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 Classical guitar


(Fr. guitare; Ger. Gitarre; It. chitarra; Sp. guitarra; Port. violo; Brazilian Port. violão).

A string instrument of the lute family, plucked or strummed, and normally with frets along the fingerboard. It is difficult to define precisely what features distinguish guitars from other members of the lute family, because the name ‘guitar’ has been applied to instruments exhibiting a wide variation in morphology and performing practice. The modern classical guitar has six strings, a wooden resonating chamber with incurved sidewalls and a flat back. Although its earlier history includes periods of neglect as far as art music is concerned, it has always been an instrument of popular appeal, and has become an internationally established concert instrument endowed with an increasing repertory. In the Hornbostel and Sachs classification system the guitar is a ‘composite chordophone’ of the lute type.


There has been much speculation on the origin of the guitar, and several theories have been proposed to account for its presence in Europe. Some have regarded it as a remote development from the Ancient Greek kithara – as suggested by the etymological relationship of ‘kithara’ and ‘guitar’; others have seen guitar ancestors among the long-necked lutes of early Mesopotamia and Anatolia or in the flat-backed ‘Coptic lutes’ of Egypt. One subject of disagreement has been whether the guitar was of indigenous European development or was instead among the instruments introduced into medieval Europe by the Arabs; but the application of the name ‘guitar’, with its overtones of European musical practice, to ancient and oriental lutes betrays a superficial acquaintance with the instruments concerned.

Short-necked lutes, among which the European guitar is classed, appeared many centuries later than the long-necked type. The earliest representations of the guitar shape in a short-necked lute appeared in Central Asia in the 4th and 3rd centuries bce. From that time until the 4th century ce Central Asian lutes were of many kinds; the guitar shape is found in examples dating from the 1st to the 4th century ce. The type is not met again until its appearance in Byzantine miniatures of the 11th century as a bowed instrument, and from this time the guitar form was similarly depicted in medieval iconography. Plucked lutes appeared in a variety of shapes in the Middle Ages; some citoles (which were plucked with a plectrum) approach guitar shape and are depicted with frets.

The history of the guitar in Europe can be traced back to the Renaissance. Guitars from this period were constructed with both curved and flat backs and the main identifying feature of the Renaissance guitar is the characteristic outline of its frontal aspect, a shape it shared with the vihuela.

Instrument names related to ‘guitar’ occur in medieval literature from the 13th century onwards, but many are now thought to refer to the gittern, which differed in several respects from the Renaissance guitar.

Vihuela’ was first qualified by de mano (finger-plucked) in the 15th century; earlier related names were Vihuela de peñola and vihuela de arco. It seems clear that the finger-plucked vihuela was an adaptation of the guitar-shaped bowed instrument. The basic form was retained, but features better suited to a plucked instrument were adopted, namely a lute-type bridge and a central rose.

It was also during the 15th century that the Renaissance four-course guitar appeared an instrument which had much in common with the lute and the vihuela. The strong influence from these two instruments is attributable to their artistic superiority to the guitar: the wider range afforded by their extra strings would have allowed more ambitious music to be played on or composed for them. Depictions of the four-course guitar from various regions have enough in common to indicate that a single type of instrument had been established in general usage; the complete outline of the guitar is apparent in them all, as are the central rose, the lute-type bridge and frets.

The four-course guitar

(Fr. guiterre, guiterne; It. chitarrino, chitarra da sette corde, chitarra Napolitana; Sp. guitarra de quatro ordines).

16th-century guitars were much smaller than the modern instrument, and the four-course instrument could be described as a treble guitar. In the 16th century even five-course guitars seem to have been small instruments. The length of a five-course guitar made by Belchior Dias in 1581 is only 76·5 cm. It was in France that music for the four-course instrument flourished. Beginning with the (lost) first book of Guillaume Morlaye (1550), a series of guitar books published by the printers Granjon and Fezandat included music by Morlayeand Simon Gorlier. In England and elsewhere the four-course instrument also enjoyed some popularity. Although the four-course instrument is generally regarded as a Renaissance guitar because of its 16th century repertory, it continued to be widely used, mainly for playing popular music, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In Spanish and Portuguese cultures, both in the Old and New Worlds, small treble guitars have been in use and continue in use to the present day.

