minstrel: guitar lute & others

Lisa and Ken Theriot Lnktheriot at satx.rr.com
Mon Jul 14 18:58:17 PDT 2008

Cecily wrote:

[I am also a classical guitarist and I have played a guitar-lute which
was a transitional instrument between the older lute and the guitar. It
is tuned like a guitar, although you can tune the third string down to
F#, if preferred, and it has a rounded back. My family owns one.]

There was really no transition from lute to guitar; they coexisted.  You
might talk about a transition from vihuela to guitar, though they really
sort of grew together.  There are, however, dozens of hybrid instruments
of various types, some of which amusingly enough turn up on eBay.  A lot
of them are coursed.  What you most often see in the SCA, though, is a
lute-body guitar, which is a six-stringed guitar with a rounded back,
and sometimes a carved sound hole.  There is also a company that sells
carved sound holes to fit modern guitars:


[My research has not uncovered any record of a true guitar prior to the
time of Fernando Sor (1778-1839), who popularized the guitar in its
present classical form, with six strings and a flat back.]

If that is your definition of a "true guitar", then you're absolutely
right; the oldest existing specimen dates to circa 1780.  Flat backs
were the norm for most of the guitar/gittern/vihuela family of
chordophones, though; the round ribbed back of the lute is far less
common.  The innovation of that (the 1780) instrument is in its being
made for single strings only; there are older instruments that were
evidently played the same way, but they had been adapted from coursed
instruments, rather like someone owning a 12-string guitar and only
putting six strings on it. A 12-string is much nearer a period
instrument than a six-string, but it's nearer a period vihuela, which
had six courses (like a lot of renaissance lutes).  Guitars had four or
five (like a lot of medieval lutes).

Since I own both six- and 12- stringed guitars, and they are undeniably
all guitars, I don't consider the variation between courses and single
strings a deal breaker.  It was very common for music to specify which
course(s) were to be left single (usually the highest at least), and
most surviving period guitar music (not, sadly, that there is a lot)
calls for just that, some double courses and some single strings.  And
the number of courses/strings was nothing like standard, which is why
they are specified.

In 1596, Juan Carles y Amat published "Guitarra Espan~ola y Vandola"
which was a manual of play for an instrument with nine strings, four
double courses and a chanterelle (single string), tuned Aa/Dd/Gg/Bb/E,
or standard modern tuning minus the low E.  He showed hand positions for
chords which are identical to those you'll find in any beginning guitar
book today.  He discussed what a fine thing it was not to be stuck
playing the melody only, but by strumming chords, the guitar player
could "paint" with music.  It continued to be reprinted for centuries,
and in fact Mel Bay has a facsimile edition of the ca. 1765 reprinting
currently in print.

[Prior to this time there were ancestors of the guitar, such as
guitarrone or vihuela,]

The vihuela isn't so much an ancestor as a big brother.  The guitarrone
is a much newer instrument than the guitar; its ancestor is the bajo de
un~o.  The word gitteron was used in English for vihuelas; an inventory
of musical instruments belonging to Henry VIII includes "four gitterons
with iiii. Cases...they are called Spanish Vialles."

[instruments with doubled strings,]

I have a 12-stringed guitar.  The single strings won the popular vote,
but some people still like the sound of a coursed instrument.  And
coursed instruments could be and often were played strung singly.

[different amounts of strings,]

Medieval lutes typically had four or five courses; renaissance lutes
typically had six, and then the floodgates burst.  But I doubt you'll
find anyone who won't call them all lutes.

[and different shapes ]

The only reason we have "standard" shapes now is so it's easier to get
cases to fit.  We have 11 guitars in the house, and only two of them
have the same outline.  Only four of them will fit in anything other
than a custom-made case.  Body shape is fairly irrelevant to the
identity of an instrument except as larger bodies give more resonating
space.  A lute-bodied guitar is still a guitar.  (The neck of a
chordophone, how it's bridged and how or whether it is fretted, is more
important than the body.  That's why guitars can be made with oddly
shaped bodies or no bodies at all and still play like guitars.)

[and tunings.]

Tuning is fluid (until you reach the point where the strain of
tightening the string puts more stress on the neck than it will bear).
There are currently three guitars on stands by my fireplace, and all
three are in different tunings.  Lute tuning is so non-standard that
most lute music gives the required tuning for the piece.  Some guitar
music does as well.  But as I mentioned above, the tuning we call
"standard" for guitars existed in period but for the bass string.
Modern note: Joni Mitchell plays in so many alternate tunings that she
now uses a synthesizer guitar so she can retune at the touch of a button
rather than having roadies tuning dozens of guitars for her.  She
started making up her own tunings when she found the residual paralysis
from her polio as a child left her unable to reach some fingerings in
standard tuning.

[To consider these guitars might be like considering the recorder a true
modern flute.]

Well, no.  The finger positions, the playing position of the instrument,
the range, and the method for getting air into the instrument are all
totally different.  A competent recorder player cannot just pick up and
play a concert flute.  If you handed me Juan Carles Amat's guitar, I
could play it without hesitation, and he could play mine.  I can't play
a lute, though with a little experimentation I could produce pleasant
sounds (as I can on a harp as long as it has those lovely color-coded C
and F strings), but I wouldn't fool anyone.

[I would be very interested in seeing your documentation for the two
"guitars" you mention, and for the statement that the plucked guitar
died out.]

Here's a quote from Juan Ruiz (1283-1350) in Libro de buen amor:

Alli sale gritando la guitarra morisca
De las voces aguda e de los puntos arisca
El corpudo loud que tiene punto a la trisca
La guitarra Latina con esos se aprisca

With the translation (clearly done to rhyme rather than be accurate, but
it's not too bad):

Here comes the Moorish guitar with its clatter
Its strident notes and high-pitched chatter
The corpulent lute (oud) that beats time for the dance
Joins the Latin guitar, and all three advance

Records from Duke Jehan of Normandy in 1349 note that he employed
specialists in the "guiterre morische" and the "guiterre latine"; the
Moorish guitar was plucked, or played 'punteado' and the latin guitar
was played 'rasgado' or by ripping the thumb across the strings, i.e.,

Grunfeld (see reference below) goes on to say, "The Moorish guitar
gradually disappeared from Spain, for its work, in any case, was better
performed by the lute.  But as late as the sixteenth century it could
still be said of a Spanish musician that he played 'a la morisca y a la
castellana'-- in the Moorish and in the Castillian style."  A lot of
this section references a work by Karl Geiringer called...wait for it...
"Der Instrumentenname 'Quinterne' und die mittelalterlichen
Bezeichnungen der Gitarre, Mandola und Coslascione" which is evidently a
treatise on the whole mixed-up naming of the medieval chordophone

[Bach, Beethoven, Sor, deFalla, Guilliani, etc would all disagree with
the statement that the guitar is designed to be strummed only.]

I hope I clarified this earlier that I meant merely that strumming
versus plucking was the chief difference between lute music and guitar
music in period.  Sadly, none of those guys predate 1600.

If you can get your hands on this book, it's great, and has lots of
pretty pictures:

Grunfeld, Frederic V..  The Art and Times of the Guitar, New York: Da
Capo, 1969.  ISBN 0-306-80336-4


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