Baroque Guitar for the Modern Performer A Practical Compromise

The following article is a product of my research and Mr. Rowe’s ingenuity. I have frequently regretted the small part baroque guitar music plays in the repertoire of the classic guitar. The first section of this article examines the historical reasons for this unfortunate situation and some of the attempts made by editors at adapting baroque guitar tablature for the modern performer. The second section, written by my pragmatic colleague, offers a different approach: rather than adapting the music for the guitar, he suggests a way of modifying the guitar in order to better accommodate the music!

Judging from the type of early music played by guitarists, it would appear that very little music was actually written for the guitar prior to the adoption of the modern instrument. Although baroque guitar solos are occasionally heard in concerts and recordings, transcriptions of lute music make up a larger portion of the guitarist’s “diet.” Despite this misleading set of circumstances, the guitar achieved an enormous amount of popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Peter Danner’s important bibliography of guitar tablatures offers ample proof of this claim; the revised list includes over three hundred books of renaissance and baroque guitar music.1 (The list would be even longer had Danner not limited himself to music for guitars tuned to the same intervallic pattern as the modern instrument. Music for the Spanish vihuela and guitarra, for example, was not included for this reason.)

Of all the modern guitar’s predecessors, the baroque guitar has the largest surviving repertoire, yet the vast majority of it is never played. This is due not so much to a deficiency in the music itself, despite Willi Apel’s somewhat misleading remarks,2 but rather to the design of the seventeenth-century guitar. Although the baroque guitar would appear to be closely related to the six-string guitar, certain characteristics suggest that it might just as well be considered a different instrument altogether. Not only is the baroque guitar lighter and smaller than its more familiar relative, its music is recorded using a fundamentally different form of notation—tablature rather than mensural notation. But, most importantly, the seventeenth-century guitar was strung in a manner that resulted in different musical and technical characteristics.

Like most of the plucked string instruments of the period, the guitar was strung with pairs of strings (called “courses”) in a manner similar to that of the modern twelve-string guitar. Although the intervallic pattern between the five courses remained constant, the courses themselves could be strung with either unisons or octaves. (It should be noted that the five courses of the baroque guitar were tuned to the same relative pitches as the first five strings of the modern guitar, although altered tunings were occasionally employed.) Generally the first course was single, while the second and third courses were tuned in unison. The disposition of the fourth and fifth courses varied; unfortunately few composers specified which tuning (here “tuning” is used in a more general sense, perhaps “stringing” is more accurate) was appropriate for their music. As little historical evidence survives, musicologists are forced to rely on internal evidence, that is, evidence found by studying the music itself. By observing the function of the lower fourth and fifth courses, which involves judging whether the notes on these strings serve a melodic or accompanying role, it is sometimes possible to make an educated guess about the best tuning, providing that this is carefully weighed against the available historical evidence. Conclusions based on internal evidence alone must be regarded with caution, for composers frequently tolerated octave leaps in guitar music.

In recent years scholars have debated the problem of baroque guitar tuning and while differences of opinion are widespread, certain generalizations may be made.4 Judging from statements made by Juan Carlos Amat and Girolamo Montesardo, the guitar was originally strung with octaves on the fourth and fifth courses.5 This tuning, which is documented in a number of sources,6 appears to have been used in Italy up to about the middle of the seventeenth century (see example 1).

ex1Example 1. Italian tuning

Italian tuning is also appropriate for the compositions of some non-Italian composers. According to Brian Jeffery, the music of Francisco Guerau is best suited for this tuning.7 As guitar music grew more sophisticated (and, to the dismay of many guitarists, more lute-like) composers experimented with different methods of stringing the fourth and fifth courses. Curious re-entrant tunings began to appear. Rather than stringing the guitar so that the lowest note was found on the fifth course, the bourdons (i.e. lower Octaves) of the bass courses were removed, thus the lowest note might be found on either the third or the fourth course (see example 2).8

ex2Example 2. Two re-entrant tunings: a) Spanish re-entrant tuning, and b) French re-entrant tuning.

