The Teaching of the Guitar in England during the 19th Century

The Teaching of the Guitar in England during the 19th Century

Author: Stuart Button

THE SIX-STRINGED GUITAR first appeared in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and composers such as Felice Chabran and Thomas Bolton soon began to write music for it. Chabran is particularly important because, along with Charles Sola and P. Rosquellas, he wrote the earliest six-stringed guitar teaching manuals to be published in England. Chabran compiled three: Complete Instructions for the Spanish Guitar (1795), which was for the five-course instrument; A New Tutor for the Harp and Spanish Guitar (1813); and A Set of Instructions for the Spanish Guitar (1816). The 1813 Method is probably the first six-stringed guitar teaching manual to be printed in England, and the Instructions of 1816 show the growing popularity of the guitar.

Chabran’s contemporaries, Sola and Rosquellas, also recognised this growing popularity. Sola, on his arrival in London in 1816, began to write music for voice and guitar. In 1819 he published his Instructions for the Spanish Guitar, which received a favourable review:

Mr. Sola…has produced a book of instructions which will inculcate nearly all that is necessary for accompaniment, and this has been done clearly and concisely.[1]

Rosquellas also worked in London, and in 1820 published his method: A Complete Tutor for the Spanish Guitar. It represented, like Sola’s and Chabran’s manuals, an attempt to introduce the amateur to the first principles of guitar playing and music.

A comparison between Chabran’s 1795 and 1813 Methods illustrates that while the number of strings had increased the primary objective had not changed.

The tone of the Spanish Guitar is much like the harp, very harmonious, and esteemed the most complete accompaniment to the female voice and is capable of producing all the different beauties of harmony.[2]

This view is also shared by Sola and Rosquellas:

Its tone gives the Spanish Guitar a decided superiority over every other instrument as an accompaniment to the voice.[3]

This conception of the ideal performance by a female amateur accompanying her own voice on a musical instrument was popularised by Elizabeth Appleton in her book, Private Education: or a practical plan for the study of young ladies (1815) where she wrote:

The purpose is to gratify the musical fondness of parents, the unfolding taste of childhood, to avoid the shame of being outdone in fashion, to open another source of amusement and to add to feminine attraction.[4]

Chabran, Sola and Rosquellas were directly influenced by this fashionable ideal, and even Fernando Sor, during his London period between 1815 and 1822, published more music for voice and guitar than for any other medium. Moreover, this ideal also had a major bearing on the manner of holding the instrument, and, to a lesser extent, affected left- and right-hand technique.

Although in the early part of the nineteenth century there was no standardised method of holding the guitar, authors were agreed that the players should feel as comfortable as possible. Chabran’s instructions were typically simple:

Place it across the body with the neck inclined upwards…the best way to hold it in this position is to fling it over the shoulder with a riband to both ends of the instrument, so that the hands may be free, to move up and down without interruption.[5]

Sola also supports the use of the riband and adds:

The guitar is to be held in a reclining position towards the left elbow, and fixed upon the right thigh…the left hand must be placed a little beneath the first fret (or division) that the first finger may be able to support the instrument upon the third joint.[6]

Rosquellas however, suggests that the guitar should rest between the thumb and first finger of the left hand.[7]

Chabran, Sola and Rosquellas, as did later tutors by Alfred Bennett (n.d.) and Carl Eulenstein (1836), sacrificed the correct sitting position in favour of an elegant posture, even though by 1820 some, particularly Franz X. Kinz, favoured supporting the guitar across the left leg.[8] Moreover, Chabran, Sola and Rosquellas did not reflect upon the influence the sitting position had on the bearing of the left and right hands.

As the emphasis was on simple accompaniment by the female amateur, who mainly played in the first three positions, authors of method books found it unnecessary to dwell too much on left-hand technique. The guidance given was usually very brief and simple. Chabran suggested:

The business is to apply to the frets so as to produce a good tone, and this is best done by pressing the finger on the string, a little above the fret, from which the tone is received. Each of these frets is in reality a bridge, which if the string is made to rest firmly must undoubtedly give a sound little inferior to the open notes.[9]

Rosquellas and Sola agree with Chabran on this point, but the latter gives a fuller description:

The left hand must be a little beneath the first fret that the first finger may be able to support the instrument upon the third joint with the thumb behind the first fret; and the four fingers must surround the top of the instrument a little above the strings, the fingers must be pressed upon the strings above the frets, and each fret and finger must correspond; the string must likewise be pressed with points of fingers in order to produce a good sound.[10]

