What Guitars Were Like 400 Years Ago: An Introduction to the 9 String Baroque Guitar

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Gui­tar: The Com­plete Three-Part Doc­u­men­tary

The His­to­ry of the Gui­tar & Gui­tar Leg­ends: From 1929 to 1979

The Ency­clo­pe­dia Of Alter­nate Gui­tar Tun­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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