The highly original music that resulted may be found in the French publications of Corbetta, Carrre, Derosier, and De Visee, who all mention the so-called “French re-entrant tuning” in their books. This tuning is also thought to be appropriate for the music of Santiago de Murcia, a Spaniard.9 Fewer guitarists mention the tuning described as “Spanish reentrant tuning” in my second example, although, according to Gaspar Sanz, this tuning is more appropriate for modern plucked (as opposed to strummed) music and the playing of a particularly charming effect, the campanella.10 This device, which is only possible on a properly strung instrument, involves the execution of scale-like passages on adjacent courses so that a charming confusion of tones results. The effect is vaguely similar to the ringing of church bells (campanas in Spanish) and particularly well-suited to the resonant quality of an early, low-tension instrument. (See example 6 in the second part of this article.)

Of the three tunings mentioned above, music written for guitars tuned with octaves on both the fourth and fifth courses would appear to give the least amount of difficulty to transcribers. Unfortunately, the better-known composers eschewed this tuning, and, for that reason, modern guitarists tend to prefer six- and seven-course lute music, as the lute was strung in a similar fashion to the modern guitar (see example 3).

ex3Example 3. The tuning of the six-course renaissance lute (a) compared to the tuning of the modern guitar (b). Although they may not appear to be similar, they are, with the exception of the third course (or string, in the case of the guitar), tuned to the same intervallic pattern.

Despite the obstacles raised by the unusual stringing of the baroque guitar, several attempts have been made at transcribing its music. The first transcription of early guitar tablature was made a century ago (the publication is dated 1881) by the Italian musicologist Oscar Chilesotti, who published a modern edition of Ludovico Roncalli’s Capricci Armonici.11 Although Chilesotti incorrectly assumed that Roncalli’s guitar was strung in the Italian manner (the high incidence of Campanella technique suggests a re-entrant tuning), he set an important precedent. Most editors since Chilesotti have directed their efforts towards the creation of performing editions in an attempt to revive the music of the past. Recognizing the fact that the baroque guitar is really another instrument they have had no qualms about using the original tablature as a guideline for their own arrangements. As a result, ornaments are often ignored, bass lines are adjusted to suit the extended range of the modern instrument, dance movements are reordered or even deleted from suites, just as difficult passages of individual selections are dropped if awkward in transcription.

Within the last decade two opposing methods of transcription have been devised in an attempt to satisfy both the scholar and the performer. The first was proposed in 1969 by Robert Strizich, who transcribed the complete guitar works of Robert de Visee.12 The second method was developed seven years later by Richard Pinnell, who transcribed all of Corbetta’s known works.13 Both systems are distinguished by their scholarly intent, and for this reason only notes within the range of the seventeenth-century guitar have been included; the sixth string of the modern guitar, therefore, is not called into service.

Due to the nature of Pinnell’s method, his transcriptions are most successful when the fourth course acts as a bass string. Indeed, his editions are meant for a modern guitarist who has restrung his instrument so that the fifth string is tuned an octave higher than usual, while the fourth string remains tuned to the lower octave, resulting in octave displacement when the fourth course acts as a melody string. (Mr. Rowe has modified his guitar in a way that eliminates this problem.) Pinnell indicates the notes played on the fifth course an octave lower than they actually sound for the convenience of the guitarist; thus the score does not always reflect the actual sound of the music (see example 4).

ex4Example 4. “Sarab. de ‘La Victoire’” from Corbetta’s La guitarra royalle, p. 30, meas. 20-21. Three versions: a) the original tablature. h) Pinnell’s transcription. and c) the notes that actually sound on the modern guitar. (The entire saraband is transcribed in Pinnell’s dissertation, vol. 2, p. 250.)

The passage transcribed in example 4 would appear to be ill-chosen, for Pinnell’s transcription reflects, with just one exception, the pitches that are actually produced by the modern guitarist. Yet, this example raises the following important question: Are these the pitches that occur when the same passage is played on a baroque guitar? In order to answer this question it will be necessary to examine the same passage transcribed using the procedure outlined by Strizich in the De Visee edition.