Other techniques of the guitar associated with the left hand, particularly the slur and barré, were only given cursory consideration. Chabran includes musical examples which employ the slur, but he does not refer to the technique in the text. Its use was very simple and only in the descending form. Sola, however, uses both descending and ascending forms and introduces a new nomenclature:

The notes marked thus (a cross in a circle) are to be struck with the right hand, and the following notes are to be slurred with the left hand, by using the fingers in rapid succession.[11]

This new nomenclature was not adopted generally. Rosquellas avoids all discussion of this technique.

Discussion on the petit barré is equally brief. Chabran again does not refer to it, but it does appear in some of his musical examples. Sola adopts the continental approach of introducing the petit barré with positional playing but he does not refer to this technique by name:

Those (notes) marked thus (a dotted semi-circular line) are to be held down with the first finger of the left hand, or any other of the same hand as may be marked.[12]

Rosquellas once again avoids all mention of this crucial aspect of guitar technique.

Chabran, Sola and Rosquellas considered right-hand technique to be more important than that of the left, but opinions differed with regard to its correct use. Chabran advised:

Then apply your right hand near the bridge so that your first, second and third fingers may hang over the 3, 2, 1 strings. Hold up the wrist so that it may, together with the fingers, form a roundness, then straighten the forefinger and draw it across the strings, beginning with the smallest. In the like manner, return the thumb from the thickest, by which the position of the fingers will be discovered.[13]

Similar instructions appeared in Chabran’s 1813 Tutor but were omitted in his 1816 Method. Furthermore, Chabran does not comment on the function or the little finger, a point on which Sola was perfectly clear:

The right hand must form a half circle with the little finger upon the sounding board, between the circular opening of the instrument…and the bridge, the little finger must support the right hand, and give a free motion to the other four fingers, the first, second and third strings must be struck with the thumb, the fourth with the first finger, the fifth with the second, and the sixth with the third, the right arm as well as the little finger must be in a fixed position, the head held upright and the body graceful.[14]

Whether or not to rest the little finger on the soundboard was one of the major controversies of nineteenth century guitar technique. Cox points out that the matter was debated from the period of the earliest five-course guitar treatises to the Baroque treatises for both lute and guitar. The final step in the transition is seen in the six-course guitar methods or the late eighteenth century and in some five-course methods that were amended to include the six-string guitar.[15]

Unamended tutors, like that written by Rosquellas, also reflect this point:

The right arm is thrown over the lower part of the instrument, the little finger resting upon the front, not far from the first string and rather near the bridge than the soundhole.[16]

It was a controversy which lasted, in England, well into the twentieth century, irrespective of the changes taking place on the continent. Even Julian Bream was taught this method when he received guitar tuition from Boris Perrott in the mid 1940s.

The other major right-hand controversy during the nineteenth century centred around the use of fingernails when playing. Chabran, Sola and Rosquellas do not refer to, or give guidance on, this point in their tutors. They do, however, discuss an associated aspect of right hand technique – the execution of arpeggios.

In his 1795 Tutor, Chabran only refers to arpeggios in passing, but in his 1816 Method he included arpeggio exercises in all practical keys. Sola refers to arpeggios as ‘Exercises used on the guitar for the accompaniment of the voice’,[17] a point with which Rosquellas concurred:

The following exercises will show the different methods of accompanying the same melody; the upper line is intended for the voice and may be sung to each of the succeeding variations.[18]

These early guitar tutors, by Chabran, Sola and Rosquellas, with their emphasis on accompaniment, impeded the development of guitar technique amongst English amateurs. This contributed to the single fact that during the first half of the nineteenth century no English guitarist of any real merit emerged. It was once again left to foreign musicians, particularly Giuseppe Anelli and Ferdinand Pelzer (1801–1861) to improve the standard of guitar teaching.

Anelli was an Italian guitarist who came to England in 1817 at the request of Lord Burghersh. After a short stay in London he moved to Clifton and soon established himself as a teacher, opening studios in Bath, Bristol and Cheltenham. He was a popular guitarist and taught Princess Augusta, the Earl of Westmoreland, Lord Burghersh and Marchioness Cavor. His terms for guitar lesson in 1823 were as follows:

At the Singing Academy

Single lesson each pupil £0. 7. 0.
By the Quarter each pupil £6 0. 0.
By the Quarter 2 pupils together, each £4. 4. 0.

