Relatives of the Lute
Renaissance Guitar

    The Renaissance guitar had only 4 courses; the first was usually single and the other three double. Although no historical four-course instruments have survived, it is clear that their dimensions were fairly small. The string length of the instrument pictured is 50 cm. It is based on the engraving on the title pages of the guitar books of Guillaume Morlaye and Simon Gorlier (1551 to 1553, Paris). Click on the photograph to view a larger version.

    During the Renaissance, the guitar may well have been used as it frequently is today, to provide a simple strummed accompaniment for a singer or a small musical group. However, there were also several significant music collections published during the sixteenth century containing contrapuntal compositions for guitar approaching the complexity, sophistication and breadth of repertory of those appearing in some publications for lute from the same time period. Some important printed sources are listed below.

    Three pieces from the Morlaye collections, performed on one of the concerts at the 2008 LSA Lute Festival and Seminar, are available for listening or downloading as MP3 files on the page for that concert program.

    The tuning of the Renaissance guitar was not as standardized as lute tuning was at that time. Some examples are given below. Juan Bermudo (1555, León) provided two tuning schemes for an instrument in “A,” with octaves on the lowest courses. Scipione Cerreto (1601, Naples) utilized a re-entrant tuning scheme for an instrument in “B,” with both strings of the fourth course an octave higher than might be expected.

    It should be noted that the use of names for instruments was not very consistent during the sixteenth century, and some occurrences of words that are cognates for the modern English word “guitar”, particularly the Italian “chitarra,” may in fact refer to a small four-course instrument with a body in the shape of a lute. The Neapolitan tuning scheme presented above quite probably applies to an instrument of that type.

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Last updated 16 December AD 2008 — DFH

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