It is probably well-known, at least among most musicians, that the steel-string guitar (the acoustic type) as played in the USA today, is out-of-period with the current interest in historical re-enactments and the proliferation of Renaissance Faires all over the country. It also tends to be assumed that no moderately priced replicas of "period" (pre-1650 CE) instruments, that can be played by the modern guitarist, exist on the market....and that is WRONG!
Before we pop that particular bubble, however, we must look at the known history of the Guitar, or at least its' ancestors, before 1650. I say "known" history, because much of the instrument's evolution is not solidly known, but is only inferred from paintings, carvings, and other representations, as the basic fragility of the wood has caused most of the actual period pieces to disappear, or become untunable and unplayable.
Obviously, the European LUTE will be our starting point. This instrument, which apparently developed from the Arabic OUD (which entered Europe thru the Crusades and the Moorish conquest of Spain), has between six and ten "courses" (paired strings played as one) of between twelve and twenty strings. These strings were made of catgut (sheep intestine), and the "frets" (raised finger-stops for the notes along the fretboard) were made of catgut tied around the fingerboard/neck, with a few wooden or ivory frets glued to the top of the soundboard. The fretboard is on the same level with the soundboard, not raised higher as in the modern guitar, and may be heavily ornamented with inlay. The body is pear-shaped, and rounded in the back, rather like half a watermelon.
The bridge has no "saddle" (the bone, plastic or ivory piece that the strings rest on), and the peghead tends to be cranked back from the neck almost at a right angle (though early Lutes had their pegboxes set at the gentle curve found on the Oud and the Guitarra Moresca), with wooden transverse tuning pegs in a hollow pegbox, similar to a modern violin.
The THEORBO is a variation of the Lute, with several extra bass strings attached to an extra pegbox. That, and the fact that the pegboxes are not at a right angle to the neck, but rather "in line" with it, distinguishes it from the normal Lute. It covers (approximately) the Baritone-Bass range. This, and the Arch-Lute, are easily recognizable by their extreme length.
The ARCH-LUTE is similar, but is (generally) a descant, or melody, instrument like the regular Lute.
Lutes are usually tuned to a pretty high pitch, to capitalize on their clear "silvery" sound. Thus, while a modern guitar can be said to be tuned in "E", a Lute would be tuned in "A," almost three whole tones higher.
Let us clear up one misconception right now: the Lute may be tuned either with the same string relationships as the modern guitar, and fingered the same way (allowing for the higher initial pitch, of course), which is called "new" tuning, or the third course can be tuned down a half tone (from "new" tuning) for the "old" tuning pattern.
A guitarist can easily shift to lute, using New Tuning: if he finger picks, then no problem with playing late Medieval and Rennaissance styles (polyphony), while if he flatpicks, well, that was the early lute technique of single string work (monody) so he or she is home free there, too!
By the way, the exact pitches of the tunings depends on the whim of the player. I happen to tune my Lutes in "A" because they sound their best there. Some other lute might sound good in "G" or even in "E" or one of the half-steps in between, or a quarter-tone in between......pitch was not standardized until the mid-1700s so don't worry too much about being at "concert pitch."
There is a much-quoted saying about the Lute being difficult to tune, and due to it's use of gut strings, tuning can be a bit of a problem. The reason Lute players tended to tune often was simply because they used a number of different tunings. See below for several examples of this "scordatura."
Lutes have a sound that cannot be matched for intimate gatherings. They are sweet, silvery and sensual. They are also damn quiet. Thus, a rowdy tavern, or a campfire songfest is NOT suitable for the talents of the Lute. They are also incredibly fragile. Don't take them anywhere there may be any kind of horseplay or bad weather, and keep them in a hard case.
The Lute was not the direct ancestor of the guitar, however. It may have been one of the major predecessors, but what we have here is a remarkable proliferation of many different wood-body fretted instruments that all contributed a great deal to the eventual development of what we know as the guitar, and the added problem that, in Spain where the guitar was finally truly developed, the Lute had associations with the Moors, and thus was NOT very popular.
The other instrument that must be considered of equal importance with the Lute is the CITTERN. This is an instrument that usually has a pear shaped body with a flat back, four to five courses of strings made of wire, and permanent fretting, either chromatic, or diatonic like the modern Appalachian Dulcimer. The pegs may be held in a hollow pegbox like the lute, or they may be mounted vertically in a peghead similar to many modern guitars and mandolins. Tuned similarly to the mandolin, in fifths, the chording and fingering are the same. It was always played with a plectrum, usually a goose quill, but a modern flat pick works just as well.
