The best information I found regarding the evolution of the modern guitar is the 2002 (or later) revision of “The Guitar And Its Music – From the Renaissance to the Classical Era by James Tyler and Paul Sparks” available from Los Angeles Classical Guitars and other places. It’s an expensive book, but it contains vast research and is packed with detailed information. It is a serious academic work which provides new, primary source information and dispels many myths about the guitar. Two-thirds of the book is an update of an earlier book, “The Early Guitar” which details the 4-course and 5-course guitar, as well as some discussion of the vihuela and lute. This background is necessary to understand how the 6-string guitar arose. The latter third of the book is by Paul Sparks, titled “The Origins of the Classical Guitar” which specifically details the invention and evolution of the 6-string modern guitar from 1750-1800. “Additional research of the guitar’s history from the 1750′s to 1800′s examines how the five-course guitar gradually gave way to the six-string instrument, a fascinating process that occurred in different ways and times in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Britain. – LACG.” I shall refer to the ground-breaking and excellent research by Tyler & Sparks throughout this page, which is based largely on their ideas. Anyone wanting to learn more about this topic should read the book. It has turned conventional thinking upside-down and I have completely re-thought the guitar’s place in history as a result of this book. Key Points:
-The 6-course guitar arose first in Spain in the 1750′s, with double strings (same as today’s 12-string guitar)
-Merits of single vs. double stringing was debated on 5 and 6 course guitars since at least the 1770′s
-String improvements allowed cheap and readily accessible wire-wound basses in the 1780′s
-Wire-wound strings cut into gut frets and necessitated metal frets
-Wire-wound bass strings were overpowering with double courses and required single courses for balance
-New styles of playing in the late 18th century necessitated a strong bass and clean articulation
-Fan bracing with 3-7 fans was used since the 1750′s in Spanish guitars; it was not invented by Torres
-String lengths on Baroque and early Spanish 6-string instruments were longer than a concert Ramirez
Treble clef notation replaced tablature in the 1760′s
-Guitar pitch was raised to standard orchestral pitch with the adoption of treble clef notation
-The French Lyre guitar was a critical step toward the adoption of the 6-string guitar
-Single stringing was done initially by leaving half the string slots empty
-6-string guitars were around since the mid 1770′s, but were not popular until the late 1790′s
-The 18th century was not a period of musical decline. It was extremely active.
-Some players used fingernails and some did not throughout history; very few players (e.g. Sor) used no-nails
-The 5-course guitar remained popular in France until the 1820′s and co-existed with the 6-string guitar
-The 12-string 6 double-course guitar remained popular in Spain until the 1830′s and co-existed with the 6-string guitar
-The English and Germans played a form of cittern in the late 18th century and not the guitar
-The Italian guitar was single-strung, with 5-7 strings
The 6-single string “modern” guitar was not invented on a particular date, but rather was a product of centuries of evolution. If we ignore the single versus double string issue, note that the lute and vihuela were prominent in the 1500′s: these instruments were tuned exactly like the modern guitar, except for the 3rd string being tuned down a half-step from the modern tuning, and they were tuned 3-half steps higher. The lute and vihuela were used like today’s classical guitar, for plucked compositions, whereas during this period the guitar was more of a treble instrument and primarily strummed, although it was often plucked as well. Most experts agree the single-course, 6-string guitar began to appear commonly around the 1790′s as several extant instruments prove. By 1800 it became widespread and popular, and indeed by 1808 music was widely printed. The instrument may have been “invented” earlier as a custom order, and many single-course variants like the arch-guitar, lyre-guitar with 7-10 or more strings apparently preceded it in the 18th century. There are guitars floating around in the 1770′s with dated labels, however, I do not believe most of them are authentic, or at least they may have originally been double-course and later altered, although others may disagree. As James Westbrook points out, it is possible to date instruments in some cases by matching the tree ring thicknesses to known specimens (a tedious computer-based process not available to the average person), and in some cases, instrument authenticity can be de-bunked because the woods are newer than the label. Furthermore, it is suspicious when a guitar dated “1773″ (for example) is identical in body shape and construction to other guitars made 50-100 years later.
