Spanish guitar

Article of historical interest from University Musical Encyclopedia - A history Of Music (1912)


The guitar now in general use is the Spanish. It belongs to the family of lutes and zithers, of which it is now the most important representative. The name is inherited from the Greek taBapa, though the instrument is not the same. The guitar is really of Arabian origin, and was introduced into Spain by the Moors. It spread into Italy and France in the sixteenth century, in a five-stringed form. The sixstringed form, now in use, was invented by a German named Cetto, about 1790. The real Spanish guitar was introduced into England after the Peninsular War by Ferdinand Sor, a Spaniard, who composed for it. The guitar soon became so popular in England that it seemed about to displace the Erard harp; but Erard distributed guitars among the working classes, so that the aristocracy would consider the instrument too plebeian, and keep to the harp.

The guitar has a flat front and back. There is a large sound-hole in front The sides are curved almost like those of a violin, and some have thought from this that the guitar was originally played with a bow. But the shape varied a good deal. The soundboard, or front, is usually pine, while maple, ash, or cherry serves for the other parts of the sound-box. The neck and fingerboard are made of hard wood, and the bridge, at the other end of the strings, is generally ebony and metal. The three upper strings are catgut, the other three being made of silk wound with fine wire. They are tuned in fourths and thirds, giving the written notes E, A, D, G, B, and E in ascending order, beginning with the E below middle C; but sounding an octave lower than written. The Spanish instrument had ebony pegs for tuning, but metal screws are now used. The fingerboard is provided with frets to mark the intervals. The instrument can be transposed a semitone downward by means of a nut called the capo tasto. It is thus made ready for use in flat keys. The old instruments often had extra strings, duplicating the pitch of the others. The guitar is never played with a plectrum, but always by the fingers. The little finger rests on the soundboard during performance, in a spot so chosen that the thumb can sound the deepest strings.

On the famous “Gate of Glory,” made by Mateo in 1188 for the church of St. Jago of Compostella (Spain) is a relief of an early guitar, or vihuela. A hundred years later, in the time of the troubadours, there were several kinds of vihuela, some played with bow or plectrum. In modern times there has been a Terz-guitarre, a minor third higher than usual. Giuliani wrote a concerto for this, with band, which was published by Diabelli and transcribed for the piano by Hummel. The popular Portuguese machete, or octave guitar, has four strings, tuned to the D, G, B, and D running up from middle C, or sometimes D, G, B, and E. In Madeira, after the work in the vineyards is finished, the workers enliven their homeward journey with this instrument.

The chief composers for the guitar, besides Sor and Giuliani, have been Legnaiii, Kreutzer, Nuske, Regondi, and Leonard Schulz. Killer's impromptu “Zur Guitarre” imitates the style of that instrument on the piano. The guitar was the only instrument that Berlioz could play. Paganini was very fond of it, and at one time gave up the violin in its favor. Recently some quartets of his have been discovered, for violin, viola, cello, and guitar. The guitar is well adapted to accompany the voice, and composers have used it for this purpose in opera. In Rossini's “Barber of Seville” it was employed in Almaviva's serenade. But it is too light for orchestral purposes. Schumann thought of using it for the accompaniment of the Romanza in his D minor symphony, but gave up the idea and used the pizzicato tones of violins instead. These tones give an excellent guitar effect in the Barcarolle of Offenbach's “Contes d'Hoffmann” and in the song in the prelude to Mascagni's “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The guitar is eminently pleasing as a solo instrument, and the dreamy melancholy of its tone-color gives it a real charm. Notwithstanding the various modifications that have been made in it, the instrument remains but slightly changed.

Source: Universal Digital Library

See Musical instrument, classical guitar, flamenco guitar

  • Make Your Own Spanish Guitar by A.P. Sharpe. A free illustrated book from 1957, of interesting to those who would want to build or know more about the art of building a spanish guitar.