Unlike Pinnell, Strizich indicates all notes on the fifth course at their actual pitch. It is his procedure for transcribing notes on the fourth course, however, that is particularly relevant at this point.

Notes on the fourth course are generally represented by only the lower octave in the present transcriptions. However, when important melodic progressions depend on the upper octave of the fourth course, as is often the case, the higher pitch is indicated by a small note in parentheses.’4

A closer look at the passage quoted in example 4 reveals that the notes falling on the fourth course seem to have a melodic function. Had Strizich transcribed the same passage, the results would have been closer to the original intention of the composer (see example 5). The transcription made in the style of Strizich shows all of the pitches produced by a baroque guitar playing this passage. In practice, however, the modern interpreter would be well advised to omit the lower octaves of each fourth-course pair. This pragmatic compromise will simplify the execution of the scale without sacrificing much authenticity.

ex5Example 5. Corbetta, “Sarab. de ‘La Victoire’” ” meas. 20-21 as it might have been transcribed by Robert Strizich.

Had an excerpt been chosen that made more use of the fifth course, the advantages of Pinnell’s system would have been more apparent. When the fifth-course notes are written at their actual pitch level, the guitarist has to play these notes on the second or third string of the modern guitar. When the composer gives notes that are to sound on both the fifth course and, say, the second or third course, the modern guitarist is faced with either a very difficult or even impossible situation. Pinnell’s system allows the guitarist to maintain the original fingering. Furthermore, the score is not encumbered with “special symbols, such as 5 written under each chord.”15

Overall, Pinnell’s procedure seems to be more beneficial to the performer while the method used by Strizich seems to favor the musicologist. Because Pinnell does not indicate the actual pitches occurring on the fifth course, nor on the fourth course when it serves a melodic function, certain demands are made on the scholar which seem rather unrealistic.

Three rules of thumb apply for scholars who wish to realize this music at the keyboard: 1) keep in mind the original tuning; 2) no note will actually sound below the fourth-course bourden (sic) or lower octave of 4 and .3) in a chord of five tones, the lowest note sounds an octave higher.16

From the above discussion the reader will see that pieces notated in French re-entrant tuning are not unplayable on the modern guitar, although certain compromises must be made: the guitarist must either restring his guitar or be willing to deal with occasional difficulties resulting from diversions from the original fingering indicated by the composer.

There is, unfortunately, no one way of transcribing the music of Sanz (i.e., music in Spanish re-entrant tuning) that will please both scholars and performers. Because the courses are all tuned in unison, a variation of Pinnell’s system (that is, the modern guitarist must replace both his fourth and fifth strings) presents the best possible way of transcribing this music for the modern performer. In music of this nature the original fingering presents the only practical approach to the music; Strizich’s method, therefore, makes an impractical performing edition. On the other hand, Pinnell’s system would be even more impractical for scholars. Fortunately, only a small percentage of baroque guitar music was intended for a guitar using this tuning. For this reason it would not be impossible to transcribe this material in both scholarly and performing editions. Perhaps the two transcriptions could even be combined in the same edition with one line for the performer playing in scordatura (on a restrung guitar), and a second line for the scholar, showing actual pitches. As the second line would be, in many cases, unplayable on the modern guitar, it could even be given in keyboard score, in which form it could be more easily executed.

As Mr. Jensen has shown, an accurate rendition of most baroque guitar music on a classic guitar is nearly impossible when playing from tablature, and the various methods of transcription, while eliminating some difficulties, often introduce new ones. This is not the fault of the transcriptions themselves, as they must accommodate an instrument not intended for direct performance of baroque music. Acquiring historical instruments would resolve these difficulties, but a practical alternative exists for those who cannot afford that option.