At the residence of the pupils

Single lesson each pupil £0. 10. 6.
By the Quarter each pupil £8. 8. 0.
By the Quarter 2 pupils together, each £5. 5. 0.

By ‘the quarter’, Anelli meant twenty-four lessons at the rate of two lessons per week. Once the course had started, attendance was obligatory, and this had to be accepted by the pupil as part of the agreement. He later began teaching classes of up to four pupils and charged them three pounds each.

The teaching material that Anelli used was his own New Method for the Guitar, but regrettably there do not appear to be any extant copies. There is, however, a review of this work which reveals some interesting ideas.

Anelli felt that the essential aspect of guitar playing was the sound produced, and it could be achieved only by proper preparations, dispositions, forms, degrees of pressure of the active parts of the arm, hands, and fingers on the instrument. He was indeed indignant about other contemporary methods:

The acquisition of this very essential and important requisite has been neglected or imperfectly demonstrated, in all methods of books of instruction, for which reason the guitar is indifferently played even by professors, who have attempted execution before having previously formed good sounds; they have made the principal action a subservient one.[19]

Moreover, Anelli tried to draw a balance between sound, technique and musical expression. He placed great and equal emphasis on the bending and bearing of the left arm and hand, also on the position and adaptions of the right arm, hand, and fingers, and their resistances and pressures over the strings, as well as on bringing the action of both hands and fingers to act together in their contrary motions, without disturbing and disrupting their separate operations. This was all contrary to advice given in other early nineteenth-century guitar methods:

Left-hand technique received either fairly thorough treatment or little more than a description relative to support. It was a less controversial subject than right-hand technique. The stronger debate revolved around the production of sound rather than the formation of the melodies and harmonies which were the musical source of that sound. The fundamental reason for any lack of attention to the left hand was that the music was technically quite simple for the most part.[20]

Music may well have been technically simpler, but Anelli did not see this as an excuse for neglecting technique. He tried to integrate sound and musical expression with technical proficiency, rather than to cultivate a few particular features. In this respect he was more forward looking than many of his contemporaries and enabled the English amateur to develop musicianship. He also gave those with musical ability the opportunity to study more advanced guitar music.

Ferdinand Pelzer was born in 1801 at Treves, the ancient capital city of the Rhine Provinces. His father, Jacob Pelzer, was a mathematician and Principal of Treves College, where Ferdinand studied mathematics and music. Initially, Ferdinand Pelzer trained as a singer and keyboard player, but later he turned his attention to the guitar. He also studied the principles governing musical training and education. Pelzer was particularly drawn in his early career to the Platonic ideal, but later he made a study of Pestalozzian principles, which in turn influenced his own teaching.

Pelzer continued his study of the guitar and earned a living by singing, performing and teaching. One of his pupils was Captain George Phillips, an amateur guitarist. Phillips encouraged Pelzer to visit London and offered him his house in Grosvenor Place. Pelzer accepted, and came to London with his wife Marie in 1820. Within a few months he was in popular demand as a guitarist, and had established himself as a teacher. He was so successful that he decided to remain in London.

Pelzer soon became a leading figure in the development of the guitar in England. In 1833 he published and edited the first ever guitar periodical, The Giulianiad, and in the same year produced his first pedagogical work, Instructions for the Spanish Guitar, respectfully dedicated to Captain Phillips. It was at this time, too, that Pelzer became interested in the government’s proposals for a national system of education, and in particular, the cultivation of vocal music in elementary schools.

The low standard of British education in comparison with developments on the continent caused the Government concern, and it was decided to establish a national system of education. In 1839 the education grant was raised to £30,000 and a new Committee for the Council of Education was formed, Dr. James Kay-Shuttleworth being appointed Secretary. Kay-Shuttleworth toured Europe and became convinced that continental teaching methods, particularly those of Pestalozzi, should be introduced into English schools. He also argued that if English musical education was to be revived, then vocal music must be taught in all elementary schools.

