Renaissance guitar

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Title: La Guitarra Espanola, 1546-1732; Hans Michael Koch, Renaissance guitar. Label: MDG Scene. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MDG 605 0610-2. Track: 7.

Contextual Associations

This guitar is a plucked box-lute chordophone of Renaissance (16th century) Europe. Instrument inventories of royal households from that period include guitars, indicating performances on them were part of the musical culture of European nobility and aristocrats. Given the number of guitar tutors published for amateur players of varying levels of accomplishment the guitar must have also been a part of the musical life of non-aristocratic social strata. A substantial repertoire of solo works written for the four-course Renaissance guitar survives. This music is written in tablature notations that were published throughout Europe during the 16th and well into the 17th centuries. They include unaccompanied solo pieces, song accompaniments, dance music, and mixed ensemble works. Since the middle of the 20th century the number of luthiers making fine replica instruments such as the one pictured here and the number of amateur and professional performers of the guitar has grown considerably as part of the early music movement.


The resonator, the sides and flat back of which are made from thinly-shaven boards of maple wood, is figure-eight-shaped like its modern classical guitar descendent but proportioned differently. The resonating chamber is covered with a flat soundboard of straight-grained softwood (spruce or pine) that, near its center, has a circular soundhole that is covered with a delicately carved and perforated rosette of wood and bone. A long wooden bridge is glued across the soundboard just above its bottom end. A neck made of hardwood, rounded on its backside but flat on its front side, is securely joined to the top end of the resonator. Its flat side, which is in the same plane as the soundboard, serves as the instrument’s fingerboard. The top end of the fingerboard terminates in a nut made of bone. Ten gut frets are securely tied around the neck. Joined to the top of the neck and bent back very slightly is the pegblock with seven back-mounted wooden tuning pegs. Seven strings (traditionally of gut but on this replica there are three wire wound strings and four nylon ones) are arranged in four courses, the three lowest-pitched courses are double and the highest-pitched one is single. One end of each string is tied to the bridge on the soundboard, passes over the resonator and above the frets on the fingerboard, makes contact with the nut as it passes over it, and is finally threaded through and wound around a tuning peg. The strings all have the same vibrating length of 19.9 inches as measured from the bridge to the nut.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The guitar can be played either by a seated of standing performer (in the latter manner with the aid of a shoulder strap) and held horizontally or with its pegbox end raised up to about a 45-degree angle, the soundboard facing outwards. The player can either pluck the strings with the thumb and index and middle fingers of the right hand or strum the strings with or without the aid of a pick, the former technique used for playing polyphonic music, the latter for homophonic. For both techniques the strings are stopped against the fretted fingerboard with the fingers of the left hand. One common tuning, called by the Spanish temple nuevos, for the Renaissance guitar is: G3-G4 - C4-C4 - E4-E4 - A4 (interval pattern of P4 - M3 - P4). Note that the lowest-pitched course actually has its two strings tuned an octave apart rather than in unison, as is the case with the other two double-course strings. This octave tuning of some double courses is common on Renaissance and Baroque guitars and lutes, and necessitates a thicker/heavier string for the lower note of the pair that is referred to as the bordón (Spanish) or bourdon (French). The instrument has a narrow dynamic range.


The Renaissance guitar most likely evolved in the late 15th century from the application of design features and construction techniques for Spanish lutes and vihuelas of that time to a more simply constructed earlier plucked lute called the gittern. The features that set guitars apart from earlier gittern were: the neck and constructed resonator being separate units joined together rather than being carved from a single block of wood; a relatively long neck with frets rather than a fretless short neck; and a figure-eight-shaped resonator rather than a pear-shaped one. Surviving four double-course string Renaissance guitars like the one pictured here mostly date from the first half of the 17th century, a period during which the five course Baroque guitar also existed and was in widespread use. An interesting note on the tenacity of musical practice over spans of time and distance: the temple nuevos tuning (see previous paragraph) minus the bordón (G4) is used as the standard tuning for the Hawaiian ‘ukulele, which was developed from various diminutive Iberian folk guitars (machête de braça, cavaquinho/braguinha, tiple/timple) brought to Hawaii by late 19th century Portuguese immigrants, who included in their numbers instrument makers. 

Bibliographic Citations

O’Dette, Paul. 1994. "Plucked Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 139-153.

Turnbull, Harvey, and James Taylor. 1984. "Guitar, 1-4" NGDMI v.2: 87-99.

Tyler, James. 1980. The Early Guitar: A History and Handbook. London: Oxford University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single, double at unison, double at octave

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


27 in. length 6.7 in. width

Primary Materials

string - gut
string - wire-wound synthetic
string - synthetic

Entry Author

Roger Vetter