar with and one that developed alongside the modern guitar that we know today.
The Ukulele is an instrument that can trace its roots back to the same lineage as the modern guitar, as it was developed in Hawaii as a result of Portuguese travelers in the 1500s who brought with them the Renaissance Guitar, which is an early ancestor of the guitar itself.
The Ukulele is a small stringed instrument and is typically made with four individual strings. There are several Ukulele sizes, including Alto, Tenor, Concert, and Baritone sizes, which are all designed to produce the same notes in different octaves.
The most widely used Ukulele variant is the Concert Ukulele, as it is the most comfortable to play and is objectively the best sounding of all the various Ukulele types.
This small stringed instrument has four individual strings tuned G C E A. The strings are made from nylon, similar to those on classical acoustic guitars.
The Mandolin is another string instrument that most people are somewhat familiar with, but despite the familiarity, the Mandolin still holds some surprises for those who have no first-hand experience with the instrument.
This instrument is roughly similar in size to the Ukulele, but the construction, design, and sound of the instrument are completely different. The Mandolin is equipped with four courses of steel strings tuned in unison. This means that the instrument has eight total strings, and each string is tuned in tandem with the second string in very close proximity.
Playing the Mandolin means playing two strings at once, which means that this instrument is typically used for playing chords rather than plucking individual notes, even though it can be used for melodies by more advanced players.
The four courses of strings on the Mandolin are tuned to the notes G D A E, with each string in each course being tuned to the same pitch, respectively. The double-string nature of the Mandolin gives the instrument a highly unique tone and feel and is ideal for folk and bluegrass music.
The Mandolin was developed between the 17th and 18th centuries and is known to have originated somewhere in Italy during this time, being a descendant of the Gittern and the Mandore.
The Banjo is considered to be very similar to the guitar, despite the fact that these instruments look and sound completely different. The similarities between the guitar and the Banjo are few, but the fact that the Banjo is a string instrument that can be strummed and plucked is enough for it to fall into the same family of string instruments as the guitar.
This instrument is typically made in two iterations. The original Banjo design has only four strings, but most modern versions of the instrument are equipped with a fifth string that is the same gauge as the highest string, but it only starts from the fifth fret, making the string only ¾ of the length of the other strings.
This shorter string can be tuned to a much higher pitch than the others due to its length and adds an interesting sonic dimension to the sound of the instrument. The strings of the Banjo are strung over a thin resonation membrane, similar to a drum skin, giving the instrument a unique and distinctive tone.
Five-string Banjos are typically tuned to the notes G D G B D, but it is very common for Banjo players to use a variety of tunings.
The Banjo is thought to originate in North America in the 1700s and has its roots in several string instruments from the same region.
The Oud is a fascinating instrument that is a true remnant of the ancient world. This instrument is among the earliest ancestors of the guitar as we know it today and is the root source of many strummed and plucked instruments throughout the world.
The Oud is a lesser-known instrument in the Western world, but it is still very commonly played and appreciated in Arabic nations, including northwest Africa and the Middle East.
This instrument is ancient. The exact time period of the origin of the Oud is not specifically known, but there are accounts of instruments that date back further than the 9th century.
The Oud is technically a member of the lute family and bears many similarities to a European lute. The instrument has a pear-shaped body with a rounded back, a fretless fingerboard, and a neck that is steeply angled backward to create intense string tension.
The strings used on this instrument are typically strung in courses of two strings and can be made with different numbers of strings and course groupings depending on the region where the instrument is made.
The most common string configuration for the Oud is eleven strings arranged in six courses, typically with a low single string used as a type of drone note that is not typically pressed.
The Theorbo is a shocking instrument when you first see it, but once you become accustomed to its unusual construction, the instrument becomes quite beautiful and awe-inspiring.
The Theorbo is a type of lute that was first designed and built in Italy in the late 16th century. This instrument was designed to be the perfect accompaniment instrument to the human singing voice, particularly for Operatic music.
This instrument is essentially a bass lute with a very long, very long extended range of drone strings that are used to create specific bass notes for the rest of the instrument to harmonize over.