A modern six-string guitar can be easily and inexpensively modified to duplicate the pitches of the tunings Mr. Jensen refers to as ‘French” and “Spanish.” Pieces requiring the “Italian” tuning are usually compatible with an unmodified classic guitar. The result is a six-string, five-course instrument with a double-string fourth course. The use of single strings on the remaining courses is a reasonable compromise since these were originally tuned in unison. A quick means of switching between the “French” and “Spanish” tunings will also be provided. The modification itself, if done carefully and thoughtfully, is quite safe and switching between baroque and modern tunings can be accomplished simply by changing two strings.

The only permanent alteration to the guitar is the drilling of an additional hole in the bridge. The most accurate way to accomplish this is by removing the bridge and using a drill press; however, a less precise, yet eminently workable alternative does not even require removing the strings. The only tools required are a new or sharpened drill bit (about 1/16″ [.16cm.]), a pair of pliers, and a small file. A small block of wood and some thin cardboard are also helpful. The new hole will be drilled between the existing fourth and fifth strings, about 1/8″ (.3 cm.) from the fourth string.

Lay the cardboard below the bridge to protect the top of the instrument and place the block of wood flat on the cardboard near the bridge. Mark the wood at the height of the string holes and drill a hole at this point slightly larger than the drill bit, no more than 114″ (.6 cm.) into the wood, at an angle that will match that of the existing string holes in the bridge. Insert the blunt end of the drill bit into the hole and ensure that it turns easily, using wax or graphite if necessary as a lubricant. Turn the bit with the pliers, using the block of wood to hold it against the bridge as shown in figure 1. It is essential that the bit be sharp, or it may not cut properly.

fig1Figure 1. Drilling an extra hole in the bridge.

This procedure seems tedious and redundant but it works; I was able to drill the hole in about twenty minutes. The primary concern is to keep the new hole parallel to the existing holes, ensuring that the bit comes out properly on the other side. Loosening the strings is recommended to reduce the total pressure on the bridge.

Changing strings is next. After removing the fifth string, another string that will sound one octave higher than the existing fourth string should be attached to the roller for the original fifth string, the other end passing through the new hole in the bridge. A high “e” string, tuned a whole step lower than usual works well. Unlike the lute, the bourdon of a baroque guitar is usually placed on the treble side.’7 This can actually be helpful since the fourth course is usually played with the thumb, making it relatively easy to emphasize the upper octave if desired. Replace the sixth string with an “a” string that will sound one octave higher than the original fifth string. A “b” string may be used and tuned lower as before. Insert one end into the hole in the bridge for the original fifth string and attach the other end to the roller for the original sixth string, leaving the hole in the bridge for the original sixth string unused.

The spacing of the strings may be controlled by filing new notches in the saddle and nut. If done carefully, this should succeed on the first attempt, but if not, both the saddle and nut can be easily and inexpensively replaced. Variables such as string length and tension will necessitate experimenting with the spacing of the strings, but here are some guidelines: Keep both strings of the fourth course close enough together to be played easily, but not so close that buzzing may occur. Moving the fifth course a little toward the edge of the fingerboard is helpful in keeping the spacing between courses consistent.

The center to center spacing between the courses of my guitar, which has a string length of 25.76″ (65.4 cm.) is .447″ (1.135 cm.) at the saddle and .316″ (.803 cm.) at the nut, while the spacing between the two strings of the fourth course is .087″ (.221 cm.) at the saddle and .079″ (.201 cm.) at the nut. As a general guide, the diameter of a sixth string is about half of .087″. These measurements may differ for the other guitars and strings!

The following operation will simplify switching between the “French” and “Spanish” tunings. File a notch in the saddle beside the bourdon down to, but not into the wood of the bridge as shown in figure 2.

fig2Figure 2.

File a similar notch in the nut. The bourdon may then be moved into these notches to keep it out of the way for pieces requiring the “Spanish” tuning. It is not even necessary to loosen the string if a wire hook or piece of heavy string or twine is used to carefully lift the string out of one notch and into the other. One end of a bent paper clip may be hooked over the bourdon and the other end hooked to the transverse brace inside the guitar just above the soundhole, pulling the middle of the string out of the way as well.

