Gigging In The Ancient World

While modern ‘electrified’ bands as we know them have only been around for about 80 years, musicians have been entertaining crowds for at least 6,000 years. The first known musical instrument was a simple wood flute that goes all the way back to more than 35,000 years ago. By the time of ancient recorded history the lyre had become a popular for musicians in the ancient city of Uruk and all of Mesopotamia. The Lyre is essentially a small stringed instrument similar to a small harp. There are lots of indications that music was popular and musicians were in quite a bit of demand (and probably well paid by today’s standards).


Musicians could be famous too, in places like Babylon and the cities of Ancient Greece where music was part of just about everything. Being exceptionally talented could get you a prime gig to play for the king, but of course you never want to make a poor song choice when playing for someone who exercises endless power.

Musicians were also in strong demand for armies, to help keep the men entertained and provide encouraging musical accompaniment as they charged into battle. If you were a great player, you could also get a job playing parties and festivals. It wasn’t just the Greeks and Mesopotamians that loved music; evidence of drums, flutes and some stringed instruments are found just about everywhere.

Over time music continued to evolve from a more controlled style to more exploration. This quote from Aristotle from 2,300 years ago illustrates that old men even back complained about how young kids were ruining music:

“Our music was once divided into its proper forms…It was not permitted to exchange the melodic styles of these established forms and others. Knowledge and informed judgment penalized disobedience. There were no whistles, unmusical mob-noises, or clapping for applause. The rule was to listen silently and learn; boys, teachers, and the crowd were kept in order by threat of the stick. . . . But later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent, but were ignorant of the laws of music…Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave. By their works and their theories they infected the masses with the presumption to think themselves adequate judges. So our theatres, once silent, grew vocal, and aristocracy of music gave way to a pernicious theatrocracy…the criterion was not music, but a reputation for promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking.”

Ancient Greek Musicians tended to also be poets and those who played the trumpet could compete in the Olympics for the clarity and power of their sound. Certainly the modern day Olympics would be much more interesting to see people compete for the gold in guitar playing.

Ancient Greek Moshpit


The Lyre was the most popular choice for musicians, it featured resonating tables of wood and strings that were played with a pick.

Hello ladies, let me play a song for you…

Unfortunately there is little recorded music history of ancient Mesopotamia but those who did visit it found that music was commonplace. There are rock carvings that date back over 3,000 years seeming to show a something quite similar to a guitar.

Popular Egyptian Artist from 3,500 years ago playing a guitar like instrument. Possibly Karl Sanders.

Several versions of what we essentially know as a guitar have been around for thousands of years but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the instrument developed a strong popularity with folk and blues musicians singing their hearts out and playing away at it. In the 1930s things really took off with the mass production of electric guitars and swing music and the rest is history.

If there was a modern day guitar Olympics, who do you think would take the gold?


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  • Steve Peterman

    During the 1980s the Rock guitar solo basically WAS an Olympic event. Each hew hotshot shredder was expected to top the current champ. You could almost see the judges holding up the scorecards at the end of, say, White Lion’s “Little Fighter” (9.25 by the way). Thank you EVH!

  • Steve

    Cool article!! The quote above was from Plato’s “Laws”, although Aristotle had a fair amount of commentary on music in “Politics”.