Stalking the oldest six-string guitar

Author’s note: This is the original English version of an article that I wrote in 1972, with a brief addendum dated December 1974. It was published only in Japanese, in Gendai Guitar 9, no. 3 (1975): 64-71. After receiving a number of requests for the English version of this text, I finally realized (in January 1999) that it could be provided, along with its accompanying images, as an HTML-encoded document on an Internet server. I offer this transcript simply as a service to those who may wish to know the state of my thinking back in 1975, recognizing that this article was cited in the “Guitar” bibliography of The New Grove Dictionary of Music (1980) and The NewGrove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1984). Please bear in mind that this article itself is a piece of history now. More recent research by a number of scholars, myself included, has revealed a complex scenario indeed, involving a number of latter 18th-century guitars which (a) may (or may not) be unaltered and dateable originals, and (b) seem to predate those mentioned in this article. The more the scholarly community can authenticate such instruments, in particular their unaltered state (and hence their credibility as historical sources), the more complete our picture will be of the “origin of the species” which we commonly call the classic guitar.

By Thomas F. Heck

Searching for the earliest surviving classic (six-string) guitar is not unlike seeking the origins of the violin. We recall on the one hand the centuries that the forerunners of these instruments existed, and we observe on the other hand early specimens of the respective instruments. But the transition from the forerunner to the real thing is a twilight zone in both cases. It may be helpful to impose some kind of clarity on the period in question with the help of definitions. What are the essential characteristics of the classic guitar?

From double strings to single strings

A distinctive feature of the classic guitar is its single strings, offering the performer an easier means to execute trills and other ornaments than he would have with the double-string, five-course “baroque” guitar. A historical precedent for this simplification can be found with the lute in its later stages, around the years 1590-1650, when it ceased having double stringing on the second highest course. In this way both the highest (“canto” or “chanterelle”) and the adjacent course (sometimes called the “sottana”) came to possess single gut strings. The musical requirement of clean articulation undoubtedly caused lutenists to favor this simpler stringing, thus initiating a line of development which the classic guitar would later carry to an appropriate conclusion. The guitar was apparently the first plucked, fretted, Western fingerboard instrument to acquire single strings throughout.

The earliest unaltered guitar strung with single strings which has come to this writer’s attention — and I emphasize unaltered because of the ease with which double strings can later be converted to single (See Figure 1.) — was catalogued by the late Georg Kinsky in his Musikhistorisches Museum von Wilhelm Heyer in Cöln – Katalog (Cologne, 1912).


Figure 1
Ten-string, five-course baroque guitars are frequently found
truncated and modernized in the manner illustrated here. The
ornamentation along the edge of the tuning head usually reveals
the original location of the pegs, and suggests where the cut
would have been made.


It was a Neapolitan guitar (Catalogue no. 554), identified by the label “Ferdinandus Gagliano Filius Nicolai fecit Neap 1774,” and was in the Heyer museum in Cologne before that museum was dispersed. (See Figure 2)


Figure 2
The single strings on this 5-course prototype of the
classic guitar make it a “missing link” in the transition
from baroque to classic configuration.


This unique Ferdinando Gagliano guitar shares some characteristics with the earlier baroque guitar: (1) It has five courses, (2) it has the ornamental “mustache” bridge of its earlier cousins, and (3) it has a fingerboard flush with the table. What makes it more akin to the classic guitar, however, are: (1) its single strings, (2) its inlaid brass frets on the neck as well as the table, (3) its relatively long neck in relation to string length, the eleventh fret marking the intersection of neck and body, (4) its pegged, terminal bridge with bridge blade (earlier guitars and lutes always had strings tied through the bridge), and (5) the distinctive figure-8-shaped tuning head. Only originally-designed tuning heads like this one could not have been truncated via the operation suggested in Figure 1. Mirroring the contours of the guitar’s body, this figure-8-style tuning head was destined to become the standard model for classic guitars built in Italy and Austria during the period 1780-c.1830.

One could reasonably consider the aforementioned Gagliano guitar as a “missing link” between the baroque and the classic guitar. The only essential classic feature it lacks is the sixth string. The only essential baroque feature it lacks is double stringing.

