Mysteries in the history of the spanish guitar

The history of the guitar is nothing if not complex. Many pages could be devoted to outlining what we don’t know about this instrument in different lands and areas. The old saying, “What’s hit is history; what’s missed is mystery,” puts the burden of ignorance (“missing”) squarely on the shoulders of us, who do the “hitting.” It is with a certain sense of personal inadequacy and humility that I submit to the readers this first “problem area” in need of the enlightening embrace of disinterested research
The migrating guitar  

Historians now believe that Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries carried with them on their voyages around the world, probably as a modest means of musical diversion, a five-course folk instrument that was like a “poor man’s vihuela.” It was variously called a guitarra española, a Spanish guitar, or a baroque guitar, and was supposedly a strummed, chorded instrument often used to accompany folk songs. It had so-called “re-entrant” tuning, meaning that the fifth (A) and fourth (D) courses were higher in pitch than the third (G). Disregarding for a moment the likelihood of lower-octave doubling of certain courses, the basic tuning looked like this:

In various articles over the past decade, Richard Hudson (among others) has postulated that such seemingly European musical forms as the chaconne and passacaglia were derived from repetitive ethnic sung dances discovered in the New World by Spanish sailors, who evidently mimicked them on their guitars and used them as the basis of obscene Spanish verses which they made up themselves. The forms, or formulas, were brought back to Spain in this fashion. From Spain the catchy songs found their way to Italy, where a higher order of musician (usually a harpsichordist) would take up improvising them. This is apparently how the chaconne and the passacaglia (originally called “ciaccona” and “passacaglio”) came to be the noble art forms we associate with European composers of the 18th century. A few contextual questions remain to be investigated in the light of the above scenario:

Do any traces of the ciaccona and passacaglio dances survive in the ethnic music of the West Indies or South America? 

Was the Spanish guitar of those early days gut-strung? The climate at sea, coupled with the expense of good gut strings and their unsuitability to repeat strumming, would suggest that sailors perhaps favored wire strings, even in the 16th century. What evidence exists in South American guitar-like folk instruments today to support or refute this thesis?

Does the re-entrant tuning of the Hawaiian ukulele trace itself back to the tuning of the baroque (Spanish) guitar? Do its four strings suggest that some early Spanish guitars had only four courses of strings? Or four single strings? And what about the ukulele’s size? Any reflection of the possible Spanish prototypes?

What other aspects of the Spanish guitar with (possibly) wire strings survive in the New World? Where does the modem Hawaiian guitar (“steel guitar”) come from? Is it a cross between instruments of the koto family (oriental) and the guitar (Spanish)?

Why does the American or “Western” guitar invariably have steel strings? Is it because of a Spanish wire-strung guitar precedent?

Did the technology of drawing wire exist in 16th-century Spain? In 17th-century Spain? Or in Italy of the same period? Obviously it must have.

Did the strumming tradition for the five-course Spanish guitar of the early 17th century remain somehow alive for two hundred years among the gypsies of Andalucia, to emerge anew as flamenco guitar music on the six-string (gut strung) Spanish guitar of the mid-l9th century? Has anyone found evidence that flamenco guitars of the last century were ever strung with wire strings? Or rather, was the rise of flamenco strumming a wholly new development made possible by the creation of the “new” Spanish guitar by such makers as Torres, in the mid-l9th century?

There may be no answers to some of these questions, no easy answers to others, and still others may already have been put to rest unknown to this writer. It is clear, however, that credible answers to these questions by and large will only come after some basic research into South American musical traditions is carried out by someone cognizant of the problems and issues, and aware of the various pieces that may interlock in the multi-dimensional puzzle.
he Guitare en Bateau (Ital. Chitarra Ballente) 

Various reference works and encyclopedias suggest that the technology of “drawing” metal wire was invented in (or introduced to) Europe in the 13th century-certainly early enough to have spurred the development of various families of string instruments (medieval psalteries, harps, zithers, and probably prototypes of fingerboard instruments such as citterns). Wire strung keyboard instruments (clavichords, harpsichords) are generally thought to date from the early 15th century.

But what might this have to do with renaissance, baroque, and classic guitars? And their predecessors? It is common knowledge that they normally were not strung with wire, but rather with gut strings. And instruments of this type were extant well before the 13th century!