France 1789 Italy 1792
The body shape of these late 18th century 1789 and 1792 guitars look nearly identical to the older Baroque guitars. They are, however, modern 6-string guitars. These guitars are in the French museum Musee de la Musique, and we can be relatively certain of their authenticity. The body shape is typical of the late 18th century, and the frets are on the soundboard like Baroque guitars and Lutes. The labels read “Renault et Châtelain, Paris, 1789″ and “Gioacchino Trotto fecit Anno 1792 accofto le grade di S. Demetrio”.
Based on many written sources, expert opinions, photographs and other evidence, I believe the earliest single course 6-string guitars started to be used with increasing frequency around 1785 and started their rise to popularity in the 1790′s. However, this is not the earliest appearance of the 6-string or 6-course guitar by any means, according to Tyler & Sparks. Buyers of antique instruments should use caution, however, since there are some 6-string single course guitars with labels suggesting they were built in the 1770′s, but these can be fake labels, or modified 5-course instruments.
Some evidence suggests that Fabricatore invented the modern guitar in Naples, Italy. Dr. Heck’s biography of Giuliani has a quote from a 19th century source, which was a contemporary review of one of Giuliani’s concert performances. This quote mentions that “Giuliani demonstrated the invention of the 6th string, due to Maestro Fabbricatorello in Naples..” (Heck, T. “Mauro Giuliani: Virtuoso Guitarist.” p.7). Modern scholars have uncovered evidence disputing this unsubstantiated 19th century claim (made at least 50 years later) regarding Fabricatore’s invention, but what is known for certain is that Fabricatore seems to have switched from building Baroque 5-string guitars to modern 6-string guitars around 1785-1792. Other sources mention that the 6-string guitar arose in Vienna, Naples, and Paris simultaneously in about 1785-92. During this period, some instruments were made as single-course 5 string, and others as double-course 6-string. A particularly interesting Fabricatore is a rare and perhaps one of a kind 5-string guitar. It appears to be entirely original; it was developed for 5 single strings – it is an evolutionary link between the 5-course Baroque guitar and the 6-string guitar. The guitar evolved from double-strings (courses) to single strings and around the same time, became a 6-string instrument (in Spain, guitars were 6 courses during the 18th century). It was made in 1801 by G.B.Fabricatore and is housed in the Vienna Museum.
Various guitar method books and publications in the second half of the 18th century debate whether the guitar should be strung as single or double course. Many 5-course instruments were converted by replacing the nut and modifying the bridge for 6-single strings. Only the first 6 peg slots were used for single stringing practice, out of 10 total peg slots (for 5 double strings), as shown in this instrument by Aubert, which was modified in the 18th or 19th century. Many instruments, originally built as 5-course double string guitars, later had their headstock replaced. Presumably, when the 6-course instrument displaced the 5-course guitar in popularity around 1800-1825, many 5-course instruments were still around and could be had cheaply. It was much less expensive in the early 19th century to buy a used 5-course instrument and modify it for 6-single strings, than to purchase a new instrument, and for that reason, many modified Baroque guitars exist. Today, this is viewed as regrettable because an original 5-course Baroque guitar is much more valuable than an altered instrument.
Tyler and Sparks point out that in Spain, in the 1700′s, there were 2 styles of guitar playing: “noisy music” which consisted of much strumming by the commoners, and “court music” which consisted of refined compositions for the aristocracy. The term “musica ruidosa” was used by Gaspar Sanz in his method book of 1674. Perhaps this is the root of the “classical” versus “flamenco” guitar styles in Spain, as well as today’s split between popular steel string and electric guitars, and the “classical” guitar. References to rasgueado techniques, similar or identical to those used by today’s flamenco players, are cited in Baroque guitar publications. The desire of Spaniards to produce forceful strumming in noisy bars and such is probably one reason for adding a 6th course. However, another reason was that a 6th string eliminated the awkward chord inversions required on the 5-course guitar.
