Instruments | Guitar | Modern Era | Classical

In the Renaissance, both four- and five-course (eight- or 10-stringed) guitars were played, both of them notably smaller than the modern instrument and with only a shallow waist. In the Baroque period, players seem to have switched over to an instrument with six courses (six or 12 strings), which remains the standard guitar configuration.

The instrument at this time became less like the lute and makers invariably built guitars with flat, rather than curved, backs. Tuning varied, but seems to have been in a pattern of thirds between the middle courses, with a fourth between them and the two outer strings at the top and bottom of the range, reflecting the tuning of viols (after all, viols are a kind of bowed vihuela; early guitar). Modern tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E’.

Guitar Makers

The great name in the latter part of the nineteenth century was that of the maker, Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817–92). He is often said to have standardized the instrument’s size and shape, increasing the dimensions and fixing string length at 65 cm (30 in), but in fact the guitar family continues to contain the distinct classical and flamenco types and acoustic instruments custom-built for blues, jazz, folk and rock music, as well as characteristic instruments only heard locally in Mexican or Portuguese music. Credit is also given to Torres for the change from gut frets on the fingerboard to metal ones, and a redesign of the internal structure of the sound box to use a fan-shaped pattern of struts.

Compositions for the Guitar

The guitar continues to be associated with the Hispanic world and the repertory tends to reflect this. The best-known guitar composition is without doubt the guitar concerto by Joaquín Rodrigo (1901–99), blind from the age of three. The Concierto de Aranjuez was first performed in 1940 and rapidly became an international success story, a rare thing for a piece of contemporary classical music. Although he wrote other music, including the Fantasia para un gentilhombre for guitar and orchestra, for Segovia (1955), and a number of guitar solos, no other piece ever had the same impact, much to the composer’s annoyance. Other important guitar music has been written by Britten, Walton and Arnold. In addition, composers such as Mahler and Schoenberg have included it in chamber ensemble or orchestral works.

The guitar was a central part of the personal iconography of Pablo Picasso. The most famous example of this, from his so-called ‘blue period’, is a painting of an old man bent over a guitar. This is part of the inspiration for a wonderful, though difficult, long poem by the American Wallace Stevens, The Blue Guitar. The title was adopted for a piece by Michael Tippett (1905–98), of which the first performance was given in 1983 by Julian Bream (b. 1938), who did more than anyone else to establish the guitar as a classical instrument in Britain.

The Modern Guitar

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