These instruments are also very loud, and thus suitable for tavern brawls, dance music, and just about anything where the music needs to be heard over a crowd. I have had great success with mine at RenFaires. A good Cittern player is a joy to hear!
Or even (O Rare..) Ben Jonson, who said:
"That cursed barber....I have married his
cittern that's common to all men!"
-The Silent Woman
Citterns are such fun....'tis a pity she's a whore! Incidentally, the term "slattern," or "slut," may have evolved from the word "cittern."
(I suppose I should add here that tuning the Cittern is a matter of individual taste. The "mandolin" tuning, fifths, is the most common, and the most usable in a modern context.)
The Lute/Cittern family tree leads, with many offshoots and false starts, directly into the GUITAR.
At this point, I need to point out that the very names of these instruments can be a source of argument and repeat that many of them have only carvings and/or paintings as our sole source of their design characteristics, and some only have the fancy "court" models, or only one surviving example, from which to judge. The subject is further complicated by non-standardized spelling, and the entrance of foreign words into other languages along with the instruments. The very name "Lute" is simply a mispronounciation of the Arabic "al Oud!"
The GUITARRA MORESCA was apparently a 4-course instrument, with a peg- box that slanted back from the neck in a shallow curve. The body was an oval shape, like the outline of an egg, and it is most interesting to note that it's soundboard MAY have been made of skin, similarly to the modern Banjo! This skin was laced to the body and the frets were probably tied. It had it's heyday around the 13th Century, probably descending from the Arabic Rebec, as witnessed by its' name.
The GUITARRA LATINA, however, is our connection, as it had a small body with two defined bouts, and three or four courses of strings. In size it ranged from about the size of a Baritone Ukelele to the size of a Parlor Guitar (see below) and was quite popular in the 13th Century. The soundboard was wood, but otherwise it was similar to the Guitarra Moresca. It was about as large as a Baritone Ukelele.
The GUITTERN was a five-course, sometimes permanently fretted instrument that used gut strings and was played either with a pick, or the bare fingers. The body shape was in varying patterns, but the most common seemed to be a lot like a modern violin. Like the modern violin, or mandolin, it tended to have a movable bridge and a tailpiece to fasten the strings, though the strings were sometimes fastened to a bridge like the Lute's, with no saddle. The string courses are tuned in unisons, usually, but sometimes may be found tuned in octaves like the modern 12-string guitar. The soundboard was flat, with no angle below the bridge.
It MAY have some relation to the CYTOLE, which had four or (rarely) five courses made of wire, and a VERY small body. Sometimes it's courses were tripled, like the modern TIPLE.
Wire strings, whether of brass, steel or silver, seem to have come into use in about the 13th Century.
The CHITTARRA BATTENTE, which is known to have used wire strings, had a soundboard that sometimes was angled downwards behind the bridge, like a "round-back" mandolin. This is known as a "cranked table" style. These were popular in the mid-1500's, on thru the end of the SCA's period (1650, dammit!). The bridge MAY have used a saddle by this time, and, because of the use of wire strings, it probably had permanent, metal frets. It can be found with either a fixed bridge, like the Lute, or a movable bridge and tailpiece arrangement.
The BANDORA was probably a variation on the Cittern, with a flat-back and a body shape very similar to the modern "A-Style" mandolin, that is, with a pronounced lower bout, and a very small upper bout. Sometimes the general shape looked very much like an elongated, six-lobed cookie. It ranged more into the bass than the standard Cittern did.
The VIHUELA DE MANO was the six-course instrument of Spain, and looked a lot like the modern guitar, save that it used gut strings in six courses. It's brother, the Vihuela de Arco, was played with a bow ("arco") rather than the bare hands ("mano"), while the Vihuela de Pinola was played with a plectrum (flat pick). It is obviously different from most of the pre-guitars in that it's body is quite large, being about as large as a modern "classical" guitar. It also tends to have several soundholes in the top. The frets were tied, and it used a fixed bridge. It is probably the direct ancestor of the modern American 12-string guitar, which came into North America thru Louisiana and Texas out of Mexico.
