Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas

Hi All,

I would like to canvas some opinions on reproducing period instruments. Do we think its better to produce a clone of a certain instrument as closely as possible and in doing so capture as faithfull a version of an authentic sound as possible? Should shapes that appear accidental like assymetrical body shapes be copied exactly, or would a body shape reverse engineered from the original instrument which is most likely to have been the luthiers starting point actually be more faithful. Material choice is also another problem. Not all materials used in original instruments are readily available, one piece quartered top wood for example is not, in my experience that easy to find. Any thoughts on the topic greatly appreciated. 

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I'll take a crack at this since no one else has chimed in. I'm not a professional luthier, but I have been studying the art for some time and have a kit build and one scratch build to my name so far. From what I can gather from what has been written by the pros, it seems to depend on the number of extant instruments for a particular given type. If one wants to build a romantic-era guitar for example, you can obtain drawings made from original instruments. If one wants to build a renaissance lute, that's a little different since most renaissance lutes still with us today were modified during the baroque era. As a result, many of the plans you see today are interpretations rather than copies of actual existing instruments.

In the case of vihuelas, just about everyone seems to build copies of the couple remaining original vihuelas. So regardless of the variety of body shapes and sizes that may have existed in the time when these instruments were in their hey-day, today we are left with copies of the few remaining ones and as builders, we wonder what else was out there back in the day.

Ok I'll shut up now and let the pros take over....

There are different approaches, taken by luthiers, to this dilemma. I like to separate period luthiers into three main “camps” (generalized for ease of discussion). But bear in mind that there is lots of grey area between the three and they should not be taken as absolutes.

Some make “exact” copies taking great pains to use the period techniques, materials that closely duplicate the properties of those found in the original instrument and to include marks of age (an art in itself) with the idea to duplicate the instrument as it is at this moment (in the furniture world it’s called “Stressed”). This is by far the smallest group of luthiers making period instruments. There is also some controversy surrounding this approach to building which may be an interesting discussion.

Others make “interpretations” of the instrument in question, carefully following closely the original designs, style and materials but strive to give an impression of the instrument as being new. I would think most luthiers of period instruments fall under this banner.

And still others make “In the style of” instruments which use modern techniques, materials, finishes and often include “improvements”. These almost always do not have much more in common with the original instrument than a very general look and style. There seems to be a growing number of luthiers building in this camp. The positive or negative of which may or may not be beyond the scope of this discussion.

The instruments we “copy” are not in the same condition they were when new. A possible exception might be the instrument recently discovered in a bank vault in England. Read about it here: http://www.paulpleijsier.nl/assets/pdf/soundboard_2001.pdf

However it must be clear that, even with the above Guiliani guitar, the ravage of time affects the most carefully coddled of instruments. The properties of the materials, adhesives and finish change over time even without the intervention of humans. Add to that normal wear, repairs, refinishing and any alterations and it becomes even more difficult to ascertain the finer details of the original instrument.

I think the best we can do is make an “interpretation” based on the careful study of original instruments and a few educated guesses. And asking ourselves, “What would Panormo, Lacote or Stauffer do…?” when confronted with issue X.


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