Early Guitars and Vihuela

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Single or double stringed first course on baroque guitar?

Some weeks ago I bought a Tomann baroque guitar, and as Rob MacKillop showed in his review, the strings are not very good. Changing to Aquilla nylgut has given me a new instrument – I think it sounds pretty good.


I have noticed that many players use single first strings as on the lute. What experiences do people have with the different alternatives? What historical documentation is it about using double or single first string on baroque guitar?


The reason for asking is that it seems like double strings on the first course seem to buzz more easily than the other courses due to the very thin strings. On the original strings on my guitar I had the same problem, but was forced to try single stringing until the Aquilla strings arrived, because one of the strings on the first course broke. The Aquilla first strings look a bit fragile, so I haven’t dared to do use only one of them.

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I can't answer the question about historical evidence for single or double first courses on baroque guitars, but I can help with the buzzing. The nut probably needs a little work, that's all. The string should ideally just make contact with the nut at the end closest to the fingerboard. The slot should then ramp downward (become deeper) so that it only acts as a guide for the string. Think of the nut as a fret, as it is sometimes referred to as a fret-nut. What you don't want is for the entire length of the slot to be the same depth, or worse yet, be deeper at the fingerboard end. If you don't have, or can't find a needle file, you can use an old wound string and some abrasive in a pinch. I've heard some folks use the cleaners used to clean the tips of welding torches.

For the moment I have a double first course on my vihuela. From what I have read, they were strung both single and double at the whim of the player. I doubled it since I had an extra string and I figured it would maintain a more consistent tone between the courses, which I guess it does. I believe the single first course on lutes was done primarily for clarity of the melody, and ease of playing.

Monica Hall would be the person I would ask about all things baroque guitar, though. If she is not in this group, you can join the email list at Dartmouth:

To get on this list, or get off this list, send mail to


And Monica's website is a wealth of insformation:




Historically it is more common to have a single string on the first course of the baroque guitar.   It is referred to as the "canto" and some of the sources point out that there are 9 strings arranged in 5 courses.   Monica

Does it buzz on the open string, when it is fretted or both? Removing one of the strings will eliminate the possibility of 'string clash' i.e. the two strings are positioned too close to each other. That seems the most likely explanation given the information you have given. Just use a single string. 

If the buzz is apparent only on fretted notes it suggests that the Nut is fine and the problem lies with the 'action'/frets.

I told ya she would know!

Glad to see you are on here, Monica.

Michael has a good point about the buzzing. From your description I couldn't tell if you meant it was buzzing at the nut or not. If the overall action is too low, you can also possibly fix it at the nut. If the slots are too close together and the strings are clashing, you can also fix that at the nut by either making a new nut or cutting new slots. If the problem is at the bridge, that is a little more involved and it depends on how comfortable you are with working on your instrument. Better the action be too low at the bridge end than too high if it is a slotted bridge (looks like a Roman aqueduct...sort of). If the bridge is drilled as in a lute bridge, you can (carefully) drill new holes with a small bit set into a dowel. If the action is too high at the nut end, just make the slots deeper, but remember to ramp them down toward the peg-end of the nut. Alternately you can remove the nut and sand the bottom down a couple thou.

If it is an individual fret that is buzzing you can just replace it. I believe it was Dowland who recommended frets in diminishing diameter as they progress down the neck, (though it seems it should go the other way around). That is because lutes, vihuelas, and Baroque guitars have essentially a zero degree neck angle. Modern guitars with fixed metal frets of the same height are able to achieve low action by angling the neck back and using a raised fretboard for soundboard clearance.

Being your own repairman is part of the price of inexpensive instruments, but it's also part of the fun; at least I think it's fun, but I'm weird like that.

As the buzzing only occurs when the first course is double, I think Michael has pointed out the problem. With the first course double I have to pick the strings very lightly to avoid the buzzing. The buzzing also happens with both fretted and unfretted notes. It happened not when the course was single.

Thank you Monica for a quick answer about historical facts. Could the reason for this be to avoid problems like I have described? -- Does any of the historical sources give a reason for single first course on baroque guitar or lute?

Mark, thank you for very detailed suggestions that I shall think of. I have a friend who work as a part time luthier. He has built my classical guitar which is an instrument in the other end of the quality scale compared to the Tomann guitar – I think I will let him take look.

None of the sources really say why it is usually single but I think this has more to do with the nature of the music - the first course is more likely to carry the melody.   But it is clear that it was often single even in strummed music.   For example Amat says that it is single.   It may also have something to do with the fact that the very thin string needed was more likely to break.   I do wonder why anyone uses nylon or even nylgut etc.   I have always used plain gut.   I have never found it a problem and it is less elastic and therefore less "twangy".

Aren't there an order of magnitude more trills on this course than any of the others?  Or would you say that's just a function of it carrying the melody for punteado (not-strummed) music?
I wouldn't like to guess how many trills there were on the first course in general.   However, even Montesardo says that you should make a trill whenever this is possible - in spite of the fact that all the music in his book is strummed - and trills on many strummed chords are practical...Better leave it at that for now.......

Trills on chords raise an interesting thing -- I was taught a right-hand gesture that was called a trill...  using the ring and index fingers.  If I say a = ring finger and i = index...  and then u = up and d = down...  The trill is a rapid flurry of:

ad, id, au, iu, ad, id, au, iu, ad, id, au, iu...


I guess for some people it might be easy, but for me it's harder than it looks.  When it comes to evenly striking a series of strings, it's hard to have it start up nicely -- it always takes me a second or so to get it going.  So far I can only manage it for an introductory chord, or a finishing chord.  But I can imagine it thrown into the middle of a passage that sits long enough on a chord.  Not that I have any idea of how appropriate it would be to do so.  And of course, this is a total digression from the original thread...

Surely you shouldn't be using the ring finger at all on the baroque guitar?   Only the thumb and index and middle fingers.....
Uh, oh...  Um, I'm starting a new thread...


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