The five-course guitar

(It. chitarra spagnuola; Sp. guitarra)

Iconographic sources confirm that five-course guitar-like instruments were in use from at least the end of the 15th century, especially in Italy. The Italian term ‘viola’ was applied to these as well as to instruments with six and seven courses. The terms ‘viola’ and ‘viola da mano’ (and their Spanish equivalent ‘vihuela’) were often used generally to mean instruments of this general type and shape; sometimes the small four-course instrument was also included.

With its unique tunings and its emphasis on brighter, higher-ranged music, in an idiom generally quite unlike that of the lute or any other plucked instrument of the time, the five-course guitar was very different from the modern guitar. Only from the middle of the 18th century did the character of the guitar begin to approach that of the instrument we know today in its development of a bass range and its playing technique.

Average measurements of the five-course Baroque guitar were: overall length 92 cm; string length 63–70 cm; widths 20 cm–17 cm–24 cm; depth varied according to whether the back was flat or rounded (vaulted). The five-course guitar retained features of the smaller, four-course instrument, but curved pegboxes with laterally inserted pegs no longer appeared.

Many Baroque guitars have survived, particularly the highly decorated ones, which were more likely to be preserved by collectors than the plainer models. A survey of contemporary pictures reveals that instruments made of plain woods and with relatively little decoration were more common. In museum collections there are many instruments by makers such as Matteo and Giorgio Sellas, Giovanni Tessler, René and Alexander Voboam, Joachim Tielke and Antonio Stradivari.

Corbetta became the best-known Italian guitar composer, with his publications of 1643 and 1648, which contained music of the highest order. Other major Italian writers for the guitar were Granata (1646, c1650, 1651, 1659, 1674, 1680, 1684), Valdambrini (1646, 1647), Domenico Pellegrini (1650), Francesco Asioli (1674, 1676), Matteis (c1680, 1682) and Roncalli (1692). It is ironic that, although the guitar was known as a Spanish instrument, it was in Italy that its repertory was first developed.

The nature of the guitar changed noticeably in the middle of the 18th century, along with musical styles in general. The change seems to have occurred first in France, where the guitar began to be used primarily to accompany the voice, using an “arpeggiated” style similar to that of keyboard instruments. The new style required true bass notes and as early as 1764 instructions for proper accompaniments stressed the use of a bourdon on the fifth course.

The early six-string guitar

The transition from the Baroque five-course guitar to a recognizably modern instrument with six single strings took place gradually during the second half of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century in Spain, France and Italy. A deep-bodied instrument in the Gemeentemuseum (The Hague) labelled ‘Francisco Sanguino, me fecit. En Sevilla año de 1759’ is the earliest known six-course instrument, and is also notable for pioneering the use of fan-strutting to strengthen the table. Documents relating to the sale of musical instruments in Spain show that the six-course guitar became increasingly common from 1760 onwards, steadily superseding the five-course instrument, and was the most common form of guitar through Iberia by the 1790s. In Paris, the Italian-born guitarist Giacomo Merchi was still recommending the traditional five double-courses. By 1785, makers in Marseilles and Naples were building guitars specifically intended for six single strings and this new design gradually came into general use throughout much of Europe.

Changes in the basic instrument were many, and the guitar lost much that it had in common with the lute, establishing during the early decades of the 19th century the form that was to develop into the modern guitar. Machine heads were used instead of wooden pegs, fixed frets (first ivory or ebony, then metal) instead of gut; an open sound hole replaced the rose; the bridge was raised to a higher position (and a saddle and pins introduced to fasten the strings); and the neck became narrower. The flat back became standard, and proportions of the instrument changed to allow the positioning of the 12th fret at the junction of body and neck. Separate fingerboards were introduced, at first flush with the table, later raised to lie 2 mm or so above it. The rectangular peghead gave way to heads of various designs, often a distinguishing mark of the maker.