The balance between the strings of the fourth course may be regulated by altering the tension of the strings. Several manufacturers offer nylon strings in various diameters and a little experimenting should yield satisfactory results. As a general guide, the diameters of “e” and “b” strings are approximately .028″ (.071 cm.) and .031″ (.079 cm.) respectively. Thicker strings will be louder and also reduce the chance of buzzing, but do not use a string so thick that the tension will be greater than that of the other strings.

Tablature and transcriptions such as those by Pinnell are directly playable on this type of guitar, and Strizich’s transcriptions of Visee are only marginally inconvenient. Sometimes I find it desirable to refinger a chord, moving a note originally notated on the fifth course to the second or third course or vice-versa. This is very simple when reading from a transcription by Strizich, although this depends somewhat on reading ability. I use a blue pen to mark those notes to be played on the fifth course, and find these transcriptions no more difficult than any other.

Arrangements of baroque works for modern guitar which add notes on the sixth string are a bit more difficult on a re-entrant instrument. These low notes may either be played an octave higher or left out. It is sometimes possible to reconstruct the original score from such arrangements, but the complexities of this procedure are beyond the scope of this article. Whenever possible, use the original tablature or reliable transcriptions.

Facsimile editions of several baroque guitar tablatures are published by Minkoff and Forni, and many works are available on microfilm through the Lute Society of America. Many renaissance tablatures may be directly played as well. These require a four-course instrument often tuned to the same intervals as the upper four courses of this conversion.18

Even though this re-entrant instrument reproduces the pitches of its baroque counterpart, it is still a modern guitar. Techniques which are musically effective on a baroque guitar will not necessarily be equally effective on this conversion. By all means, study and experiment with baroque techniques,19 but if the sound is not satisfactory, try something else.

The altered fourth course may necessitate some modifications in technique, particularly in the use of rest strokes, slurs and left hand ornaments. Certain types of rest strokes will cause the two strings of the fourth course to sound successively; if this becomes a problem, try a different type of rest stroke. Likewise, slurs and ornaments that are not carefully controlled may not sound clearly. Listen carefully, analyze thoroughly and fully explore alternatives.

In campanella sections, damping is sometimes desirable, if more than two strings are involved, to make the passage sound clearly on a modern guitar. Example 6 illustrates one possibility.

ex6Example 6. ‘Canarios’ from Sanz’s lnstruccion de musica, fol. 23r . meas. 21-24. Transcribed and fingered by Don Rowe

The “X” followed by a circled number denotes damping the indicated course. This excerpt uses the “Spanish” tuning; notes on the fourth and fifth courses will sound one octave higher than notated. More damping will emphasize the melodic progression, while less will highlight the campanella effect. The ideal is to produce the most desirable sound within acceptable technical limitations. While trying this passage, experiment with a slight rotation of the forearm to assist the fingers.

Strumming techniques also sound much different on a modern guitar, particularly if nails are used. The techniques I generally use are the down-stroke with the index finger, the up-stroke with the same finger and the down-stroke with the thumb, usually without the nail. Less often, I use an up-stroke with the back of the thumbnail. When a three- or four-note chord is indicated to be strummed, I sometimes do a fast roll using “p”, “i”, “m” or “p”, “I”, “m”, “a” rather than actually strumming, but this depends largely on the nature of the piece.20

The re-entrant guitar described here is not an authentic instrument for performing baroque works, but it is a practical compromise, particularly if an extra guitar is available or can be acquired at a reasonable cost. My overall concept of many pieces has changed since I have been playing my own conversion, adding a whole new dimension to these works. It enables delving directly into tablatures that would otherwise require much rearranging and transcribing to be playable on a modern guitar, broadening the musical horizons of the performer as well as the instrument.