The guitar’s sixth string

There are many published catalogues and “illustrated histories” of the guitar purporting to picture “six-string guitars” datable from around 1650 forward. But the careful observer must be prepared to discount all captions stating that guitars with tied gut frets and other baroque characteristics (tuning heads as pictured in Figure 1, elaborate multi-level rosettes, etc.) were originally built for six strings. Almost all of the “museum” guitars appearing as glossy prints in the currently available books and magazines have received considerable restoration, usually along the lines of later six-string guitars. The trained eye can easily detect instances where a new pegged bridge with six holes has been fitted here, frets have been inlaid there, or even a modern figure-8-shaped tuning head has been grafted onto an older body in another case. Finding older labels inside newer guitars (and violins) also is not uncommon.

There is an important aesthetic difference between the ornate baroque guitars of the 17th and 18th centuries and the classic guitars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the risk of sounding subjective, I would propose that the former were, like children, very often to be seen and not heard. Witness how the painters Rombouts (1597-1637), Ryckaert (1612-1661), Vermeer (1632-1675), Watteau (1684-1721), and even Fragonard (1732-1806) have, along with their contemporaries, passed down to us graceful portraits of damsels and courtesans literally displaying their hands on these richly ornate guitars. Not surprisingly, surviving baroque guitars are now classified in many municipal art galleries as objects of decorative art.

The eminent baroque guitarist/composer Corbetta (c.1615-1681) would leap from his grave to protest the implication that the five-course guitar was not a respectable musical instrument in its own right. Rather than offend his memory, let us concentrate on certain aspects of the classic guitar which were generally not shared by the earlier instrument. While the baroque guitar was made by artisans, such as luthiers, to  appeal to the eye and ear (frequently in that order), the classic guitar was normally made by violin makers, to sound well. How utilitarian! It was built with music-making, and only music-making, in mind. Hence few early classic guitars have been preserved for their visual, decorative value. Practically none can be seen in art museums today.

The earliest classic guitar: An Italian hypothesis

Probably the earliest surviving, datable, unaltered six-string guitar is now stored in a dusty room annexed to a musical instrument collection in a city that has been spared the rigors of recent wars. It may be in the United States, in Sweden, in a remote corner of continental Europe, or even in South America. It is most likely in an advanced state of disintegration.

At present the earliest unaltered classic guitar examined by this writer or otherwise datable with certainty is in Stockholm, Musikhistoriska Museet annex, uncatalogued (as of 1968), with the label “Gio. Battista Fabricatore fecit An 1791 in S.M. del Ajuto, Napoli.” (See Figure 3)


Figure 3
An early unaltered six-string guitar by G. B. Fabricatore, Naples, 1791.
The folding ruler appearing here and in subsequent photographs indicates
that these are working photographs of the author. Characteristics: Flush, 11-fret
fingerboard. 62.8 cm. string length. Table widths: greater 29.4, lesser 23.7,
waist 17.8. Depth of body: 6.4 to 9.5 cm.


Mozart, who died the year this instrument was made, probably never saw a six-string guitar. He also probably never heard one played well, so late was the development of this classic instrument, relatively speaking. He certainly did not write any music for guitar, although later editors have arranged Mozart for guitar in some cases.

Judging from the evidence unearthed so far, the first classic guitars were probably made in Naples in the 1770s or 80s. Such instruments can readily be found dating from the 1790s with such labels as Gagliano, Fabricatore, Valenzano, Trotto, and Vinaccia, to cite a few Neapolitan makers. The original classic guitars, granting they were first made in Italy in the last decades of the 18th century, were soon being faithfully copied in Vienna and elsewhere in the early 19th century. Consider the Johann Georg Stauffer guitar of c.1820 (Figure 4, right) in relation to the Fabricatore guitar of 1811 (Figure 4, left).


Figure 4
Both the Fabricatore guitar (left) and the Johann Georg Stauffer guitar
(right) are in the Sammlung alter Musikinstrumente, Vienna, catalogue
numbers 488 and GdM375 respectively. Characteristics: Flush, 11-fret
fingerboards, string length 64 cm. for both. The Stauffer (of c.1820)
is patterned after the more ornate Italian instrument, dated 1811.