Tyler and Sparks go on to say that “by the mid-eighteenth century the simple, melodic, galant style of composition that had begun in Italy was becoming popular throughout Europe, and the guitar was increasingly being used to provide delicate arpeggiated accompaniments to songs. This style of playing required clear bass notes on the first beat of each bar, and by about 1750 virtually all guitarists were therefore stringing their instruments with at least one bordon (bass string, usually of plain gut) on the fourth and fifth courses, turning what had often been a purely treble instrument into one that now possessed both a treble and a bass range.” Tyler and Sparks discovered that by researching for-sale advertisements of the 18th century, that the 6-course guitar was around much earlier than previously thought: “The earliest reference to a six-course guitar appeared in a Madrid newspaper in 1760.. which was described as having six courses… However, this instrument … was by no means the earliest Spanish guitar with more than five courses, becuase the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague has a guitar [..labeled from 1759], with a vibrating string length of 670mm, … and this 1759 instrument is the oldest known example of a guitar with a fan-strutting system beneath the soundboard, having three fan struts and two diagonal bars..” Regarding fan bracing, this bracing system is falsely attributed to Torres in some sources. Tyler and Sparks cite information from Alex Timmerman concerning a 1759 instrument in the Museu de la Musica, Barcelona, and a 1767 instrument in the Central Museum of Musical Culture, Moscow, as well as the Sanguino cited above, all with fan bracing.
Further, other Spanish guitars of the variety played by Fernando Sor, were fan braced, for example Juan Pages around 1790-1800. The standard vibrating string length of a modern classical guitar is 650mm, but some modern guitars such as Ramirez were built with a 660 or 664 scale. This is also nothing new, as Tyler & Sparks point out that guitars made by Pages during the 1790′s averaged about 660mm, and an instrument by Joseph Martinez of 1792 is 668mm scale: both of these makers were cited by Fernando Sor in his Method. It is also a misconception that because these guitars were smaller in body size, that they were less loud. The size of the instrument mostly affects the amount of bass, not the amount of loudness. The modern guitar is bass-dominant, at the expense of balance to some degree. The early classical guitar was very well balanced, and a smaller instrument results in a more focused treble response, and it is the treble response that results in good projection. While it is true that a larger top will displace more air, the difference in loudness is small compared to a smaller guitar. It is mostly the string energy that determines the volume, e.g. the tiny violin is far louder than the guitar because of the bowed string energy. Also, a larger guitar body means that the energy is absorbed by a larger surface area, which can reduce the amount of top vibration, while a smaller guitar will vibrate a greater amount because the string energy is disbursed over a smaller area. Given the robust musical demands of guitar music during the late classical period, as well as the vast amounts of ensemble repertoire with other orchestral instrumentation, and the lack of amplification coupled with accounts of solo guitar performances to large venues, the historical evidence as well as first-hand player accounts, is that these early classical and romantic guitars were capable of loud volumes. Just like today’s modern guitar, however, the luthier’s skill and the quality of the instrument is the critical factor; most lesser modern student-grade guitars are weak and thin, while modern concert guitars by top luthiers are robust, rich, and loud. Likewise, not all early guitars are of the same caliber.
