A casual browsing of illustrated histories of the guitar, such as Guitars...from the renaissance to rock
, by Tom and Mary Anne Evans (New York, 1977) makes one aware of the great variety in size and shape that the guitar has exhibited since the 16th century and, indeed, continues to display in lands that are somewhat removed from the mainstream of central Europe.
Anyone who has witnessed a Mexican Mariachi
band, for example, with its robust guitarron
(bass guitar), its standard Spanish guitar, and in some cases its small requinto
, about the size of a baritone ukulele, will attest to how much a certain variety in guitar size adds spice to life! Have we lost some of this variety...this spice...with the standardization of the classic guitar today?
The student of the classic guitar walking into a music store in the present to look over the inventory of nylon string guitars will soon realize that the so-called classic guitar of our era has become a very stereotyped, standardized instrument. Its physical characteristics are more or less settled as follows:
String length........65 to 66 cm.
Overall length.......100 to 101 cm.
Upper bout...........27-28.5 cm.
Lower bout...........35-37 cm.
Body depth............9-10.7 cm.
Without attempting to review the question of when, where, and how these dimensions became so fixed, I would like to offer some liberating thoughts for anyone-guitar maker or performer alike-who has ever questioned the necessity of classic guitars being this size and only this size. These reflections will seem especially timely to those who are involved in teaching guitar to young people, for a rediscovery of "small" and even "tiny" guitars for tiny tots is in progress at the present time. This may be due to the beneficial influence that the Suzuki approach to violin instruction is having in the musical world.
A. Guitar size is only one factor in a guitarist's success
The meteoric success of Andres Segovia, starting in the 1920s in Europe but rapidly attracting international attention, is due to three major factors which, in my view, should be ranked in this order of importance: (1) his superior technique and musicianship, (2) his introduction of new repertoire well suited to the instrument, and (3) his relatively loud Ramirez guitar. If Segovia had been born in Italy or Germany, it stands to reason that he would have achieved analogous success with a somewhat smaller instrument of Italian or German manufacture, although he would not have had much difficulty in obtaining a comparably large guitar in Germany, where the practice of guitar playing was widespread and where, as of the year 1899, the revival of the guitar was spearheaded by the Munich-based I.G.V. (Internationale Guitarristen-Verband, i.e. International Guitar Society).
An interesting document in this connection is the Manuale teorico-pratico per lo studio della chitarra
of Agostino Pisani, published in Milan in 1914, an excerpt of which is reproduced below. Notice that the guitars available in Italy in the pre-Segovian era ran the gamut from the small Chitarra commune
(common guitar, Fig. 31, of the Florentine type) to the Chitarra germanica
(the large German guitar, Fig. 35, of the Spanish type). In between were a spectrum of sizes, shapes, and stringing, including the Sicilian double-strung guitar, called a "harmonic" guitar (Fig. 34), and the "added bass" 9-string guitar which we know was so popular in latter-l9th-century Austria (Fig. 33).
B. Guitar size affects playability, sometimes adversely
From left to right: Fig 31- Chitarra Comune (tipo fiorentino), Fig 32-Chitarra Comune (tipo francese), Fig 33-Chitarra con bassi aggiunti(a 9 corde), Fig 34-Chitarra armonica sicilina (a 10 e 11 corde), Fig 35-Chitarra gremanica (tipo spagnuolo)
String length is crucial to the playability of the guitar, especially where the stretching of the left hand to reach certain intervals is concerned. Classic guitar music demands sometimes that the performer be able to maintain a five-fret stretch in the left hand-something that historically was possible for most players on the "early" classic guitar, since its string length was on the order of 55-62 cm. Here are two examples of this requirement, one from Giuliani, and the other from Carcassi:
Matteo Carcassi, No. II in "50 Exs. Progressing in Difficulty," from the Method, repubi. Carl Fischer (New York, 1962).
Mauro Giuliani, Op. 118, 6 Variazioni per chitarra, measure 2 of the theme.
In order to execute the above passages on the modem, standardized classic guitar with a 65 or 66 cm. string length, one must be endowed with very large hands and one must have played the guitar for years. The stretch required between the index (1) and the little finger (4) of the left hand here is exactly equivalent to playing an octave on the piano with the same fingers. The distance tip-to-tip is about 16 cm. Most students, and most women, cannot span better than 14.5 cm. between the index and the little finger on the left hand. Let us bear in mind that the same music performed on an earlier, smaller classic guitar having, say, a 58 cm. string length, would require a stretch in the left hand of only about 14 cm.-one which is readily achieved by most students and most women.
If one takes comfort in the relative loudness made possible by the standardized classic guitar of today - a loudness which appears
to be linked to size, but which this writer is not absolutely convinced must be so linked - then one takes no joy whatever in the realization that more than half of the potential guitar playing public will never be able to play the above passages satisfactorily.
C. History sanctions variety in guitar sizes
It seems clear to all who have delved into the history of the classic guitar that the instrument which Giuliani, Carcassi, and Sor played was quite a bit smaller than the modern guitar. Even with gut strings, it projected enough to hold its own and to flourish in chamber music, in solo performance, and in concertos, pitted against a full orchestra. At the time of the first flowering of the guitar in Vienna (1800-1820), instrument makers produced a great many sizes and shapes of guitar, depending on the needs of the customer. There were "Meistergitarren" (master guitars) which tended to be larger, relatively speaking, with string lengths of 60 to 62 cm., and "Damengitarren" (ladies guitars) which were slightly smaller than the foregoing, averaging perhaps 55 to 59 cm. in string length. It is likely also that guitars of this smaller size were pressed into service as "Terz-gitarren," tuned a minor third higher than the standard instrument.
In any event, although we in the latter 20th century appear to have forsaken our options with respect to guitar size, all is not lost. The baroque guitar and its literature have already been revived in America and Europe. Michael Lorimer, Jim Tyler (who wrote the book, The Early Guitar: a History and a Handbook), and Frank Bliven are three guitarists who come to mind in connection with baroque guitar performance. And in Japanese journals such as Gendai Guitar, not to mention European sources, we can find reconstructions of classic guitars of the early 19th century (Lacote, Panormo, Stauffer) being used in performance and being offered for sale. Dr. Brian Jeffery, the noted musicologist and leader in the Sor revival, enjoys playing the music of that era on an authentic instrument. And, fellow guitarists, we are not alone. It is already fashionable to perform Mozart and Hayden on reconstructed fortepianos in preference to Steinway grands. So, all in all, a healthy historical trend is setting in with respect to guitar sizes and styles that may ultimately make the instrument more playable and more interesting to more people.