Translate this page into  
Translation by GO! Network

Lute icon

The Guitar in England



guitar rule

The Early Guitar coverIn view of the current popularity of the guitar in traditional Irish and Scottish music, it is interesting to speculate whether the guitar was used at all in centuries past. While I know of no reference to the guitar being used in Ireland, there are a few references from 18th century Scotland. Probably at this date the greatest cultural influence in this regard came from England.

While England was never really at the centre of the guitar world (before the 20th century anyway), the guitar was known and played there. However, we must be careful to point out that the nature of the guitar itself has changed radically over the centuries.

An excellent source for such information is The Early Guitar: A History and Handbook by James Tyler, Oxford University Press, 1980. Of course, most of the interesting developments took place in places such as Spain and France, not in England, so this makes up the largest part of the book. However, I have quoted what information there is about the guitar in England, plus I have given a little background information.

The usual explanation for the origin of the guitar is that while the rest of Europe was playing lutes, the Spanish disliked the instrument because of its similarity to the Arabic oud, which reminded them that the Moors retained control over part of Spain until the late 15th century. Hence they invented a differently shaped instrument called the vihuela, which eventually evolved into the modern guitar. However, there are people who disagree violently with this theory.


The following topics are discussed:

  • The origin of the guitar
  • Renaissance guitar
  • Baroque guitar
  • Classical guitar
  • Historical playing technique
  • Fingernails—were they used?
  • The "English guitar" (not a guitar at all)


  • guitar rule

    The Origin of the Guitar

    We must also be careful not to assume that before the sixteenth century the terms guitarra, chitarra, guiterne, gittern, etc., meant what they came to mean in later centuries, i.e. guitar, because this was not always the case. Laurence Wright, in his brilliant and highly original article 'The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity', has shown that these terms (guitarra, chitarra, gittern,etc.), often meant not a guitar at all, but the tiny treble lute which, in the sixteenth century, became known as the mandora.

    pp. 15-17

    We have seen that the figure-eight shaped, plucked instruments under discussion cannot, with any certainty, be traced back earlier than the fifteenth century (given our present degree of knowledge); that the terms guitarra, chitarra, etc., though often found in literary sources from the Middle Ages, cannot positively be taken to mean the 'guitar' until the sixteenth century; that we do, however, encounter the term viola or vihuela in the fifteenth century, and that these, aside from their use as generic terms to mean any stringed instrument, were often used specifically to mean a plucked instrument; that our earliest documentary information about the viola comes from Italian courts, such as those in Ferrara and in Spanish-influenced Naples; and that the Spanish called the instrument the vihuela, and from 1536 a fine repertoire of tablatures (in style and technical considerations virtually indistinguishable from lute tablatures) was published for it.

    p. 24

    guitar rule

    The Renaissance guitar

    The French repertoire for this little guitar ranges from technically easy, but delightful, settings of popular music, to quite demanding intabulations of vocal music and fantasias. The fantasias of Morlaye, Brayssing, and da Rippa (in Morlaye's fourth book) are all of a high standard and deserve the attention of guitarists wishing to add to their concert repertoires. The dances and chansons in Le Roy's books are often set out twice, the first, a plain unembellished setting, the second, plus diminuée, with florid running passages similar to the virtuoso versions found in the lute books of the time. Admittedly, some of the pieces in these books are slight and unimaginative, but that is only to be expected in collections of this size, and, in any case, the excellent pieces more than make up for the lesser ones. In most of this repertoire the little guitar, tuned as Bermudo describes, carries the melody and does the florid passage work, playing as much of the bass as is possible on a treble instrument. For those wishing to enhance the bass line, there are innumerable other versions of the songs and dance pieces in many contemporary Parisian publications,and these can easily be used to form duet and ensemble versions with a proper bass and inner parts. Playing plucked instruments in ensemble was clearly a quite common practice of the time. Bermudo describes the guitar, with vihuelas, etc., as making an excellent ensemble. A revival of this practice would certainly be in order.