One of the distinguishing marks of the renaissance, baroque, and classic guitars is their so-called “terminal” bridge, which not only elevates the strings above the fingerboard, but also (being glued in place) holds the strings, anchoring them to the table of the instrument. Needless to say, fragile, lightweight guitars and lutes could not take the tension that steel wires exerted, which is why historically the only kind of guitar “properly” strung with wire was the Italian baroque (17th & 18th century) chitarra battente. Typically it exhibited a cut and cambered (some would say “cranked”) table, like the table of the Neapolitan mandolin, on which a supporting, non-terminal bridge would sit. The strings passed over the bridge and were anchored at the extreme edge of the instrument. Originally an Italian instrument, it came to be known in France as the guitare en bateau (boat guitar, boat-shaped guitar).

How is one to understand the term “boat” guitar? The Italian “battente” evidently means “beating” or “strumming.” The French might well have dubbed the wire-strung chitarra battente a guitare a battre, or worse yet (and Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have loved this), a guitare a gratter! The French, bless their native tongue, don’t seem to have a word for strumming. Not to correct history, but the closest they could have come to describing this new Italian strummed guitar would have been to call it a “guitar to be beaten” or a “guitar to be scratched (scraped)!” But there might be more to the historic modifier (en bateau) than meets the eye.

True, the semi-nautical shape of this instrument suggests the hull of a boat. So a “boat-shaped guitar” is a plausible translation. But perhaps more significant is the notion (offered in my previous article on the migrating guitar) that sailors took guitars like this with them on their voyages overseas. I would contend that these migrating, strummed, folk instruments with wire strings truly were “guitares en bateau”–that they probably needed to have wire strings to hold up in the extreme climactic conditions and heavy humidity aboard ship, and to sustain endless days and nights of strumming.

Several points can be made to support this hypothesis. First the ubiquitous wire-strung American or Western guitar had to have come from Europe in some fashion, unless we are prepared to accept a native American Indian derivation for it (unlikely). The wire-strung “boat” guitar explains it. It obviously came to America- or at least the idea of wire strings did– en bateau.

Second, evidence exists that original gut-strung 5-course baroque guitars were sometimes altered to accept wire strings (perhaps in anticipation of rough use or ocean voyages?). Three such instruments dating from the seventeenth century are described in Tom and Mary Anne Evans’ Guitars from the Renaissance to Rock (New York, 1977):

– by Matteo Sellas, Venice, 1623 (p. 30)
– by Giorgio Sellas, Venice, 1627 (p 31)
– by Giorgio & Michael Sellas, Venice, 1652 (p. 33)

Venice was, as we know a major sea port and trading center. It should not surprise us that many instruments made here sooner or later were converted to wire strings (export models, perhaps?), if not originally built for wire strings.

Several mysteries attend the foregoing scenario. To cite just two:


Chitarra Ballente.
Maker and origin unknown, probably 17 or 18 C., Italy
Collection W.E Hill & Sons.
Chitarra Ballente. 17 C. Italy
Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments,
University of Michigan, Ann Harbor
1 – In general, why did baroque (normal, gut-strung guitars) have double strings for each course? Was it for the sake of sympathetic vibrations and resonance? Or to increase the odds that a concert could be gotten through without both strings of a given course breaking (a purely practical consideration)? It has always been a cherished notion of mine that both factors account for the double strings not only in lutes, but also in baroque guitars. But the second factor (durability) is no longer relevant when wire strings are used (how seldom they break!). And resonance increases with the use of heavier wire strings; so theoretically, at least, the wire-strung chitarra battente did not require double strings. Nor in theory, did similar instruments such as the chitarrone, cittern, tamburitza, and the mandolin. So why did they have them? Purely because of tradition? 

2 – Toward the end of the 18th century, when the baroque era and the baroque guitar had both run their course, one begins to find evidence of guitars originally designed for just single strings. The evidence suggests that this development is closely linked to the birth of the classic, six-string guitar. Did the option of wire stringing contribute to the development of the six-single-string classic guitar? We shall pursue this in the next installment of this column.

In previous articles we have inquired into the rationale for having double strings on the baroque (five course) guitar. It was pointed out that double stringing increased resonance. Gut strings being fragile, doubling them perhaps also insured that a concert could be gotten through with at least one string of a course intact if the other one broke. We also noted that using wire strings removed, at least in theory, the need for doubling strings for the sake of durability. And wire resonates longer than gut, in general. 