The Italian instrument is slightly ornamented with mother of pearl borders; the Austrian guitar is best described as clean and functional throughout. It is obviously patterned on the Italian prototype. A remarkably faithful engraving of the type of guitars illustrated in Figure 4 is found in the frontispiece to Matiegka’s Sonate, Op. 15, published in Vienna by Artaria (plate number 2013), and first advertised in the Wiener Zeitung no. 63 of 3 August 1808 (Figure 5).


Figure 5
Drawing (datable 1808) of the type of classic guitar seen in Figures
3 and 4. Note the detail of the bridge, the 11-fret fingerboard, and
the shoulder strap stylized into a musical staff. This type of note-
finder was generically called a “Scala per chitarra” or “Scala.”


The guitars illustrated in Figures 3 to 5 cover the years 1791 through 1820, that is, the period during which Giuliani and a host of other Italian and Viennese guitarists generated a considerable body of classic music (sonatas, rondos, variations, duets, concertos) for this little instrument. Its characteristics were:

1. A fingerboard flush with the table, slightly less than an octave in length, generally with 11 frets supported by the neck and several more inlaid on the body (table), making a total of 14-18 frets.
2. Six single strings with a speaking length of 59-64 cm.
3. A pegged bridge with a bridge blade.
4. A pine or spruce table with maple sides and back, both reminiscent of violin construction.
5. A fairly flat back, made either of one sheet of wood or two matched halves, and
6. The distinctive figure-8-shaped tuning head.

A seventh feature of all guitars from this era was cross-grain bracing beneath the table. This was a definite carryover from the lute, and assured a relatively loud but rapidly decaying sound. Unfortunately, it also resulted in non-uniform swelling and contracting of the wood fibers with changes in humidity, thereby making the likelihood of cracking and deterioration with the changing seasons very great. Figure 6 shows the bracing beneath the table of a Stauffer guitar in just a state of disintegration.

Figure 6
Cross-grain bracing beneath the table of a Stauffer guitar
of about 1836. Stockholm, Musikhistoriska Museet, No. 29.

The standardization of early classic guitar design

The remarkable thing about the Austro-Italian classic guitar is that it should have retained its basic proportions for at least four decades — the precise period when a vast quantity of classic guitar music was published in Milan, Vienna, Munich, Leipzig and Paris. This was a generation of happy accommodation between an instrument, its music and its virtuoso composers. Musical notation for the guitar had also reached a level of stability exemplified by the remarkably clean, uncluttered first editions of a Giuliani or a Sor, composers who were active during this period.

There was a large and interested public to play these guitars, and in turn the guitars were made all over Europe in sizes to suit the customer. One could purchase Meistergitarren, which tended to be larger, relatively speaking, or Damengitarren, which were smaller and had thinner than average necks. The terz-guitar was also available in the standard proportions of the Austro-Italian model, and (considering the lack of a standard size for the classic guitar) would have been distinguishable only by its tuning a minor third higher than the normal guitar.

If the period 1790-1830 was marked by a remarkable consistency in the design of classic guitars, it was by no means a monolithic age in regard to size. Indeed, the large Torres-model guitars which have been manufactured unceasingly in the twentieth century in a standard concert size may well indicate that modern guitar manufacturers and marketers have lost the gentle art of building to suit the customer. A Torres guitar, with a 65 cm. string length, would have been regarded by the first generation of classic guitar teachers as unsuitable for most of their students because of its large size, issues of sound volume aside.

Cleveland, Ohio
June, 1972

(Addendum of December 1974)

The author of the most recent history of the guitar, Harvey Turnbull of England, has written, in The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day (New York, 1974), that the guitar with six single strings is probably of French or Italian origin, definitely not of Spanish origin (p. 64). I agree with him and now recognize the importance of France especially in the development of staff notation for guitar. Although my own research has turned up evidence favoring the Italian origin of the instrument, I do not consider the matter closed. The writings of earlier guitar historians, from J. A. Otto (1828) through S. N. Contreras (1927) and beyond, are generally not reliable. I have deliberately avoided referring to them in a study of this nature.

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