Early Guitars and Vihuela

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I would be grateful for advice about inspection and selection of a 19th C guitar. I currently play the lute but I rather fancy going back to my long- lost youth to play some of the 19th century repertoire again. To that end I am looking for an original (or a copy) of a 19th C Romantic Guitar. I would like to know the areas that I should check carefully and the kind of areas that might be problematic in the future. I would imagine there are as many pitfalls in this as with most!

Many thanks


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Start by reading this: http://www.earlyromanticguitar.com/erg/advice.htm
then any specific questions, feel free to email me jrw84@cam.ac.uk

thank you for pointing this site out. I will read carefully!


1) If possible, line up a highly qualified restoration luthier before you start looking.  Your luthier can help judge the photos and assist you with asking the right questions. And, you should be financially prepared for the additional cost of needed restoration work. 

2) Make careful decisions as to what you want before you start. What scale do you want?  Decide the shortest scale you would accept and/or the longest scale you would accept.  Do you want friction pegs or machine heads.  Old machine head can be a pain.  And friction pegs can be too if you are familiar with how to dress them.  If you are familiar with the proper way to dress them, they are not a problem.

3) Some early guitars have scalloped fingerboards.  Would that be acceptable for you?

4) Pay special attention to the bridge.  It somewaht common that the bridge will have been removed and reglued . . . or replaced . . . and having the original bridge is of course ideal.

5) If the guitar is in a foreign country then you might need to get CITES authorization for Ivory, Brazillian Rosewood and posibly Mother of Pearl.  It is not a problem for instruments older than 100 years, but the approval process can take months.  Be prepared for that!

I hope some of these tips help!  Best WIshes, Tom

thank you for your very detailed reply, Tom. I think that I am changing my mind about buying an antique instrument after reading your reply and the article by James Westbrook. That is as it should be!

The points that have made me change my mind are:

You will need a case for the instrument (1 - 3 months)

You will need a luthier willing to review and restore with time to do so

The instrument will require special handling as an antique and will not be suitable for prolonged,

 every day, playing.

The costs associated with restoration and the time to restore may be open-ended.

The insurance costs will be high(er)

best wishes and thanks for your insight


Hi Charles, the picture is not quite as dark as you have painted. There a lots of instruments in the world, centuries old, that are played every day and used in performances constantly. Lots of off-the-shelf hard shell cases can work. If the guitar body is quite small then a bit of padding can easily be added. Foam is easy to cut and cover with felt. All sorts of nasty looking cracks can be repaired such that one would hardly know they ever had been there. And often times, an antique period guitar can cost less than commissioning a new instrument. It was not my intent to dissuade you but rather to prepare you. But it is true that being the owner of a period guitar requires a well informed owner who has a trusted and capable luthier. And since these are period guitars (antiques) the owner has a responsibility to take the best possible care of the guitar. We are not so much owners as caretakers! But it can be very rewarding. But what one should not do is to waltz into any music shop and hand over the guitar to just any repair person. Special skills are required and the luthier's credentials must be vetted. These old guitars are special and deserve the very best care. And no epoxy! All work done should be easily undone if need be in the future! The same materials that were used to build them should be used to maintain and repair them.

Hello Charles,

To me the the thrill and adventure of playing antique guitars greatly outweighs the inconveniences. I do play my antique guitars for hours when I need to, without problems. Once they are properly restored, and provided you handle them with care, they are quite reliable and generally don't need any maintenance for years. Yes, a good case is crucial, but it does not have to be made-to-measure. Often A 3/4 size hardshell case will fit beautifully.

Maybe you should look up someone who lives near you who plays original guitars (or replicas) and who will let you try them? Whereabouts are you? Maybe we can put you in contact with someone.

Best, Jelma

Jelma (et al.),

I have a question about old guitars. When these guitars were first played, they very likely were new (or almost new) instruments (maybe a few decades old at the most). It seems to me that a guitar build in 1820 is very different from the same guitar in 2017. The wood has aged, the structural profile of the guitar is different. Therefore, it really isn't the same instrument as the younger, newer instrument, and it won't sound the way it sounded in 1820. It seems more likely, therefore, that a very carefully constructed copy might actually sound more like the original. People tend to think the old original guitar is the better instrument, but is this really so?   Or maybe 200 years isn't enough time for the sound of the old guitar to undergo radical change from its sound as a new instrument.  It's clear that a well-cared-for 200-year-old guitar of fine construction can sound wonderful. Certainly the fine early guitars need to be preserved and studied and copied -- and played.

>>>It seems more likely, therefore, that a very carefully constructed copy might actually sound more like the original. People tend to think the old original guitar is the better instrument, but is this really so?/p>

 Hi Thomas,  Great question.  I believe it isn't just the aged wood or carefully copying a period instrument.  Luthiers such as Lacote, Fabricatore, Stauffer, or Panormo grew up in guilds that collectively had centuries of experience between the masters and their apprentices.  One cannot get the same result by simply copying a soundboard for instance.  A "master luthier" tap tunes that specific piece of spruce and scraps the wood until they hear exactly what only they know what to listen for.  And, the same is true of the braces and so forth.  Now, you DO have a point in that a brand new Lacote guitar in the 1820s  would sound somewhat stiff compared to one that had been played for 35 years.  Now, in my experience, guitars get "played in" certainly within a few decades.  So a 185 year old Lacote may or may not sound better than a 35 year old Lacote did.  But, duplicating the work of a master like Lacote . . . it goes much, much beyond simply getting out the calipers and copying every dimension.  Now this is not to say that present day luthiers like do not build great sounding guitars.  Some absolutely do . . . but they old master luthiers like Fabricatore  and Lacote are revered not just for being pioneers . . . they were masters of their art and science in every way.  


I should add that instead of "carefully constructed" it would be better to say the modern luthier who is really a master and who has studied very carefully the early 19th century guitars could achieve a level of greatness and quality exhibited by a Guadagnini or Fabricatore or Stauffer. But then you need the same level of care with regard to the strings. And then the players have to exhibit deep level of understanding of the music played and the styles required to perform the music. For example, a deep understanding of bel canto style would be required (just for starters).  Also, as I study music from this period, I'm amazed at how differently the guitar masters must have played and sounded from each other. The guitars were also so very different from each other (Lacote, Guadagnini, Fabricatore, etc.).  I presume these kinds of differences also apply to the baroque guitars, the music, the players, etc., but that's another whole line of discussion. Thanks for your insights. TT

Hi again Thomas! You and I are in complete accord! I agree with all of your points. However, once an era is past, it is past. We can never completely get there, so I still maintain there is something magic about one of these fine old 19th century guitars. Of course not all old guitars were good of course ... just like now, there was the A-team ... the B-team ... etcetera.

it is worth remembering that recycling of old instruments was a continuous process over many centuries. The french recycled 10 course renaissance lutes to create 11 course baroque lutes, and later, 13 course lute both bass-rider and swan-neck types were often? created from earlier, large bodied, lutes. Jacob Linberg plays on a 16th C Rauwolf lute that was restored over a period of 10 years. The account of that restoration in the Lute Society Journal makes fascinating reading!


Hi Jelma,

I am up in Cumbria so the nearest large town is 4 hours away!



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