Maybe it’s just me, but it sometimes feels like guitar music is on the wane. Sure, there are plenty of guitar bands out there, guitar sales seem to hold steady, but the synthesizer, midi controller, and digital audio workstation have become the dominant instruments of popular music. Then again, it’s short-sighted to count the guitar out just yet, given the 500-year longevity of its design.
In the 17th century, the Lute Society of Dartmouth notes, the guitar was “cultivated by players and composers within the courts of princes and kings.” The Baroque guitar was very much like the modern six string (or, as often these days, seven and eight string) that we know today, “aside from a difference of tuning,” writes luthier Clive Titmuss. Where “the modern guitar is a baritone/tenor… the baroque is an alto instrument, about the size of a viola.”
The differences in size and pitch change the sustain and articulation. The Baroque guitar's tonal characteristics are much more delicate, percussive, and lute-like. “The greatest music for baroque guitar is difficult to render adequately on the modern guitar because the traditions of the two instruments have diverged so widely: They speak basically the same language, but with a different vocabulary and accent.” Early Renaissance guitars had what is called a “four course” string arrangement, with eight doubled strings. The baroque guitar added one more for a “five course” instrument with nine strings.
Like its Renaissance forebear, lutes, and modern twelve-string guitars today, four of those “courses” were doubled, with pairs of strings tuned to the same note. This essentially made it a five string guitar with the ringing sonority of a mandolin. In the video at the top, Brandon Acker explains what this means in theory and practice. The tuning was fairly close to a modern six-string, but one octave up and missing the low E. The lone high E string was called the chanterelle or “singing string.”
Popular mainly in southern Europe, the Baroque guitar “may well have been used as it frequently is today,” the Lute Society points out: “to provide a simple strummed accompaniment for a singer or small group.” It was first held in contempt by early Spanish composers who preferred the similar vihuela. But the guitar would displace that instrument, as well as the lute, in musical compositions across Spain, Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe.
In the videos above, you can see and hear some fine demonstrations from Acker, who plays period pieces like Suite in D Minor by Robert de Visée, court composer and musician for Louis XIV and Louis XV. Below, see guitarist Stefano Maiorana play a gorgeous Spanish piece.
Given the 400 years that separate the modern guitar from its Baroque ancestor, the resemblances are remarkable, proving that the instrument’s 17th century refiners hit on a design that perfectly complements the human voice, sounds great solo and in groups, and can handle both rhythm and lead. Even if most guitars in the future double as midi-controlling synth instruments, it’s probably safe to say modern music won’t give up this brilliant, time-tested design any time soon.