Baroque guitar

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Title: La Guitarra Espanola, 1546-1732; Hans Michael Koch, Baroque guitar. Label: MDG Scene. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MDG 605 0610-2. Track: 22.

Contextual Associations

This guitar is a plucked box-lute chordophone of Baroque (16th - mid-17th century) Europe. The guitar pictured here was made in 2000 by the Canadian luthier Michael Schreiner, who modeled it after extant Baroque instruments. Instrument inventories and payrolls of royal households in many locales throughout Europe of this period include guitars and guitarists’ names, indicating the instrument was a part of the musical culture of European nobility and aristocrats of the time. Given the number of guitar tutors and solo works published for guitarists of varying levels of accomplishment, the guitar must have also been a part of the musical life of non-aristocratic social strata as well. A substantial repertoire of solo works written for the five-course Baroque guitar survives. This music is written in tablature notations that were published throughout Europe from the late 16th to the mid-18th 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 sides and arched back of the figure-eight-shaped resonator of this guitar are constructed from narrow (roughly 3/8-inch wide), thinly-shaven, and bent slats/ribs of two varieties of hardwood (rosewood and ebony). Slats of the two wood varieties are alternated and have glued between them very thin spacers of light-colored holly wood. The sides of this guitar’s resonator have eight ribs, its back twenty-four. This produces a spectacular visual effect, as seen in the detail photo. 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 and ornately shaped wooden bridge is glued across the soundboard just above its bottom end. The neck stock is made by laminating the same hardwoods with holly spacers as was the resonator. Its backside is rounded and its flat top side is laminated with ebony. The neck 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 ivory. Ten gut frets are securely tied around the neck, and three further frets, made of wood, are glued to the soundboard near its top. Joined to the top of the neck and bent back very slightly is the pegblock with ten back-mounted wooden tuning pegs (only nine of these are currently in use). Nine strings (traditionally of gut but on this replica there is one wire wound strings and nine nylon ones) are arranged in five courses, the four lowest-pitched courses are double and the highest-pitched one is single (but could be double). 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 26.5 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 music. For both techniques the strings are stopped against the fretted fingerboard with the fingers of the left hand. Trills and other ornaments, articulations, figurations, and vibrato are a part of the music created for and performed on this instrument, and each has specific tablature symbols associated with it. Perhaps the most commonly used tuning for the Baroque guitar is: A3-A3 - D4-D4 - G3-G3 - B3-B3 - E4 (interval pattern of P4 - P4 - M3 - P4). The guitar pictured here is currently strung so that the strings in each of the first two courses are an octave apart: A3-A2 - D4-D3 - G3-G3 - B3-B3 - E4. 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.


What we are calling the five-course Baroque guitar existed alongside and well beyond the four-course Renaissance guitar.  Larger in general than the Renaissance guitar, the Baroque guitar, extant examples of which date back to at least the 1580s, share as much in their design, construction and tuning with the Spanish vihuela as they do with the Renaissance guitar. Italian composers in particular advanced the musical repertoire for the plucking (rather than strumming) style of playing the instrument during the 17th century, as did French composers. The five-course Baroque guitar with double courses continued to evolve both in design and playing style for another half century beyond the end of the Baroque period to about 1800, by which time a transition to six-string single-course guitars that look much more like the modern classical guitar was taking place.

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.

________. 2011. A Guide to Playing the Baroque Guitar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern 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)


36.7 in. length 9.5 in. width

Primary Materials

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


Michael Schreiner

Entry Author

Roger Vetter