Pelzer’s interest in musical education coincided with these events. He also embraced the popular view that any new system of teaching music must meet the universal demand for moral and religious improvement. He argued that music with proper application would regulate feelings and passions, exciting good and subduing evil inclinations. Pelzer believed, too, that this moral agent, as he preferred to call it, could be successfully developed only through choral and congregational singing. This was in direct accord with Kay-Shuttleworth’s belief that vocal music had a ‘civilising influence’[21] and, therefore, warranted an important place in the curriculum. Kay-Shuttleworth also argued that it ‘stimulated feelings of loyalty and patriotism’, and would create an alternative amusement to that of the beer house.[22]

With this in mind, Pelzer published in 1842 his Music for the People, based on his Universal System of Instruction in Music. He claimed that its superiority over other contemporary methods – chiefly those of Mainzer, Wilhem and Hullah – lay in the skill with which it dispensed with technicalities and extraneous matter without injury to essentials; it reduced singing music to the simplest state, rendered its rules as far as possible easy and intelligible to all. In this respect Pelzer was alarmingly successful:

At two o’clock yesterday the lessons were given in the large schoolroom in Exeter Street…In the course of about an hour and a half, nearly five hundred boys thus derived a knowledge of music and singing, which could not otherwise be communicated to even a few individuals in several months. The particular merit of the system is its simplicity, and at the same time, its extension, conveying the largest portion of scientific and practical knowledge, in the shortest possible time, and to the greatest possible number of persons who can be brought together.[23]

Similar reports appeared in newspapers up and down the country:

Mr. Pelzer has this week given gratuitous lessons on his national system of singing and music – a system entirely divested of mysteries in which two useful accomplishments have hitherto been developed. The system is very easy, and simple; and those parts introduced by Mr. Pelzer were gone through very ably before an audience of nearly one thousand. The system promises to be universal.[24]

What then did Pelzer mean by his ‘Universal Principles’? His aim was for everyone, irrespective of social position, to be able to sing their part with ease, as a credit to themselves and a source of satisfaction to others. Each class was taken step by step through each successive rule; mastery of one rule was a stepping stone to the next. A class or pupil encountered no strange terminology or technicalities. Emphasis was on understanding and the development of self-confidence.

It was these ‘Universal Principles’ which Pelzer applied to his guitar teaching and his Instructions for the Spanish Guitar, with considerable success.

In the rules here laid down, the well taught professor will perceive many of those secrets which have been ridiculously withheld from the public, and, until this work made its appearance, the means of acquiring them were entirely unknown in England.

The principal object which the author had in view, and which, we admit, he has fully realised in his pages, he briefly announced thus:

My object is after leading the beginner by the most simple and easy progress to the fingerboard of the instrument, to teach him every position of the fingers of the left hand, and every mode of striking the strings with those of the right, which can be required in the execution of any composition for the guitar… By thus combining all the different modes of fingering, that distinction between them which ought never to have existed, will be done away with, and the pupil will acquire a more thorough knowledge of the instrument, and a greater facility in executing whatever music may be set before him.

This Instruction Book on the whole displays an intimate acquaintance with all the best masters; unfolds what the instrument is really meant for; and exhibits a soundness and ripeness of judgement which will act as an antidote against the nostrums of charlatans. In a word, they are sound practical instructions, based on a legitimate experience of many years, and calculated to effect much good amongst amateurs in this country.[25]

Before pupils began to work from Pelzer’s Instructions they were taken through a set of introductory lessons. At this stage, Pelzer used only crotchet rhythms in two-bar phrases, which he explained as being analogous to the semicolon and full stop.

When introducing note values, Pelzer used the traditional note names, and introduced them in the following order: semibreve, minim, quaver and semiquaver. At the same time, pupils were taught to beat in 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4. Rests were introduced in a similar order and intervals were treated numerically, using very carefully graded exercises.

Pelzer also recognised the importance of developing a good sense of pitch and all his guitar pupils were taught his solfa method. He used the Italian solfa syllables, arguing that they were better for enunciation and articulation. They were introduced in the following order: sol, la, si, doh, re, fah and me.

It was this emphasis on developing musicianship, his simple but comprehensive and carefully graded approach, and his natural ability as a teacher which made Pelzer an important educationalist of his time. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, interest in the guitar began to decline, and most of the foreign musicians had left England, except for Madame Sidney Pratten and Giulio Regondi. Guitar construction, too, diminished and even the most prolific guitar maker in London, Louis Panormo, had emigrated to New Zealand by 1859. There was, however, a new generation of English guitarists beginning to emerge. The most important were Ernest Shand (1868–1924), Giulia Pelzer (d. 1938), George Marchisio (b. 1865), and Herbert J. Ellis (1865–1903).