Figure No.1
Five string Guitar by Ferdinando Gagliano, Naples 1774

Did the frequent use of wire strings on the chitarra battente (five course baroque guitar) contribute perhaps to the development of the single-string classic guitar? Perhaps… An affirmative answer would depend on how early the single string guitar emerged in Europe, and whether it might have been created originally for wire strings.

The notion that wire strings may have preceded gut strings on the earliest classic guitars seems to be an anathema to classic guitarists, myself included. But I can’t yet rule out the possibility on the basis of the evidence I have seen to this point. And I admit that it is a radical notion, never having been suggested in the literature on the guitar that I have read. Back to the five-course guitar: Had it ever been built to accommodate just five single strings in the 18th century?

The Missing Link?
Let us consider the five string (not five course) instrument by Ferdinando Gagliano, made in Naples in 1774 (Fig. 1). This remarkable transitional guitar was once in the old pre-WWI] Heyer’sches Museum in Cologne, and was included in Georg Kinsky’s descriptive 1912 catalog: Musikhistorisches Museum von Wilhelm Heyer in Coln: Katalog von Georg Kinsky. 2. Band. Zupfund Streichinstrumente. Notable in this instrument are the following features:

1. It appears unaltered, i.e., the tuning head (for five pegs) could not have been truncated from an earlier form that was for ten pegs, for example – a widespread practice around 1800 when the classic guitar first became popular. Also, the five peg bridge appears to be original.

2. The instrument conceivably could have been built for low tension wire strings or for gut strings. One rather suspects the latter, if for no other reason than because Naples, where this guitar was made, was famous for its quality gut strings – not for wire strings. But it is worth recalling that wire-strung “folk” guitars of today have the same kind of pegged bridge. Naples appears to be where that feature originated, at just about the time this guitar was made. And this represented a clear break with the tradition of the old style terminal bridge found on lutes and I baroque guitars, to which one tied gut strings. (One is hard pressed, after all, to tie wire strings in knots around the old style terminal bridge.)

3. There is a new esthetic statement in this guitar. The figure-8-shaped tuning head mirrors the body. Pegs at both their ends hold the strings. The elaborate rose inside the soundhold is gone. It is the work of a luthier who clearly set about doing something “new” his own way – not by modifying the traditional method of building baroque guitars, but by going back to the drawing boards by creating “a better mousetrap” as the expression goes. The ornate bridge and in-lay work still testify to traditional schooling on the part of the luthier, however.

4. The disposition of pegs in the tuning head reveals the maker’s profound theoretical knowledge of functional, as well as esthetic, design (Fig. 2).

Figure No.2
A perfect example of functional design: the head of the five string Gagliano guitar optimizes the disposition of pegs within the available space and suggests the figure-8-shape overall design. Each peg hold has exactly its share of surrounding, supporting wood (shaded area) to support string tension.

Single strings – another hypothesis

The rediscovery of ruins of ancient civilizations in the latter 18th century led to a host of cultural and political developments, the most noteworthy of which was perhaps the young Napoleon Bonaparte’s successful effort (for a time) to re-create an “empire” with himself as “emperor” surrounded by his “imperial” bodyguard. He sent expeditions to the Middle East to bring back artifacts from biblical times (the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, Paris, being one). In short, antiquity was “in” during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries.

Even in the field of music there was a “rediscovery”: the lyre (or lyre-guitar, or “chitarralira” as it was known in Italy – the term “chitarra” further revealing tile root kithara, Greek for lyre). This ancient instrument appears always to have had single strings. It existed in a five-string form in the latter 18th century, as pictured in Agostino Pisani’s Manuale teorico-pratico per lo studio della chitarra (Milan, l9l4), p. 16-17 (Fig. 3) and in a variety of six-string forms in the earlier19th century (Fig. 4).

If one accepts the notion that the lyre of antiquity had one string per note – a perfectly reasonable assumption based on iconographic evidence – then one can safely infer that the “reconstruction” of lyres in the 18th century with single strings was a factor in the evolution of normal guitars from double-string to single-string models.

The fact that such activity occurred in Naples, where Pompeiian excavations were daily taking place and where antiquity was all the rage, only tends to strengthen the notion that a conscious link existed between lyres and guitars in the minds of their makers, a link which assumed single strings as the norm, and which could easily have brought about the abandonment of double strings across the board…or across the “finger-board,” as it were.

Figure No.3
Five string lyre-guitar, 18th c.
Figure No.4
Six string lyre-guitar, 19th
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