The history of the guitar is nothing if not complex. Many pages could be devoted to outlining what we don't know about this instrument in different lands and areas. The old saying, "What's hit is history; what's missed is mystery," puts the burden of ignorance ("missing") squarely on the shoulders of us, who do the "hitting." It is with a certain sense of personal inadequacy and humility that I submit to the readers this first "problem area" in need of the enlightening embrace of disinterested research
The migrating guitar
now believe that Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries
carried with them on their voyages around the world, probably
as a modest means of musical diversion, a five-course folk
instrument that was like a "poor man's vihuela." It was variously
called a guitarra espaņola, a Spanish guitar, or a baroque
guitar, and was supposedly a strummed, chorded instrument
often used to accompany folk songs. It had so-called "re-entrant"
tuning, meaning that the fifth (A) and fourth (D) courses
were higher in pitch than the third (G). Disregarding for
a moment the likelihood of lower-octave doubling of certain
courses, the basic tuning looked like this:
In various articles over the past decade, Richard Hudson (among others) has postulated that such seemingly European musical forms as the chaconne and passacaglia were derived from repetitive ethnic sung dances discovered in the New World by Spanish sailors, who evidently mimicked them on their guitars and used them as the basis of obscene Spanish verses which they made up themselves. The forms, or formulas, were brought back to Spain in this fashion. From Spain the catchy songs found their way to Italy, where a higher order of musician (usually a harpsichordist) would take up improvising them. This is apparently how the chaconne and the passacaglia (originally called "ciaccona" and "passacaglio") came to be the noble art forms we associate with European composers of the 18th century.
A few contextual questions remain to be investigated in the light of the above scenario:
Do any traces of the ciaccona and passacaglio dances survive in the ethnic music of the West Indies or South America?
Was the Spanish guitar of those early days gut-strung? The climate at sea, coupled with the expense of good gut strings and their unsuitability to repeat strumming, would suggest that sailors perhaps favored wire strings, even in the 16th century. What evidence exists in South American guitar-like folk instruments today to support or refute this thesis?
Does the re-entrant tuning of the Hawaiian ukulele trace itself back to the tuning of the baroque (Spanish) guitar? Do its four strings suggest that some early Spanish guitars had only four courses of strings? Or four single strings? And what about the ukulele's size? Any reflection of the possible Spanish prototypes?
What other aspects of the Spanish guitar with (possibly) wire strings survive in the New World? Where does the modem Hawaiian guitar ("steel guitar") come from? Is it a cross between instruments of the koto family (oriental) and the guitar (Spanish)?
Why does the American or "Western" guitar invariably have steel strings? Is it because of a Spanish wire-strung guitar precedent?
Did the technology of drawing wire exist in 16th-century Spain? In 17th-century Spain? Or in Italy of the same period? Obviously it must have.
Did the strumming tradition for the five-course Spanish guitar of the early 17th century remain somehow alive for two hundred years among the gypsies of Andalucia, to emerge anew as flamenco guitar music on the six-string (gut strung) Spanish guitar of the mid-l9th century? Has anyone found evidence that flamenco guitars of the last century were ever strung with wire strings? Or rather, was the rise of flamenco strumming a wholly new development made possible by the creation of the "new" Spanish guitar by such makers as Torres, in the mid-l9th century?
There may be no answers to some of these questions, no easy answers to others, and still others may already have been put to rest unknown to this writer. It is clear, however, that credible answers to these questions by and large will only come after some basic research into South American musical traditions is carried out by someone cognizant of the problems and issues, and aware of the various pieces that may interlock in the multi-dimensional puzzle.