In previous articles we have inquired into the rationale for having double strings on the baroque (five course) guitar. It was pointed out that double stringing increased resonance. Gut strings being fragile, doubling them perhaps also insured that a concert could be gotten through with at least one string of a course intact if the other one broke. We also noted that using wire strings removed, at least in theory, the need for doubling strings for the sake of durability. And wire resonates longer than gut, in general.
Five string Guitar by Ferdinando Gagliano, Naples 1774
Did the frequent use of wire strings on the chitarra battente
(five course baroque guitar) contribute perhaps to the development of the single-string classic guitar? Perhaps... An affirmative answer would depend on how early the single string guitar emerged in Europe, and whether it might have been created originally for wire strings.
The notion that wire strings may have preceded gut strings on the earliest classic guitars seems to be an anathema to classic guitarists, myself included. But I can't yet rule out the possibility on the basis of the evidence I have seen to this point. And I admit that it is a radical notion, never having been suggested in the literature on the guitar that I have read. Back to the five-course guitar: Had it ever been built to accommodate just five single strings in the 18th century?
The Missing Link?
Let us consider the five string (not five course) instrument by Ferdinando Gagliano, made in Naples in 1774 (Fig. 1). This remarkable transitional guitar was once in the old pre-WWI] Heyer'sches Museum in Cologne, and was included in Georg Kinsky's descriptive 1912 catalog:
Musikhistorisches Museum von Wilhelm Heyer in Coln: Katalog von Georg Kinsky. 2. Band. Zupfund Streichinstrumente.
Notable in this instrument are the following features:
1. It appears unaltered, i.e., the tuning head (for five pegs) could not have been truncated from an earlier form that was for ten pegs, for example - a widespread practice around 1800 when the classic guitar first became popular. Also, the five peg bridge appears to be original.
2. The instrument conceivably could have been built for low tension wire strings or for gut strings. One rather suspects the latter, if for no other reason than because Naples, where this guitar was made, was famous for its quality gut strings - not for wire strings. But it is worth recalling that wire-strung "folk" guitars of today have the same kind of pegged bridge. Naples appears to be where that feature originated, at just about the time this guitar was made. And this represented a clear break with the tradition of the old style terminal bridge found on lutes and I baroque guitars, to which one tied gut strings. (One is hard pressed, after all, to tie wire strings in knots around the old style terminal bridge.)
3. There is a new esthetic statement in this guitar. The figure-8-shaped tuning head mirrors the body. Pegs at both their ends hold the strings. The elaborate rose inside the soundhold is gone. It is the work of a luthier who clearly set about doing something "new" his own way - not by modifying the traditional method of building baroque guitars, but by going back to the drawing boards by creating "a better mousetrap" as the expression goes. The ornate bridge and in-lay work still testify to traditional schooling on the part of the luthier, however.
4. The disposition of pegs in the tuning head reveals the maker's profound theoretical knowledge of functional, as well as esthetic, design (Fig. 2).
Single strings - another hypothesis
A perfect example of functional design: the head of the five string Gagliano guitar optimizes the disposition of pegs within the available space and suggests the figure-8-shape overall design. Each peg hold has exactly its share of surrounding, supporting wood (shaded area) to support string tension.
The rediscovery of ruins of ancient civilizations in the latter 18th century led to a host of cultural and political developments, the most noteworthy of which was perhaps the young Napoleon Bonaparte's successful effort (for a time) to re-create an "empire" with himself as "emperor" surrounded by his "imperial" bodyguard. He sent expeditions to the Middle East to bring back artifacts from biblical times (the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, Paris, being one). In short, antiquity was "in" during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries.
Even in the field of music there was a "rediscovery": the lyre
(or lyre-guitar, or "chitarralira" as it was known in Italy - the term "chitarra" further revealing tile root kithara
, Greek for lyre). This ancient instrument appears always to have had single strings. It existed in a five-string form in the latter 18th century, as pictured in Agostino Pisani's Manuale teorico-pratico per lo studio della chitarra
(Milan, l9l4), p. 16-17 (Fig. 3) and in a variety of six-string forms in the earlier19th century (Fig. 4).
If one accepts the notion that the lyre of antiquity had one string per note - a perfectly reasonable assumption based on iconographic evidence - then one can safely infer that the "reconstruction" of lyres in the 18th century with single strings was a factor in the evolution of normal guitars from double-string to single-string models.
The fact that such activity occurred in Naples, where Pompeiian excavations were daily taking place and where antiquity was all the rage, only tends to strengthen the notion that a conscious link existed between lyres and guitars in the minds of their makers, a link which assumed single strings as the norm, and which could easily have brought about the abandonment of double strings across the board...or across the "finger-board," as it were.
Five string lyre-guitar, 18th c.
Six string lyre-guitar, 19th c.