Pepe Romero recently proved at GFA, that by playing a Lacote along with various modern guitars, that the instrument was loud, provided tonal variety, and projected well. The late 18th century and early 19th century Spanish guitar was not very different from today’s modern classical guitar: it had fan bracing, spruce top, tie bridge, metal frets, Brazilian Rosewood or Maple back and sides, and a long scale of 660-670mm (which varied, it was 660-670mm in the 18th century but was more commonly 635mm in the 19th century). The primary difference is today’s modern classical is slightly larger. It is often said that Panormo guitars, which were made “In the Spanish Style” of Juan Pages and Joseph Martinez, sound very similar to the modern classical guitar. The modern classical guitar is the product of 200 years of subsequent evolution on this basic design, and I believe it is perfectly suitable for early Spanish music by Aguado, Sor during his early Spanish period (Sor later switched to Lacote guitars while in Paris), and others. The Spanish guitar came to have 6 courses at least by the 1750′s. Further, it was the player’s discretion whether to string with single or double courses. The guitars of this day in Spain typically had 12 string slots, but players who single strung their instruments could simply leave half the slots empty. This is why even though single stringing was around at such an early date, that surviving instruments with single courses are not to be found for the most part. By 1770-1789, “the six-course guitar steadily began to supersede the old five-course instrument, a trend reflected in the ‘for sale’ columns of Madrid’s newspapers..” Tyler & Sparks cite Spanish publications from 1776 and 1780 for the 6-course guitar, by Vargas y Guzman who “tells us that the guitar… has 12 frets and six double courses, although… some instruments have only five courses and that others have seven… and notes that ‘the day of ciphers is over’ and that players can only expect to excel as musicians if they are familiar with the treble clef.” In France, the mid-18th century guitar was still 5-course, but it was beginning to adopt a simple, open soundhole, and evolve in shape toward the early 19th century guitar shape. A major innovation for the guitar was the adoption of violin notation in the mid-18th century, using the modern treble clef, instead of the various forms of tablature in use previously. This brought the guitar into the mainstream of compositions. Tyler & Sparks point out Merchi’s opus 3 in 1757 for 5-course guitar in standard notation as an early example, perhaps the inventor of this concept who ‘withdrew the guitar from the servitude which it had relative to tablature‘ (Merchi, 1777).
By the 1760′s in France, the old tablature system was almost entirely replaced with notation, which remained the standard for the 19th century. However, tablature never disappeared, and is still popular today. It is amusing to read the tablature versus standard notation discussions from 1757-1777, which are not unlike today’s debates of beginner classical guitarists who move beyond tablature into standard notation, for the same reasons: playing with ensembles, playing by composition and not by rote, holding to the same standards as other instruments, etc.. Sheet music from the mid-18th century for the 5-course guitar is perfectly readable on a modern instrument; the lowest note is the 5th “A” string, but it is otherwise untapped and underserved classical guitar repertoire. Some early compositions have notes below “A” notated an octave higher for 5-course players, and notated as an octave “8va” below for those possessing a 6th course, but this quickly became replaced with 6-string notation. Along with using the same notation of other instruments, standard tuning changed for the guitar to match orchestral pitch. Tyler & Sparks cite Corrette in 1762, “[who] mentions that the guitar used to be tuned to a lower pitch, but points out that ‘a higher pitch makes the instrument more brilliant’”.
Tyler & Sparks point out the importance of innovations in strings in the evolution of the guitar from double to single courses. Gut strings have been around since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, for thousands of years. They go on to note that “these thick plain gut bourdons were still less powerful than treble strings of the same length, so players of plucked instruments either used them together with a thinner octave string for greater emphasis (as was customary on the fourth and fifth courses of the guitar), or adopted the theorbo principle by fitting a second pegbox above the main one, thus accommodating a number of unfretted bass courses with a much longer vibrating length… [With] the invention of strings that were overspun with fine metal wire, [this] increased the overall density of the string, thereby producing deeper and more powerful bass notes for a given vibrating length… The earliest reference to this technique dates from England in 1659…”
