Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Musical Instruments: Guitars

In the 18th century, when someone in the British colonies mentions a guitar, they likely do not mean the instrument we now call a guitar.
It is in fact probable they meant an “English Guitar”, a descendant of the cittern, rather than our current guitar, which did not become a popular instrument until after 1800. The English guitar was flat backed, shaped somewhat like the Portuguese guitarra. It had 10 strings - 4 double-string courses, and two single strings, and was thought of as a Ladies’ instrument, as it was in an open tuning (CEGCEG) and easy to learn. Young ladies were told “three chords are all you need to know to play most songs on the guitar. They are “E,” “A,” and another one called a “seventh chord” which is too difficult to bother with. When you come to the part of the song that needs that chord, just buzz the strings lightly.”
Spanish style guitars became popular at various times in Europe, only to fade from view again, rather like the hula hoops of their day. As early as the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, her private secretary David Rizzio had originally entered her service as a vocalist and guitarist. He was stabbed to death in 1564, but his elaborately inlaid guitar is still in existence. (Singers are a dime a dozen, but a good guitar is hard to find.)
The Italian musician and guitarist Francisco Corbetti, born in 1630, resided in most of the important royal courts of Europe, including that of Charles II of England. It was said: “The King’s relish for his compositions had brought the instrument so much into vogue that every person played on it, well or ill....This Francisco had composed a saraband which either charmed or infatuated every person; for the whole guitarery at court were trying at it, and God knows what a universal strumming there was.”
Then Anna Amelia, Duchess of Saxony, who was born in 1739, became an enthusiastic performer and composer on the guitar. Through her, it became established in Germany by 1788. At that time, guitars had five strings, until the first musician to the Court of Saxony commissioned one to be built with an extra bass string, and the six-string guitar quickly caught on. Guitars were generally imported from Italy and Spain, but the official instrument builder to the court, Jacob Otto and his sons, began turning out the new style guitars, which were becoming popular to accompany singing. One of the best known makers and design innovators of this style of guitar was Johann Georg Staufer of Vienna, whose earliest instruments date to about 1800.
A Staufer protege and foreman in his Vienna shop was one Christian Friedrich Martin, whose name I am sure guitar players will recognize. He was born in Saxony in 1796, son of another German guitar maker, and came to America in 1833, to New York City. He opened a music store, sold and made guitars. There were guitar makers documented in this country earlier than C.F. Martin, including one in Colonial Williamsburg, but they were not influential, and did not popularize the guitar. In fact, according to experts, “no other nineteenth-century American guitar maker was influential but C.F. Martin,” and we owe a great deal to him. The flat top guitar as we now know it, was established by Martin in the 1850s. His size 0, which was 13 1/2 inches wide, was the largest guitar, when it was introduced in 1854. So put away your pre-War dreadnaught (the war referred to is not the Revolution or even the Civil War) and your cowboy guitar, and look for a small guitar, shaped more like the older instruments.

[ Meanwhile, if you are a young lady with an English guitar, here is an easy tune for you to practice, from Robert Bremner’s Instructions for the Guitar (1758). If you find a difficult bit, just "buzz the strings lightly".]