Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas

I haven't posted for a long time. But I've been checking on you folks often. So today I decided to get back into it. I have a question for us to ponder.

In part of my work, I restore old guitars. The interesting ones I make detailed plans from thinking about the possibility of making a replica sometime in the future. In making these drawings an interesting phenomena has appeared. A great many of these instruments are asymmetrical in shape. A couple I've carefully studied have left me convinced that the asymmetry in these particular instruments was definitely by design and not accident or due to the ravages of time. A Scherzer 10 string and a Schrammel guitar come to mind where the bass side is definitely larger.

However, many others I'm unsure of. Case in point. Here is drawing of a ca 1836 - 40 Lacote instrument which recently came in. It was originally set up as a seven string in the style of the Nap. Coste seven string Lacote, with the strings attached to a tail piece at the end of the guitar. However, at some point it was converted into a Russian 7 string, probably in the second half 19th century. As it is rather unusual to find such a conversion from the French tradition into the Russian configuration (the Saxon/Viennese being by far the most common), it is an important historical artifact and will be restored to it's Russian Dr. Frankenstein condition. 

During the drawing of the plan from it, I discovered that the centreline of the instrument runs from the centre of the neck join, through the centre of the sound hole and through to the centre of the end wedge as expected. BUT upon closer inspection the lower bout is actually offset ca. 1 cm to the treble side. 

Here is a drawing of the body outline. The solid line is traced around the body looking unto the top. When I flip the template over we get the dotted line showing the asymmetrical nature of the lower bout shape.

Have any of the other builders, restorers on this forum observed this? What are your thoughts concerning intentional or accidental? and if intentional what reasons might have been in the makers mind? I have answers of my own concerning this but I would really like to hear from others.

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I can't say, if it's on purpose but I have seen asymmetry and faults, that could be seen with the naked eye on old guitars that were supposed to be of high quality.

I'm even debating with myself if I should leave the original faults or correct them, while I'm correcting the  faults that developed over time.

If the assymmetry does not affect the sound or playability why 'correct' it? There may have been a reason for the slight asymmetry that we have not figured out yet, or it may not have mattered very much for the historic maker and buyer.

Today's guitar makers (some more than others) seem very occupied with visual perfection. Original 19th century guitars have all sorts of quirks and 'imperfections' but on the whole sound very good.

Well I have an old guitar, that was changed from wooden tuning screws to mechanical.

I'm contemplating changing it back, although it sounds good and is easier to tune. Should I do it ;-)

If I do it, I still have remnants of the old holes but they are placed too far to the right of the middle axis of the head. It would go against all I feel as a craftsman, to make new holes in the wrong place, ooof.  Should I keep that erroneous placement or correct it ;-)

I think the dilemma is real but at the end, it's up to you. It's your guitar :-) 

I really don't think you should read anything particularly significant into these, relatively minor, differences in the profiles of the sides.  If there were some noticeable general trend for all or most historic instruments of this type to exhibit such a feature then perhaps, even though it's minor, perhaps one might consider that there was some conscious planning. But I've seen no such general pattern.

Perhaps this difference in the profiles simply reflects the way in which the instruments were made (ie without a solid mould for the sides) but, in my view more likely,  it suggests a lack of any great concern for having both sides with precisely the same outline. Many historic instrument types, including lutes and the violin family, also often reflect this unconcern - not only in outward shape but also by frequently being fairly crudely finished inside (eg many early harpsichords)!

MH

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