Early Guitars and Vihuela

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a cursory inspection of makers' websites and historical instruments reveals that the string length for baroque guitars appears to vary from some 63 cm to 74 cm. 

were these all played as E guitars? or were some shorter ones in F and perhaps the longer ones in D? Would a D tuning be of much use? 

i realise that 63-66 cm is close enough to the modern 'classical' guitar for players to switch with minimal difficulty, but how do people feel about the larger 68-74 cm instruments? are they uncomfortable for the left hand?

is there a preference for large instrument when it comes to continuo playing, and would a 71-74 cm instrument sound appreciably different from a 65-69 cm instrument? 

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There seem to be two different issues here -  the pitch of original instruments and the pitch of instruments constructed today.

As far as the past is concerned we can't be certain what pitch instruments were tuned to.   Sources of baroque guitar music which include staff notation do tend to indicate e' for the first course but what this actually sounded at may have varied quite a bit.   It is complicated by the fact that although sources of vocal music appear to set out the music at a specific pitch again this was  a nominal rather that set pitch.   Different instruments may have been used for continuo playing - but we don't know much about the pitch which they might have been tuned to.

Today players tend to do what is practical but I think it is quite usual to tune at least a semi-tone below modern concert pitch - because there is historical support for this and this pitch is used widely by other early music players. 


Yes, i'd forgotten about variable A. 

i read http://www.nrinstruments.demon.co.uk/BaG.html which says "The 'chitarra grande' was tuned a tone lower than the chitarra mezzano (the Strad in the Ashmolean is one)". 

does anyone have any experience playing baroque guitars with string lengths in the upper 60s or even 70s? are they uncomfortable to pay, or is it merely a matter of getting accustomed to them?

The sources which give instructions for tuning guitars of different sizes to play in consort are inconsistent.   Colonna, Foscarini (who copied Colonna's instructions) and Costanza imply that the largest guitar is tuned a tone below the standard one;  the smaller guitar is tuned a perfect 4th higher.   However Corbetta's instructions in his 1639 book, (which were copied by Calvi) imply that the largest guitar is a perfect 4th below the standard tuning - which would call for quite a large instrument.   I have never tried playing a larger one - mine is actually smaller than average - but still with the first course tuned to e' or d'.   But string lengths on large lutes can be quite long so presumably a longer than average string length on the guitar might be manageable by some players.

It seems to me that in Italy in the early 1600s five course guitars often (but not always) had fairly short string lengths ie in the low 60s cm, but by the end of the century longer lengths became more common throughout guitar playing Europe (ie high 60s).  I can find no music for 5 course guitar which is not suited to the longer string length.  My personal preference is for the longer and both my 5 course guitars have a string length around 69cm and generally pitched at A415 (to work with other instruments in ensemble).

As Monica Hall has already pointed out, the pitch to which you tune your guitar is generally nominal and there's no evidence (as far as I'm aware) that guitars follow the common lute rule of tuning the highest string/course as far as it will go (ie almost to the breaking stress).  And why should they? -  the guitar has a modest bass range and so little need to maximise the stress on the highest course to ensure a decent response from the low basses. No doubt individuals tuned as suited their individual circumstances (and to save replacing the first course too frequently).


An interesting point about tuning.  Spanish sources always indicate that you should first tune the 3rd course - which is in the middle range and Italian sources that you should start with the 5th course - which if you tune the high octave string first (assuming there is one)  is also in the middle.

How much shorter would you need the string length to be if the guitar was to be tuned a perfect 4th higher than standard?

Well, and I hope this isn't a trick question,  if 'tuned a perfect 4th higher than standard' and the 'standard' (or commoner) nominal tuning is first course e',  then you are looking at a first course in nominal a' and the theoretical answer is 0.749 string length of an instrument in e' (assuming equal temperament and similar relationship with standard guitar first course breaking stress).  So say 69cm x 0.749 = around 52cm. This is a bit smaller than a small 'treble' lute top course also at a' - these are generally closer to the mid 50s cm. 

But if, as above, the first course guitar didn't need to be so close to breaking stress as a lute, then a smaller string length than a similar nominally pitched lute is possible! - even uke sized!........

Why do you ask? Is the small guitar of Colonna perhaps a fourth higher than his larger instrument rather than the 'standard' one? In this case you're probably looking at an instrument with a string length around 57/58cm and is, in fact, the size of my 'renaissance' four course guitar (based on the Diaz).

But, as we've discussed before, this was not a period of great 'standardisation'.



No trick questions!  Yes I was thinking of Colonna and more particularly of Costanza who does actually include music for guitars at four different pitches - the smallest is a 4th above the standard one in nominal e'

Check an article on baroque guitar lutherie by Juarez Bergmann.  https://ufpr.academia.edu/JuarezBergmann

He mentions that even though there were some as short as 540,mm and some as long as 740mm the most common string lengths were around 680-690 mm.

It is some time since I last made a guitar, and I am not a guitarist, but I think that some of the notes that I collected together as an article in FoMRHI Quarterly 48, July 1987- 17th c. Guitar Woodwork, p 47 - are still relevant.  My conclusions were that in general use we have top strings at nominal d', e', and g' or a'; and I gave a (very cursory I'm afraid!) list of some examples from various countries and quoted again cursorily, some sources.  And of course some exceptions and excuses for them!  I'm sure that Monica and others have covered the ground more thoroughly and better since. However, all the FoMRHI Quarterlies are now freely viewable online.

Not many players of baroque guitar were around in the eighties, but Barry Mason played on a 69.5 cm Voboam copy of mine and reported that, in particular, left-hand ornaments were easier on the longer string length.


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