Ernest Shand first published his Improved Method for the Guitar, op. 100, in 1896. It was well received:

Such a collection of useful study has I venture to believe never before been offered to the public.[26]

It did indeed represent a considerable advance on other English tutors, but it was criticised for being too difficult, particularly in the preliminary exercises. In the second edition (1898), Shand wrote twenty-three new exercises and simplified some of the other material. The second edition also coincided with the publication of Arthur Froane’s book, The Guitar and How To Study It, written especially to accompany Shand’s method. Shand contributed some of the ideas, but neither this book nor his method contributed a new approach to teaching the guitar.

Giulia Pelzer, Marchisio, and Ellis were all three quite successful teachers. Giulia inherited the music business of her sister, Madame Sidney Pratten, and was appointed professor of the guitar at the Guildhall School of Music in 1887. She charged at that time three to six guineas for twelve lessons, depending on the number of pupils. Marchisio was an Italian guitarist and mandolin player who settled in London and opened his first studio at 281 Regent Street in 1892.

His lessons, or single interviews as he preferred to call them, were an hour in length. He would teach beginners, but only on the condition that they followed a course of music theory, as well as the right system of playing the instrument, and he would take them only on an individual basis. If he taught a group, he expected them to have an equal degree of musical knowledge, and he stipulated that they had to be able to read up to the third position.

Herbert J. Ellis also opened a guitar studio in London at 60 Moorgate Street, and published in 1890 his Practical School for the Guitar. It was compiled especially for young people and for school teachers with a limited amount of experience in teaching the instrument. According to Philip Bone, Ellis enjoyed the greatest popularity as a teacher.[27]

Although Shand, Pelzer, Ellis and Marchisio were able to arouse some interest in the guitar, they were unable to change the course of guitar teaching and technique, and although they did produce some capable pupils, most of these fed into the then popular banjo, mandolin and guitar orchestras. Moreover, they were either unaware of, or oblivious to, the changes taking place in guitar technique and construction on the continent and failed to introduce these changes into England. It was not until the mid-1940s with the emergence of the rejuvenated Philharmonic Society of Guitarists, the Manchester Guitar Circle, the Cheltenham Guitar Circle, and the many players, including Julian Bream, who joined these societies, that the approach to guitar teaching and technique began to change.


  1. The Quarterly Music Magazine and Review, vol. vi (1824), p 547.
  2. F. Chabran, Complete Instructions for the Spanish Guitar (London, 1795), p l.
  3. P. Rosquellas, A Complete Tutor for the Spanish Guitar (London, 1820).
  4. E. Appleton, Private Education: or a practical plan for the study of young ladies, London, 1815, pp 135–136.
  5. Chabran, Complete Instructions, p 1.
  6. C. Sola, Instructions for the Spanish Guitar (London, 1819), p 2.
  7. Rosquellas, A Complete Tutor, p 1.
  8. P.W. Cox, Classic Guitar Technique and its Evolution as Reflected in the Method Books (1770–1850) (Michigan, 1981), p 82.
  9. F. Chabran, A New Tutor for the Harp and Spanish Guitar (London, 1813), p 2.
  10. Sola, Instructions, p 2.
  11. Ibid. p 12.
  12. Ibid. p 13.
  13. Chabran, Complete Instructions, p 2.
  14. Sola, Instructions, p 2.
  15. Cox, Classic Guitar Technique, p 118.
  16. Rosquellas, A Complete Tutor, p 1.
  17. Sola, Instructions, p 13.
  18. Rosquellas, A Complete Tutor, p 14.
  19. Deh Con Te (Secondary Source) from Bellini’s opera Norma, transcribed by Anelli for the guitar.
  20. Cox, Classic Guitar Technique, p 83.
  21. B. Rainbow, The Land without Music: musical education in England, 1800–1860 and its continental antecedents (London, 1967), p 119.
  22. Ibid.
  23. The Freeman’s Journal, 1st September, 1842.
  24. The Hampshire Telegraph, 7th November, 1842.
  25. The Giulianiad, London, 1833, p 51.
  26. D. Sinclair, ‘Barnes and Mullins’ Improved Method for the Guitar’, in The Troubadour, Bournemouth, October 1896, iii, p 187.
  27. P.J. Bone, The Guitar and Mandolin (London, 1972), p 107.

Copyright © 1992 by Stuart W. Button

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