The FOUR-COURSE GUITAR had four courses of gut strings, or sometimes single strings, a guitar-shaped body with a flat soundboard, a lute style bridge, and the back tended to be slightly rounded with a distinct ridge up the center, rather like the hull of a boat. The frets were tied, like the lute, and it was about the size of a child's guitar. The pegs were set vetically thru an actual peghead, which was usually figure-8 shaped. It, and the 5-COURSE GUITAR (see below) were considered plebian, common, instruments, while the Vihuela was the instrument of the Aristocracy, at least in Spain.
The FIVE-COURSE GUITAR seems to have appeared around 1490, and was similar to the Four-course models, with the addition of the extra course of strings in the bass.
The ENGLISH GUITAR was probably another name for the five-course guitar, and reflects the burgeoning popularity of the instrument with all classes of people, at least outside of Spain.
The BAROQUE GUITAR apparently came on the scene in the very early Seventeenth Century. These guitars use gut or nylon strings, have a "long and skinny" body with both upper and lower bouts being about the same size, and the bracing is usually three crossbars under the soundboard. The tuning pegs are usually wood, set vertically thru the peghead, and the frets are permanent, whether wood, ivory, or metal. The surviving examples tend to be highly ornamented, but this survival may be due to the fact of their valuble ornamentation. Most of the instruments would tend to be plain. They were a Five Course Guitar.
All of the above instruments tended to have a fingerboard that was on the same level with the soundboard, with the soundboard extending into the fingerboard area by several inches. The "modern" raised fingerboard apparently did not appear until sometime around the advent of the Parlor Guitars (see below).
The SIX (SINGLE) STRING GUITAR, the true guitar, apparently did not develop until sometime after 1750 but, as always with this instrument, we cannot be absolutely sure about this date.
PARLOR GUITARS are very similar to Baroque guitars, with the exceptions that their tuners are usually mechanical, after about 1820, and the lower bout of the body is a bit larger than the upper bout. I would accept these as a reasonable attempt at using a period instrument, so long as gut or nylon strings are used. If you own an old Model 1887 Washburn, this is what you have.
WARNING: many of the American made Parlor guitars have "pin" bridges the same as on modern steel-string guitars. If you use steel strings on these old parlor models, you will ruin them. They are made for gut or nylon strings ONLY!
The modern "CLASSICAL" GUITAR was not developed until circa 1840, in Spain, by Torres.
The various types of modern guitar are usually distinguished by strings, body shapes, and interior bracing:
Classical guitars use gut or nylon strings, have a body with the lower bout larger than the upper, and use (usually) a bracing pattern that looks much like the ribs of a fan, in the area under the bridge, under the soundboard. They are very much out-of-period. If you can find a 3/4 size or 1/2 size classical guitar, it will look very much like a period intrument, however.
Archtop guitars use steel strings, have a soundboard that is carved and arched like a violin, and, much like a violin, usually have soundholes in the shape of an "f" on either side of the bridge. These are blatantly out-of- period, and are usually found with electric pickups.
American guitars use steel strings, have a body shape of classical, parlor, "dreadnaught" (large body) or "jumbo" (VERY large body) form, and bracing under the bridge in the shape of a "X." This last was, apparently, developed between 1915 and 1930 in America, either by the Larson Bros., or C.F.Martin & Co. This subject is a matter of much controversy in guitar circles. I have seen an instrument that seemed to be a parlor guitar, with vertical "patent" friction pegs, "X" braced, and possibly made before 1910! The matter, like much of the guitar's history, is obscure. Needless to say, the larger bodied sizes are blatantly out-of-period.
The 12-String Guitar seems to have its origins in Mexico, with the Bajo de Sexto, coming into the USA from Texas and Louisiana in the late 1920's and 1930's, when Blues musicians discovered it.
However....the 12-string guitar, when strung with courses tuned in unisons (or in octaves like the modern practice) if tuned similarly with nylon strings on it, played Lute-style, will pass for a Vihuela de Mano, at least in sound.
Play it with a flat pick, with wire strings, similarly to a Cittern and I would have no serious objections to raise.