Although wire-wound strings with a gut or silk core have been around since the 17th century, they were not common and involved much manual labor to create, sometimes by the player – or were extremely expensive. The fine wire was manually wound over the entire string, by hand. As musical demands upon the guitar changed, the desire to have a strong bass grew, and the wire-wound strings provided a much more powerful bass response than plain gut basses. However, a double course guitar with 2 wire-wound bass notes was too overpowering, and it was better to use single courses. As production methods improved, wire-wound bass strings became readily available and inexpensive, which resulted in their wide-spread adoption. Wound strings were also not adopted initially because the frets were made of gut and tied on to the fingerboard, and metal strings tended to cut the gut frets. Presumably, metal frets were introduced to allow the use of metal-wound strings. Guitar publications in 1730, 1762, and later cite the benefits of metal-wound versus plain gut bass strings. Tyler & Sparks state: “They were expensive items (two sets could cost as much as a new guitar)… [but] from 1785 onwards, references to metal-wound bass strings can be found in [various inventory records of the period] …”
Alain Bieber notes that the availability of good, inexpensive Italian strings was the key, and points out an important correlation. “I really suspect that the progress in string making and costs was paramount in the progressive replacement of the “course” by the thicker single string. If you look at Savarez strings web-site you realise that Filiberto Savarese founded in Lyon the company in 1770, coming from Napoli. I would not be surprised to learn sometimes that the Fabricatores and the Savareses were living in the same street before the move! Savarese was awarded a “privilege”, just arrived. This is now called something like a patent. He became after a few years Monsieur Savaresse, more French. When the family affairs were taken by Meissonnier, I were told in the mid 1800′s, they became known as Savarez, I suppose because it was fashionable to be Spanish at that time. Remember the wife of Napoléon III (Napoléon le petit) was Eugenia de Montijo a pure “hija de Espana”. This is also an explanation for the hit that was instantly Carmen of Bizet.” During the late 18th century in Italy, Tyler & Sparks point out that “some players began to abandon the use of courses and mount their instruments with just five single strings. The use of a single chanterelle (first string) had.. been common for centuries.., but the practice was now sometimes being adopted throughout the entire instrument…. [Merchi in 1777 states]: ‘I shall use this foreward to say a word about my manner of stringing the guitar with single strings. It is easier to find five true strings, than a larger number; single strings are easier to put in tune, and to pluck cleanly; moreover, they render pure, strong, and smooth sounds, approaching those of the harp; above all, if one uses slightly thicker strings.’… Illustrations in late 18th century method books show that players who favoured single strings simply left five of the ten tuning pegs on their five-course guitars empty, and there is no convincing evidence that five [single] string guitars were ever built as a distinct type.”
In Italy, surviving Fabricatore and Vinaccia guitars from the 1780′s show that the guitar was established by this time. Tyler & Sparks mention an Italian publication from the 1770′s citing the 6-single string guitar with modern tuning, and they mention an Italian guitar labeled ‘Gaetano Vinaccia, Napoles, anno 1779′ in the city museum, Evora, Portugal; “The label appeared to be authentic, and the instrument was similar to other Vinaccia guitars made during the latter decades of the 18th c., so this appears to be the earliest unmodified six-string guitar yet located.” Italian guitarist composer Federico Moretti played a guitar with 7 single strings (!), and formulated principles for 6-string guitar playing in 1786-7. Due to the lack of popularity of the 6-string guitar, it was initially published for the more popular 5-course instrument, but Moretti later re-published the original 6-string version in 1792, according to his memoirs. This method book and compositional style with independent voicing was deeply influential to Fernando Sor, according to his Method. France was slow to adopt the 6-course instrument, since publications requiring notes lower than A did not appear with frequency until around 1800.
