Monday, 2 August 2010

A brief history of the classical guitar

This is a guest post by Christopher Davis, author of The Classical Guitar Blog

Our instrument has a long history. Dating all the way back to 1400s when an instrument called the Vihuela flourished in Spain. Vihuela featured six courses of strings - a course being a pair of strings tuned to the same pitch in this case. Much like today's guitars, the tuning was fourths and one third. In today's terms, Vihuela tuning would be E A D F# B E.

Interestingly, vihuela was really a family of instruments: they came in all sizes. There are only three original Vihuelas in existence today, and each is slightly different in scale length and pitch. Some would even be considered bass-like. There was also a four course guitar that flourished in France during the Renaissance.

The Baroque guitar (around 1600-1800) flourished in many European countries. These guitars are as much works of art as they are instruments. They featured extensive ornamentation and inlays.

And elaborate rosettes that filled the sound hole.

Around 1800 guitar builders gradually added a sixth course, and went to single strings. Check out this instrument, a six course guitar built around 1800.

And this one built just a few years later.

Like guitarists today, guitarists in the later 1800s explored guitars with more than six strings. Composer/Guitarist Johann Kaspar Mertz played on a ten-string instrument similar to the modern harp guitar.

Napoleon Coste also added more strings and wrote music for this seven string guitar.

The ten-string guitar is still alive today thanks to the work of Narciso Yepes.

Classical, nylon-strung guitars today, however, are mostly pretty tame. And they're all descendents of the grand-daddy of the modern guitar, Antonio Torres. Torres built guitars in Spain during the late 19th century, and his instruments are the first that we consider modern. The bodies on his instruments were slightly bigger, and the braces on the underside of the top were arranged in a fan.

While electric guitars may feature gorgeous wood on the top, the back and sides of a classical guitar are often the most beautiful. Below is my guitar, built in 2009 by Michael Thames.

Most professional level classical guitars - called "concert guitars" - are custom shop jobs. They are built specifically for one person, and you choose a guitar builder based on the features you want. Some builders specialize is construction methods that are a bit unorthodox or strange. Check out the inside of this "lattice braced" guitar.

The tops on these guitars are extremely thin (you could puncture it with your finger), and that black stuff inside is carbon fiber. Another popular construction method today is a "double top". These guitars have a thin top, then a layer of honey-comb style material called Nomex, then another thin top is glued on the other side. Here builder John H. Dick shows off the inside of his guitar tops (towards the end).

There's a lot out there in the world of classical and nylon-strung guitars, and it's well worth exploring.

Christopher Davis

Guitarz - The Original Guitar Blog - now in its 9th year!

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