    In addition to playing in ensembles with other instruments, the little guitar was also used to accompany the voice. Fuenllana's vihuela book of 1554 contains a section of music, including a villancico by Juan Vasquez, 'Covarde cavallero', and a romance, 'Passeavase el Rey moro', in which the notes of the melody lines within the four-line Italian tablature itself are printed in red; the other accompanying notes are printed in ordinary black numbers. This style of notation is found only in Spanish sources, and the same arrangement applies in the vihuela books for the six-course instrument. Fuenllana follows the vocal music with six fantasias for the guitar.

    Adrian Le Roy's second and fifth books are entirely for solo voice and guitar, using a separate part in staff notation for the voice. As is the case in many lute and vihuela books (where staff notation is found), the player is told at the beginning of each piece to play a certain string and fret in order to give the singer his beginning pitch. The staff notation is sometimes, visually, in a different key from the instrumental accompaniment, but this is for the convenience of printing the entire melody line on the five-line stave, and to avoid having to use ledger lines which are difficult for a printer to set up. This fact has often been misunderstood or disregarded by editors of modern editions of lute and vihuela songs. By taking the key, or pitch, of the vocal line literally, they have led players to believe that they must use instruments of many outlandish pitches and sizes to accomodate the vocal line. When confronted with such questionable demands, always go back to the original source and follow the composer's directions.

    pp. 28-29

    During this same period, the guitar also became popular in England. The earliest mention of it seems to have been in Thomas Whythorne's famous autobiography, in which he says that in 1545 he 'learned to play on the Gittern, and Sittern which ii instruments were then strange in England, and therefore the more desyred and esteemed'.

    In 1568, James Rowbotham published The breffe and playne instruction to lerne to play on the gyttron and also the cetterne, in London. Unfortunately, no copy of this book survives. In the same year, Rowbotham printed an English translation of one of Adrian Le Roy's lute books, calling it A briefe and easye instrution to lerne to play on the lute; this was the first lute tutor ever printed in England. The date, the publisher, and the wording of the title of the guitar and cittern book suggest that this too was a translation of one of Le Roy's books. If so, we have a reasonably good idea of the sort of guitar music which was played and heard in Elizabethan England.

    A few English manuscripts of the period also contain examples of the English guitarist's repertoire. The earliest, Raphe Bowle's lute book, dated 1558 (London, British Library, Stowe 389), contains an untitled and incomplete setting for guitar of the Italian 'Passamezzo Antico' ground. Another lute manuscript (Osborne collection, Yale University Library), contains short versions of twenty-one popular pieces such as, 'When raging love', 'In winters just return' (both music to poems in Tottel's Miscellany), Italian grounds such as the passamezzo antico and matazina,and even the famous Spanish chord sequence, Conde claros. The remaining source, a keyboard manuscript compiled by Thomas Mulliner, contains some cittern and 'gitterne' tablature from about 1570. The two guitar pieces can be identified as the Italian grounds, chi passa and the passamezzo antico. All the guitar music in these manuscripts requires a four-course guitar and is notated, as was the fashion in England, in French tablature.

    The Elizabethan guitarist, then, played the same range of material as his colleagues on the Continent, as well as native English popular music, and the guitar was probably a good deal more popular in England than these few musical remains suggest.

    p. 29

    The last known publication written specifically for the small four-course guitar comes to us from England near the time of the Restoration. John Playford provides us with A Booke of New Lessons for the Cittern and Gittern (1652). One of this well-known and important printer's earliest publications, it is a treasure trove of English ballad tunes and popular music, and is deserving of our attention and appreciation. In two sections, one for each instrument, it has a separate title page for each. Unfortunately, the same illustration of a man playing a cittern is printed on both title pages, so we are deprived of a view of the guitar Playford had in mind to play these tunes.

    The guitar section, written in French tablature, offers forty-one extremely simple settings of pieces such as 'When the King enjoyes his own again', 'Canaries', 'Dr. Colman's Simphoney', 'Mr. Lawes Tune', 'Stingo, or Oyle of Barley', 'Gather your Rosebuds', 'Cuckold all a Row', 'Italian Rant', and 'Dull Sir John'. As solos entirely on their own (as printed) these tend to be rather shallow and unconvincing. But I suggest that when used to lead a consort, they can be extremely effective and quite charming.

