Art Term Tuesday: Luthier

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

As a visual artist, I have not put much time into learning musical instruments, besides the piano lessons my mother made me go to when I was 12. I can play a mean “Chopsticks” and the first few stanzas of “Fur Elise”, but transitioning from piano keyboard to guitar fretboard has never been a challenge I thought to tackle. I thought to play, one was to press the strings down between the frets, not on the frets! The newest exhibition, Medieval to Metal: The Art and Evolution of the GUITAR, has given me a reason to appreciate the skill of not only the guitarists who make the music, but also the makers of guitars and other stringed instruments known as luthiers.

Luthier initially only referred to the maker of a lute, but as time passed and stringed instruments evolved, so, too, did the word. It now encompasses all those who build or repair stringed instruments that have a neck and a sound box, which includes lutes, guitars, violins, and more. They can create strummed or bowed instruments, and a bow maker is called an archetier. Luthiers do not repair or build pianos, although pianos do have strings. Pianos are constructed and tuned differently than guitars, and, as most of us know, played differently (see above), so the motor skills between instruments don’t translate easily.

We’ve learned that makers of lutes and stringed instruments are called luthiers, but since when were they called that? What came first, the lute, or the luthier? The earliest known stringed instrument with a neck and body is depicted in Egyptian drawings from 3,000 BCE. Of course, this wasn’t a guitar as we know it. This instrument could have been the ancestor of the Persian tanbur, the Indian sitar, the Arabic oud, or the Greek pandura, along with other regional stringed instruments. The Arabic oud was brought to Iberia, or around where modern-day Spain is, around 700AD and from there developed into the guitarra Latina and guitarra morisca, while remaining its own instrument. This is where the word “guitar” seems to originate, around the 13th century.

The shape of the guitar developed into its own in the 15th and 16th centuries, shifting from a round, hollowed out gourd shape to the more familiar waisted box shape. This form developed regionally around Europe and travelled across the Atlantic to the newly colonized Americas. In America over the next 200 years, the guitar grew louder and larger, and many different forms of the guitar developed, including the classical, the steel-string, the harp guitar, the resonator, and electric. With that, we answered everyone’s burning question: it was lute before luthier, but oud before lute!


A master luthier will be visiting FWMoA on October 12th to speak about his work and how he built his company. PRS Guitars, founded by master luthier Paul Reed Smith, was founded over 30 years ago and has become one of the top makers of guitars worldwide. Players of PRS Guitars are among the world’s most talented. Smith holds almost 100 registered and pending trademarks, several copyrights, and nearly two dozen patents. Pick up a ticket on our website and meet a master luthier–now that you know what that is.

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