LUTES: .... tend to be a bit on the expensive side of things. A good used one can be had for about $600.00, with prices ranging from there up to $5000.00 or more! There is a decent 8-course Lute made by Aria for right around $900.00 new, and it is a bit more strongly made than most, but it may not be still in production. It is a good Lute for the money. Some kits are available, and are well made, but do NOT buy anything called a Lute that feels heavy and massive. It will not respond properly to your touch. A good lute will reverberate on its' own from just voices in the room! Learning the Lute can be the devotion of a lifetime.
CITTERNS: ....... range from about $450.00 for the Trinity College "Octave Mandolin" up to about $1500.00 for the best ones. A modern Mandolin is a "Soprano Cittern," while a Mando-Cello would be classed as a "Baritone/Bass Cittern." Round-back mandolins, what would be called "lute-back soprano citterns," are quite acceptable, and very period. To learn to play it, find a book on mandolin and take it from there. If you tune it like a plectrum banjo, remembering the shorter scale, 5-string banjo chords work just fine. A Greek BOUZOUKI will serve well here, too, and usually comes with a lute-style back!
PERIOD GUITARS: ....... can be had very easily! The VIHUELITA, a five-string tied-fret guitar used in Mariachi bands, is, with the exception of the raised fingerboard, a five-course guitar. These Vihuelitas are usually inexpensive enough that the job of filling in the peghead slots, and replacing the modern machine tuners with wooden pegs (and even adding 4-5 extra pegs to make it even more authentic) is feasable. There is an instrument called the CUATRO that is much like the Guittern (I use one myself, made by Alvarez, strung with nylon strings .... very nice indeed!) and the six-string "parlor" guitars, of lesser value than Martin, Larson (Ditson), Lyon & Healey or (Geo.) Washburn.....the "no-names" that can be found sometimes hanging up in music stores and pawn shops for very little money....would work just fine also. Be careful with them, however, as even the no-names are going up in value.
I have also seen an instrument called a GUITARILLA, a six-course "guitar" on a Bandura-like body, tuned in "terz" tuning, i.e. a third higher than a regular guitar. The REQUINTO is similar, being a "terz" guitar, but has six single strings and is shaped, and braced, like a modern guitar.
Some Mexican-made 12-string guitars, being of extremely light construction, would make good Vihuelas de Mano, when string with nylon and their usual terrible "action" (the height of the strings off the fingerboard) lowered. I would like to experiment with this, and with doing the same thing to a Mexican BAJO DE SEXTO (a Baritone-Bass 12-string), whose construction is even more period than most.
If you MUST use a steel-strung 6-string, Martin makes their Size 5 model (5-18 or 5-28, special order only) which at least looks fairly period, but retails new, as of this writing, for about $1680.00 for the 5-18. The 00- 16NY, the famous "New Yorker" model, runs about $1576.00, which is a hefty piece of change. It would "pass" for a Parlor or Baroque guitar. The others above usually sell for between $200.00 - $500.00, thus being both within pocketbook range, AND more period.
With the popularity of half-size and three-quarter-size guitars, such as those made by Ovation, Taylor, Washburn and several others, you can obtain something that at least will look right for not a lot of money. Lark In The Morning offers a travel guitar that is shaped like a Cittern and is quite usable.
There are also some reproductions of period instruments available from some Japanese makers. H. Yari has made several of these, and the "guitar- lutes" (lute bodied guitars) of the Wandervogel of 1920's Germany are still available also, though high in price.
Period technique was mostly chordal strumming, to accompany song, very much like the Mariachi technique for the Vihuelita. There is evidence, however, of melodic lute-style playing, too, but the simple "rhythm strum" sort of thing is quite period and acceptable, and, if done correctly can be quite effective, even to the point of seeming to play the melody using chords only! Listen to a modern autoharp player to get an idea of how it's done.
Other instruments of the modern world can "stand-in" quite nicely. Get creative, do some research, and go for it!
And if some Grinch complains that you should be using a period replica, ask them to provide you with the cash to buy one ...... and to pay for the contents insurance you'll have to carry on it to play it outside at Faires and re-enactments!
WHERE TO FIND THEM:
There are other shops that deal in this sort of thing, but these are the ones I have dealt with personally, and thus can recommend them wholeheartedly. Elderly Instruments
1100 W Washington
PO Box 14210
Lansing, MI 48901
(Octave mandolins and general stuff. Good people!)
Lark In The Morning
PO Box 1176
Mendocino, CA 95460
(This company is the best source for damn near anything in unusual musical instruments.)