    It is significant that the four-course guitar remained popular enough in England at this late date for Playford to go to the considerable bother and expense of printing tablature for it. It is also curious that Playford, astute businessman that he was, did not foresee in 1652 that the five-course 'Spanish' guitar, which was already all the rage on the Continent, would soon eclipse the four-course guitar and enjoy the same unprecedented popularityin Britain as well.

    pp. 33-34

    guitar rule

    The Baroque guitar

    I have previously mentioned a re-entrant tuning found earlier in France (J. Cellier, c. 1585), but here we find one which uses no bourdons whatever. Strange as this arrangement may seem to the modern guitarist, it was often used by some of the most important early guitarists, including Gaspar Sanz. The reason for this and other re-entrant tunings becomes clear when one works from the original tablatures, for the high fifth and, sometimes, fourth courses were used by guitarists to achieve a special effect, called by Sanz campanellas (little bells). By employing as many open strings as possible, the notes of the scale passages are allowed to ring on, one note melting into the next in the manner of a harp or bells.

    Tuned re-entrantly, the guitar is an alto or tenor range instrument, which, unlike the modern guitar or the lute, has no bass notes to speak of. For this reason, most early guitarists must have regarded the guitar as an instrument set quite apart from the lute, with its own unique styles of playing and its own distinct idioms. This may help to explain why the guitar retained only five courses for over two hundred and fifty years, while the lute during this period was constantly having additions made to its bass range.

    p. 41

    During this same period, the name of the most renowned guitarist of the age is mentioned. Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615-1681), a nativeof Pavia, Italy, began his career as a teacher in the university town of Bologna, where he published his first modest collection of guitar pieces in 1639. The dedications in this book reveal that he taught and was patronized by many important noblemen and church dignitaries. While still in Bologna, he also taught a young student named Giovanni Battista Granata, who was later to become his chief rival.

    Corbetta's abilities soon earned him a post in the court of Carlo II, Duke of Mantua, to whom he dedicated his second book of guitar music, published in 1643. He moved to Brussels, where he played at the court of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, and then, in 1656, on to Paris, where he appeared in a court ballet under the direction of his expatriate countryman, Jean-Baptiste Lully, in which King Louis XIV himself performed one of the dancing roles.Some time in the 1660s he arrived in England where he was soon found in the company of King Charles II, who, while in exile on the Continent, knew Corbetta and was already an enthusiastic guitar player himself. It was not long before Corbetta was a firmly established figure in the musical life of the English court, and, as a result, the guitar very rapidly caught up with and surpassed in popularity even the lute, much to the annoyance of those who considered the guitar an insignificant and unworthy upstart. One such person was the diarist Samuel Pepys, who believed himself to be quite an accomplished lute player, and noted in his famous diary this mixed reaction:

    August 5, 1667 After done with the Duke of York, and coming out through his dressing room, I there spied Signor Francisco tuning his guitar, and Monsieur de Puy, with him who did make him play to me which he did most admirably - so well that I was mightily troubled that all that pains should have been taken upon so bad an instrument.

    The inclusion in Pepys's library, which survives intact in Cambridge, of a guitar tutor by Cesare Morelli, suggests that he too eventually succumbed to the lure of 'so bad an instrument'.

    pp. 44-45

    guitar rule

    The classical guitar

    The music for the five-course guitar so far discussed can be regarded as the 'classic' repertoire for the late renaissance and baroque instrument.On the whole, this music called for the characteristic re-entrant tunings, which were so important to the styles and idioms of the period, and which rendered the baroque guitar so unique an instrument.

    Musical styles changed, however, and the development of these new styles- the Rococo and the Classical - with their simpler but stricter handling of chords, more efficient progressions (or modulations), and regularization of phrasing supported by clear key structure, meant that the guitar, too,had to become a more straightforwardly tuned instrument. It was no accident that around 1750, the guitar changed completely into an instrument with bourdons on the fourth and fifth courses, and later, to a six-course instrument.

    The bourdon tuning, as we have seen, was nothing new; but, whereas previously it was the exception in art music, it now became the rule.

    The first signs of this different way of thinking about the guitar occurred in France, where the instrument was enjoying yet another new wave of popularity. A flood of publications of songs accompanied by the guitar (and requiring a strong bass), appeared at this time, exemplified by De Lagarde's Recueilde Brunetts ... (1751-1764). In the April issue of his Journal de Musique, De Lagarde made the following remark about one of the song accompaniments in tablature: 'Un bourdon à l'octave feroit mieux pour cet accompaniment' ('A bourdon at the octave [below] would be better for this accompaniment', p. 24). In a short time, this suggestion would no longer need mentioning.

