minstrel: Guitars

Tadhg O Cuileannain Tadhg at flash.net
Thu Dec 20 21:38:10 PST 2001

I am Tadhg O Cuileannain and I live in the Barony of Three Mountains
(Portland, OR).

As Adelaide noted, this guitar question comes up in some form pretty
regularly.  I play the harp (badly), but my main instruments are in the
guitar family:  I play a mundane cuatro, which is, in persona, a
gittern.  I also have a kind of homemade four-course guitar that I
modified from a child-size instrument.  And I just bought an oud, which
I'm wrestling with (it still wins two falls out of three).

You can find "guitars" as early as the 13th century--by which I mean
instruments with waisted bodies and frets (check out the illuminations
to the Cantigas di Santa Maria, links from the minstrel page).  They
even have fingerboards that extend over the top, which is sometimes said
to be a modern development.  Since the frets on that part of the
fingerboard could not have been tied on, they might be inlaid metal,
which would indicate metal strings.  Some have four strings, some have
five, some appear to have three double courses like a modern Cuban tres
(but the resolution isn't quite good enough to be certain in those
images).  Those lute-guitars have come in for a bit of abuse, but I can
show you period pictures of pear-shaped instruments with six single
courses, that look a lot like the lute-guitars, except the necks are
shorter and the bodies slightly smaller.  The truth is, there were a lot
of different instrument designs, and I think a lot of blurring between
categories, which is why modern scholars have had trouble making clear
distinctions between guitars, gitterns, citterns, citoles, vihuelas,
etc.  This is what you might expect if many musicians built their own
instruments--who among us could resist tweaking the design a bit?  I do
think that steel-string dreadnoughts look out of place (if you care
about looking period, try a smaller size, at least).  But what really
matters is how you play it.

Which leads me to revisit a question that was asked several months ago,
which went unanswered (I didn't answer it because I didn't really know
much about it--but maybe I know as much as anyone else...): How do you
accompany medieval music (as opposed to Renaissance--I play early period
music--nothing after 1400, really) on a plucked string instrument?  I'm
not really asking how it was done, since the short answer to that is "no
one really knows."  But if you are a string player (maybe the same
issues arise with bowed strings), what kind of approaches do you use if
you are accompanying a singer, or just playing a melody?

Modern triadic chordal approaches are pretty clearly not early
period--though there are a few tunes, like "Sic mea fata" from the
Carmina Burana, that seem to cry out for I-IV-V chord progressions.
Some theorists seem to believe that one should just play the melody
monophonically(doubling the voice); some say you use a drone
accompaniment (easy on the harp, not always so easy on a guitar); and
the professional performers do other things.  I usually try to transpose
to a pitch where I have the finalis of the mode (if there's a clearly
identifiable mode, which is not always the case) available as an open
bass string, and the dominant not too difficult to hit (in modern terms,
this usually means the keys of D, G, and A), then play the melody while
playing either or both of those notes as often as possible.  If the
melody wanders off someplace that would make those notes sound really
harsh, I treat it as if the mode had changed and pick a different set of
drones.  When I'm accompanying my voice, I play the drones, sometimes
double a bit of the melody, sometimes drop out and sing a bar or two
acapella, throw in the odd fill between vocal lines...

I do have a theoretical rationalization for this, but the fact is that
medieval secular song often doesn't conform to theory anyway (the
theorists were mostly concerned with liturgical music).  But I wonder
what other people do... Musicians are thin on the ground in Three
Mountains, so I don't often get to hear other players.

In service,


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