The 5-course guitar was regarded as a “perfect form of evolution” not unlike how today’s players view the Torres-based guitar. Various publications in the late 18th century, notably by Doisy and others, argued against the 6-course, 7-10 course, and single string guitars, noting the simplicity and perfect evolution of the 5-double course instrument. The wave of Italian and Spanish performers toward France, with their 6 single string powerful and resonant Italian and Spanish concert guitars, virtuoso technique, and orchestrally styled compositions, no doubt helped to popularize the 6-string guitar, to the point that Paris became an important center of guitar in the early 19th century. Initially France introduced the lyre guitar, but later the French Baroque 5-course guitar, a product of centuries of refinement and design, was modified for 6 single strings, and French luthiers such as Pons, Lacote, Lavigne, Coffe, and countless others, made guitars that rivalled or surpassed their Spanish and Italian counterparts. Regarding nails or no-nails, Richard Savino pointed out to me in a private lesson several method books and illustrations from the Baroque era, showing players who used fingernails, and others who did not. It is generally acknowledged today that the nails/no-nails practices have been in use throughout the adoption of plucked stringed instruments. Sor was not typical of Spaniards in this regard, most of whom used fingernails. Tyler & Sparks refer to a 1799 Madrid publication which “gives advice on how to trim the right-hand nials with scissors, then polish them with sandpaper so that they will not catch on the strings, and they seem unimpressed by those who prefer to play with the fingertips.”
Double-Course Ancestors:1687 5-double-course guitar
Early Romantic Guitars1794 Fabricatore 6-string (left)1797 Fabricatore 6-string (right)1799 Fabricatore 6-string (middle)
The 5-double course guitars, left, have the same body shape as early 6-string guitars depicted above, including the 1700 Stradivarius. A “course” is another word for a string – previously, guitars had each string doubled up, e.g. “double course”. A modern “12 string” acoustic guitar is really a double-course 6-string guitar. Double-courses give a fuller and louder sound to chords, but they present tuning difficulties and rapid passages are more difficult. For a long time, guitars had 5 strings, doubled up either in unison or octaves. Around the 1750′s, a sixth string was added. There is debate over if a single-course 5-string guitar ever existed, or if the extant example was later modified, while it was common to leave half the string slots empty. The oldest single course 6-string guitars bear a striking resemblance to the earlier Baroque 5-string usually double-course guitar, being more elongated with less-prounounced upper and lower bouts.
Sinier de Ridder
The 6-double-course Madrid 1797 guitar replica built by Clive Titmuss shown is a good example of the 6 double-course or 12-string Spanish guitar which was popular from 1750-1830. The double-courses were a common feature of the early Spanish school. This is the style of guitar for which Boccherini composed. Regarding the double-course six-string featured in the pictures above, Clive goes on to say: “It also seems that we are very much ignorant about the music played on these guitars, since only a few sources mention six courses, pricipally Ferandiere and Moretti. The conventional reasoning has it that the guitar went from being an “art music” instrument, played by cultivated and wealthy amateurs and professionals, to being more of a “pop music” instrument, for which the opportunity to print and distribute music was slim. Nevertheless, both of the above composers are important enough to make the instrument interesting. I found it wonderful to play and full of surprises when playing music I normally play on the modern guitar, or did as a student, usually the sonatas of Scarlatti and his school. Many of these pieces, such as those of the Portuguese Seixas, or of Soler and Mateo Albeniz, derive much of thier texture and rhythm from the guitar music of the streets, which the composers have drawn into the typical Neapolitan binary sonata form. There is also a substantial repertoire for harp and for dulcimer, in both printed and MS form. Untravelled territory.”
In this transitional time period of the last half of the 18th century (1750-1799), 5-double course and 6-double course instruments existed alongside instruments which were built identically, but strung as single course. Instruments were built as double-course so that either style of stringing could be used. With the popularity of wire-wound bass strings, and new styles of playing, single courses prevailed, as did the 6th course which allowed full non-inverted chord spellings. Examples of 6-10 course instruments existed during this period, but were not widespread – no doubt inspired by the Baroque Lute and Theorbo. There was not a specific date where the single or double course 5 or 6 string “took over”; rather, they overlapped and co-existed for nearly a century. The single course 6-string guitar simply became more popular during the 1800′s, no doubt inspired by Italian virtuosos migrating throughout Europe to escape poverty in their homeland, where the single string, high-tension powerful eary classical guitar was becoming mainstream. Of course, the double-course 6-string guitar never died, either – the 12-string acoustic guitar remains popular in the steel-string variety. Traditional Portuguese and Latin American instruments are still derived from their 5 double-course ancestors.