    Along with this developing emphasis on the bass range of the guitar, and the consequent abandonment of re-entrant tunings, notation began to change as well. Tablature, which was essential to reading music with a re-entrant tuning, became rarer; and guitar music appeared more and more frequently in more or less the modern printed form (i.e. in the treble clef with the notes sounding an octave lower). As we now know how the guitar developed its bass range, notation for it in the treble clef seems illogical and is often awkward to play from, but the choice of the treble clef is an interesting one and probably stems from the guitar's having been a higher ranged instrument in the past. Nevertheless, and despite its awkwardness, the system was adopted, and apparently nothing can be done to change it.

    pp. 52-53

    In England, at precisely the time of the rise of the new-style guitar in France (c. 1750), many publications began to appear for the 'guittar' (as it was often spelled). But the 'English' guitar for which this music was written, is an entirely different instrument from the one we have been discussing, having six courses of metal strings with a chordal tuning.

    guitar rule

    Playing technique


    For music of the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth centuries, the thumb is meant to alternate with the index finger in single-line passagework on all the courses, treble to bass. Most lute and guitar books carefully notate this by placing a dot under the notes intended for the index finger; no dot means that the note is to be played the thumb. ...

    Since the thumb is, by nature, stronger than the index finger, the sound produced will be one of alternating strong and slightly weaker stresses. This articulation is carefully matched to the rhythm of the passage, and the result is an absolutely clear and natural emphasis of that rhythm. To the Renaissance ear, these alternating stresses must have been important. Not only do the lute books indicate this, but many keyboard and wind instrument books also make a feature of it. This style of rhythmic articulation is very different from that of the modern guitarist, who is taught to make all the notes of equal stress in most passages. But to understand and to interpret early music accurately, the modern player must take these renaissance ideas seriously into account.

    pp. 78-79

    guitar rule

    Use of fingernails

    An important subject which should be mentioned in conjunction with right-hand technique is fingernails. To my knowledge, the guitar books do not mention the use or non-use of nails in relation to right-hand technique, until the very end of the period we are concerned with here (c.f. Antonio Abreu,1799). We must, therefore, once again base our decisions on the existing information found in lute sources, and, on weight of these sources, the flesh technique must be acknowledged to be by far most common. However, this does not mean that nails were never used.

    Actual references to right-hand nails are indeed rare, the earliest being Fuenllana's in 1554. (His book, you will recall, also contained guitar music.) In speaking about the technique of playing rapid single line passages (redobles), he comments that he does not like the sound of the nail in the return motion of the dedillo stroke, and, in discussing the alternation of the middle and index finger style, he says: '... it is best by far to pluck the string using neither nail or any other device. Only the finger, the living thing, can communicate the intention of the spirit'. Despite his rejection of nail technque, Fuenllana's comments certainly do imply that some players did use nails.

    In his 1623 lute and chitarrone book, Alessandro Piccinini provides us with a great many fascinating technical details, considerably more than most writers. He advocates nails, saying that the one on the thumb should not be very long and that the others should be somewhat longer, coming just slightly above the fingertips and oval-shaped (i.e. the highest point should be in the middle of the nail). He also instructs the player to touch the course with the flesh and push the finger towards the belly, letting the nail glide over both strings of the course (Chapter 7).

    Piccinini seems to be unique among lutenists in actually recommending the use of nails as a normal practice, but we should consider him carefully for several reasons: first, he stands as one historical justification for the fact that some lutenists did use nails; secondly, he was an important musician of his day; and thirdly, his name is mentioned, along with other musicians known to have been guitarists, in Granata's 1659 book.

    In practice, a modern player attempting to play on a lightly-constructed, lightly-strung, double-strung, historically accurate instrument, will find that very long nails simply get in the way, especially the thumb nail. The bridge is very low on an original-style guitar, and because of this, there is even the practical problem of how to avoid marking the sound boardof the instrument as one plays. If one is going to use nails, then the best approach is Piccinini's, i.e. very short ones. In order to avoid the annoying double sounding of each note which occurs when playing the double courses with nails, keep the hand in an oblique position so that the nails cross the strings diagonally. This should at least serve to lessen the effect. This problem does not arise when one plays without nails, because the large soft area of the fingertip adequately touches both strings simultaneously.