Plucked String Inc.
1930 Cameron Ct.
Arlington, VA 22210
629 Forest Ave
Staten Is. NY 10310
(Octave mandolins and vintage instruments)
Boulder Early Music Shop
2010 Fourteenth St
Boulder, Colo. 80302
(sheet music and some fretted instruments)
Lute Society of America
c/o Nancy Carlin
PO Box 11125
Concord, CA 94518
When you need to get strings for these beasts, you may run into a problem. Nylon strings are, usually, not marked as to their diameter, so you just have to be prepared to experiment using regular nylon guitar strings. Lute strings are another story. DO NOT use nylon guitar strings on a Lute. The soundboard of the Lute is considerably thinner than a guitar's, so the stress placed on it by the guitar strings may tear the Lute apart. Use strings made for Lute, and DON'T try wire strings on it!
By the way: wound bass strings ("overspun bourdons") seem to be quite period, for the Renaissance.
Banjo strings work quite well for Citterns, as do mandolin strings. When you go to the music store, take the instrument with you, and tell them the tuning you wish to use, and ask for bronze-wound bass strings. These give the best sound, in my opinion. If the nice man behind the counter seems not to know what you are talking about, GO TO ANOTHER STORE until you find someone who knows about string gauge/scale/tuning relationships. This is very important, because, with wire strings, if you use a string that is too heavy for your soundboard it will tear it apart!
One final thing: please refrain from spilling alcohol on the finish of these wonderful things. Alcohol will remove the finish quite nicely..... and refinishing a musical instrument both lowers it's resale value, and damages the tone. Refinishing is horrendously expensive, too....I remember having to have an area the size of a quarter refinished on a solid-body electric guitar, an instrument which did not need the careful refinishing of an acoustic instrument, and the total bill was $89.75......and, by the way, if you have an antique instrument DON'T have it re-finished! You will harm both the tone, and the value! Even if it looks like something the cat dragged in and wouldn't eat, talk to an expert about it before refinishing. In SOME cases (very few!!!!) a refinish job is needed, and can be done in such a way as to not harm the instrument.....but let an expert tell you about that.
The same goes for weather: don't allow it to freeze, get wet, get damp, or get too hot. Any weather that is uncomfortable for you is SERIOUSLY uncomfortable for your instrument, and CAN and WILL damage it...badly! Leaving it in a parked car in hot weather can cause the glue to soften, and the string tension will then tear the instrument into very small bits! Very cold weather will craze the finish, thereby letting dirt, oil and damp into the wood. Damp weather will warp the wood, sometimes beyond repair. Be careful of these pretty toys, and they will outlast you.
I would add further: buy a good, hard-shell case, or have one made, and keep your instrument in it! Don't leave it laying about where people can spill beer on it, walk on it, knock it over.....keep it out of direct sunlight or cold drafts...don't let it get rained (or misted, or fogged) upon...in other words, keep it nice and comfy, and it'll be OK.
If you are traveling from a moist climate into a dry one, or vice- versa, use a simple humidifier that can be bought from any music store. This will (hopefully) keep the instrument from cracking under the stresses of the humidity change.
Don't let drunks play it. EVER. Don't let irresponsible people of any kind handle it. EVER. It is perfectly socially acceptable (among musicians, at least) to simply not let ANYONE handle it, except the owner.
And remember, musical instruments are easily "fenced." Keep it where you can see it.
note: DO NOT USE OLD, ANTIQUE INSTRUMENTS! These instruments are collectors' items, and should be saved for the next generation to appreciate. If you are a serious musician, and prepared to literally live for the instrument(s), well and good, but if you only do it as a hobby, then......pass them by! Buy a good, new instrument and save the old one from the wear and tear, and possible serious abuse, that historical re-enacting tends to put on things.
Evans, Tom and Mary Anne: Guitars: from the Renaissance to Rock
Facts on File, New York 1977
Munrow, David: Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance
Oxford University Press, London 1976
Smith, Douglas Alton: The Lute: Instrument for the Ages
FRETS (period.) March 1982
Trimble, Gerald C.: Instruments of British Isles Music
FRETS (period.) April 1980
and 40+ years experience on the part of the Author.
© copyright 1989, 1990, 1994, 1995,1996, 1997 W. J. Bethancourt III
All Rights Reserved