Originally designed with gut strings, the low drone strings that the Theorbo is equipped with had to be made exceedingly long to retain tension, clarity, and playability. Thus, the largest examples of the Theorbo are in excess of 77” in total length, with a scale length of up to 39”.
The Theorbo typically has fourteen strings arranged in courses a is tuned with various tunings and tuning systems depending on where the instrument is built and/or played, but most Theorbo players tune the instrument to the key of G.
This instrument was designed to be a bass instrument and has very few high-pitched strings but can be played in a very wide spectrum of note pitches when played skillfully.
6. Renaissance Guitar
The Renaissance Guitar is the very first instrument that is called by the name ‘guitar.’ It is the earliest known iteration of an instrument that is very similar to the modern guitar that we know today and is a definite ancestor of the modern classical guitar, but this instrument still has many features that separate it from the guitar that we know today.
This instrument is small, around the same size as a larger variety of the Ukulele, and as we have discussed, is the direct root of the Ukulele itself.
The Renaissance Guitar was developed during the 1500s and is equipped with four courses of two strings tuned in unison to the notes G C E A.
This instrument, by nature, is more well-equipped for strumming and sounds best when played with fingernails or with some form of a plectrum. Melodic music is possible on the instrument as well, but strumming chord progressions is where this instrument is at its strongest.
There are several iterations of this guitar, but it is always a fretless instrument with gut frets. The Renaissance Guitar was made in various sizes and had varying numbers of strings, but the most common version of the instrument is the four-course instrument.
7. Baroque Guitar
After discussing the Renaissance Guitar, the next natural step is to examine the Baroque Guitar. This instrument is the next step in the development of the string instrument, and was developed in the 1600s and remained widely popular in European countries until around 1750.
This instrument still has no frets, a friction peg system, and a pegbox and is significantly smaller than the modern guitar, but it has the flat back and hourglass shape of the modern guitar, as well as the same straight headstock or pegbox that was pioneered by the Renaissance Guitar, as opposed to the bent pegbox of the lutes that came before it.
The Baroque guitar was equipped with five courses of two strings, making it a 10-string instrument, but the second string was usually removed to allow the bottom string to be played on its own, making it stand out from the rest of the strings and produce clearer notes.
The tuning for the Baroque Guitar is typically E D G D A, with each string course tuned in unison. This instrument has a strong yet beautiful tone and can be used for a wide range of music and musical styles.
The Balalaika is a very interesting instrument that is like nothing else on this list. It is somewhat similar to a guitar in that it is a stringed instrument that is played horizontally, it is acoustic with a body that is made to be an acoustic resonance chamber, and it can be plucked or strummed.
However, the similarities stop there.
This instrument is varied, as there are several different iterations of the Balalaika. All iterations of the instrument follow the same basic structure: a triangular acoustic body with a sound hole, a long neck with frets for playing notes, and three individual strings.
Two of the strings on the Balalaika are tuned to the exact same pitch, and these strings are typical nylon strings on modern versions of the instrument. The bottom string of the Balalaika is a steel string that is tuned a fourth higher than the two top strings.
The most commonly used version of the instrument is the Prima Balalaika, which is not much larger than a small guitar and is tuned with the notes E E A, with both E strings being tuned to the same pitch.
There are several versions of the Balalaika that are built in different sizes, but they all follow the same tuning structure, only in different pitches. The larger versions of the instrument are typically very low in pitch.
The Balalaika was developed in the 1600s in Russia and became widely used in northern Asia and the Baltic regions, but it is still widely used today and is even used as the exclusive instrument for many musical ensembles from the region.
There are so many different stringed instruments used internationally, and every one of them bears some similarities to the guitar. However, some instruments are far more similar to the guitar that we know than others, and many of these developed alongside the guitar or are an ancestor of the instrument that we know today.
Understanding these string instruments is part of understanding the history and origin of the modern guitar. These instruments are an important part of musical history, and we would not know the guitar as we do today without them. Take the time to explore the different string instruments out there, and you will develop a new appreciation for the modern guitar in all its forms.