    Interestingly, there is a reference to Corbetta's using nails on the guitar in his later years. Corbetta is mentioned in the published memoirs of Adam Ebert (Auli Apronii vermehrte Reise-Beschreibung ... 1723). Ebert remembers seeing Corbetta at Turin and writes: '...the world-famous guitarist Corbetta, who taught all the Potentates of Europe, came here from England. But because he had the misfortune to break a fingernail (and with old folk these are accustomed to grow again very slowly) it was impossible for him to present himself at the festival with his consort...'

    Two other lute sources mention the use of nails. One is a letter from1723, written by the famous lutenist-friend of Bach's, Silvius Leopold Weiss. In it, Weiss indicates that the lute is usually played with the flesh, but the theorbo and chitarrone are usually played with nails 'and produce in close proximity a coarse, harsh sound.'

    The other lute source is Thomas Mace (1676), who lets us choose for ourselves: '...take notice, that you strike not your strings with your nails, as some do, who maintain it the best way of play, but I do not; and for this reason; because the nail cannot draw so sweet a sound from a lute, as the nibble end of the flesh can do. I confess in a consort, it might do well enough, where the mellowness (which is the most excellent satisfaction from a lute) is lost in the crowd; but alone, I could never receive so good content from the nail, as from the flesh: However (this being my opinion) let others do, as seems best to themselves.'

    pp. 80-81

    guitar rule

    The English guitar

    Woman with citternThis instrument is vastly different from the gut-strung guitar, and was actually a revival of the cittern. Although not the kind of instrument I have been concerned with in this book, a brief discussion of it is necessary due to the large amount of music for it from the mid-eighteenth century, the title pages of which all say, either for 'guitar or 'guittar'. Hence, unless one is able to distinguish which music is for the 'English' guitar and which is for the Spanish guitar, much confusion can result.

    The English guitar was known in France as the cistre or guittare allemande (indicating its German origin), and in Italy as the cetra. Italian musicians apparently introduced and started the fashion for the instrument in England. The earliest music for it in England is Pasqualinide Marzi's Six sonatas for the cetra or Kitara ... (c. 1740; copy in London, British Library). It soon, however, became known simply as the 'guittar'.


    The standard tuning for the instrument was to a C major chord, beginning with C below middle C: c, e, gg, c'c', e'e', g'g'. The strings were of brass and steel and were played with the right-hand fingers. At first, tablature was used, but this soon gave way to staff notation, entirely in the treble clef. The music relied upon the use of many open strings, and the use of parallel thirds, which were easy to play with this tuning. Hence, the things to look for in order to distinguish English guitar music from Spanish guitar music are: the predominant useof the key of C; much use of parallel thirds; the lowest notes as middle C on the staff (the instrument sounds an octave lower than written); and the typical configurations of chords, ...

    Representative publications for the English guitar include: Anonymous, Ladies Pocket Guide or the compleat tutor for the guittar ... (c. 1750); G. Rush, Favourite lessons or airs for 2 guittars ... (c. 1755); Anonymous, The compleat Tutor for guittar ... (c. 1755); R. Bremner, Instructions for the guitar ... (1758); J.F. Zuchert, Six sonatas or solos for the guitar and bass ... (1759); F. Geminiani, The art of playing the guitar or cittra ... (1760); R. Straube, Lessons for two guittars ... (c. 1765), and Three Sonatas for the guittar... (1768); J.C. Bach, A sonata for the guitar... (c. 1775).

    Music for the instrument continued to be published until the early nineteenth century.

    pp. 108-109



    guitar rule

    Off-site links




    Go to the fretted instrument index page.

    BookGo to music encyclopedia directory


    Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

    Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)


    Stonehenge border


    STANDING STONES is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a federal service mark. Unauthorized use of this mark for performing live or recorded music, or providing music-related information over the Internet, in interstate commerce in the United States, is prohibited. For full details on the activities covered by this mark, consult the US Patent and Trademark Office database.