1 “Bibliografia delle principali intavolature per chirarra” Il Fronimo (Oct. 1979), pp. 7-18. Earlier versions of the same bibliography are found in the following sources: “Bibliography of Guitar Tablatures 1546-1764:’ Journal of the Lure Society of America (1972). pp. 40-51 and “An Update to the Bibliography of Guitar Tablatures:’ Journal of the Lute Society of America (1973), pp. 33-36.

2 Willi Apel. Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2d ed., s.v. “guitar.”

3 For a discussion of scordatura in Italian guitar music see my thesis “The Development of Technique and Performance Practice as Reflected in Seventeenth-Century Guitar Notation” (Master’s thesis, California State University, Northridge, 1980), pp. 106-109.

4 See Helene Charnasse. “Sur l’accord de Ia guitare:’ Recherches sur la musique francaise classique (1967), pp. 25-38; Sylvia Murphy, “The Tuning of the Five-Course Guitar:’ Galpin Society Journal (1970), pp. 49-63: Donald Gill, “The Stringing of the Five-Course Guitar:’ Early Music (1975). pp. 370-371: and Jensen. “The Development of Technique and Performance Practice:’ pp. 8-22.

5 Amat. Guirarra espanola y vandola… (Gerona: Joseph Bro. 1639).p. 1 and Montesardo. Nuova inventione . . . (Florence: Christofano Marescotti. 1606), Preface. The first edition of Amat’s work predates Montesardo’s, unfortunately it has not survived.

6 In addition to the historical evidence cited by Charnasse, Murphy, and Gill, I found four new sources in sevenreenrh’cenrury Italian guitar tutors. See Jensen. ‘The Development of Technique:’ pp. 16-19.

7 See Francisco Guerau, Poema Harmonico (Madrid, 1694) Complete Facsimile Edition with an Introduction and English Translation by Brian Jeffery (London: Tecla editions, [1977]).

8 Murphy, pp. 55-56.

9 Robert Strizich. “Ornamentation in Spanish Baroque Guitar Music,” Journal of the Lute Society of America (1972). p. 20.

10 Instruccion de musica sobre Ia guitarra espanola (1674), Facsimile edition edited by Luis Garcia-Abrines (Zaragoza: Institucion “Fernando el Catolico” de Ia EXCMA. 1966). p. 1.

11 “Capricci armonici sopra la chitarra spagnola” del Conten Lodovico Roncalli (1692) teanscritti nella moderna notazione (Milan, Lucca. 1881).

12 Robert de Visee: Oeuvres completes pour guitare (Paris: Heugel. [1969]).

13 “The Role of Francesco Corbeta (1615-1681) in the History of Music for the Baroque Guitar, Including a Transcription of his Complete Works” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of California Los Angeles, 1976).

14 Stririch. Robert de Visee, p. vi.

15 Pinnell. 2:viii.

16 Pinnell, 2:viii-ix.

17 For a discussion of the historical evidence for this stringing see Jensen, “The Development of Technique.” pp. 1-18.

18 For more information on the renaissance guitar, see Margot Haylor, “Some Words about the Renaissance Guitar.” Newsletter of the Lute Society of America (July, 1979). p. 5 and James Tyler, “The Renaissance Guitar 1500-1650,” Early Music (Oct. 1975), pp. 341-347.

19 Two articles by Strizich on baroque guitar techniques are “Ornamentation in Spanish Guitar Music,” and “A Spanish Guitar Tutor: Ruiz de Ribayaz’s Lux y Norte Musical (1677).” Journal of the Lute Society of America (1974), pp. 51-81.

20 For more information on rasgueado techniques, see Jensen, “The Development of Technique,” pp. 67-74; Murphy, “Seventeenth-Century Guitar Music: Notes on Rasgueado Performance,” Galpin Society Journal (1968), pp. 24-31; Joseph Weidlich. Battuto Performance Practice in Early Italian Guitar Music (1606-1637):’ Journal of the Lute Society of America (1978), pp. 63-86.

By Don Rowe and Richard d’A Jensen
Originally published in Guitar Review, #49, Fall 1981

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