Instruction books reveal that there was no standard approach to playing technique. Earlier traditions persisted; the right hand was still supported on the table. Right-hand finger movement was still confined mainly to the thumb and first two fingers. The technique for attacking the strings was normally tirando, with the fingertips rising after plucking; apoyando, in which the finger brushes past the string and rests on the string below, was little mentioned and apparently not generally applied. Performers were divided over whether or not to employ the fingernails in the production of sound; Fernando Sor (1778–1839), the leading Spanish player, dispensed with nails, while his compatriot, Dionysio Aguado (1784–1849), employed them. The left-hand thumb was sometimes used to fret notes on the lowest (E) string, a technique made possible by the narrow fingerboard. The instrument was held in a variety of ways, and was often supported by a strap round the player’s neck; Aguado even invented a special stand – the tripodion – on which to rest the instrument.

The most important Italian guitarist was Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829). He first achieved fame in Vienna, where he was established from 1806 to 1819. As well as giving solo recitals, Giuliani appeared with the pianists Hummel and Moscheles and the violinist Mayseder. The majority of 19th-century publications were designed to acquaint the public with what was virtually a new instrument; as such many are didactic, and also limited in scope, as it soon became clear that few amateurs were sufficiently dedicated to master the more demanding works of the guitarist-composers. At a higher level are the studies designed to prepare the performer for recital works; most successful in this context are those by Aguado, Carcassi, Napoléon Coste and Sor, all of which are still of great value to students.

The modern classical guitar

The early 19th-century guitar was further developed in the second half of the century by the Spanish maker Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817–92), whose experiments led to instruments that became models for his successors. The guitar thus achieved a standard size and form for the first time in its history. Gut strings became obsolete after the introduction of nylon strings in 1946, with players preferring the higher tension and greater durability offered by the man-made material. For a time the improvements brought about by Torres remained confined to Spain, where a number of distinguished makers succeeded him: Vicente Arias, Manuel Ramirez, Enrique García, Marcelo Barbero and – active in the mid-20th century – José Ramirez, Manuel Contreras, Marcelino Lopez Nieto and others. The revival of interest in the guitar in the 20th century resulted in the appearance of outstanding makers in other countries: Hermann Hauser (Germany), Robert Bouchet (France), David Rubio and Paul Fischer (England), and others in Japan, where the instrument has become extremely popular. Although at the end of the century most makers still built their instruments in the traditional Spanish manner perfected by Torres, leading luthiers in the USA, Australia and Britain had begun in the 1970s to redesign the internal structure of the classical guitar. They aimed primarily to increase the volume of sound a guitar can produce, a consideration of increasing importance as many composers had begun to use the instrument regularly in chamber and orchestral works.

Variants of the classical guitar

Instruments departing from the basic form of the guitar first appear in 1690, when Alexandre Voboam constructed a double guitar, which had a small guitar attached to the treble side of a normal instrument. However, the 19th century was a more productive period in this respect. A double-necked guitar – Doppelgitarre – was made by Stauffer in 1807; and in the 1830s Jean-François Solomon constructed a guitar with three necks – the ‘Harpo-lyre’ – which, like a number of 19th-century variant guitars, was designed to improve what was felt to be an unsatisfactory instrument. The 19th century saw the introduction of guitars that varied in size and hence in pitch. These were the quinte-basse, quarte, terz and octavine guitars. In the 1960s Narciso Yepes introduced a ten-string guitar, the added strings lying in the bass.

Of 20th-century variants, the flamenco guitar is closest to the classical instrument. As the traditional posture of the flamenco guitarist necessitates holding the instrument almost vertically, it is desirable to restrict weight; hence Spanish cypress, a lighter wood than rosewood, is used for the back and sides, and gradually from the 1970s machine heads were used instead of wooden pegs. The string action is often lower than that of the classical guitar, allowing the strings to buzz against the frets. A plate is positioned on the table to protect the wood from the tapping of the right-hand fingers. Although the original function of the flamenco guitar was to provide an accompaniment to singing and dancing, it has been increasingly featured as a solo instrument.

Flat-top, steel-strung acoustic guitars have been widely used in all kinds of popular music since the 1920s, most notably country, bluegrass, folk and singer-songwriter styles, and blues, less so in jazz. In rock, such guitars still find a place in the recording studio as a largely percussive element, as a songwriter’s tool, and onstage as a visual and musical prop for some vocalists.

Among the earliest such instruments was the Gibson L-5 (designed by Lloyd Loar), which was first issued in 1922, and which defined the arched-top guitar. Its construction owed more to violin making than traditional methods of guitar building and was influenced by Orville H. Gibson’s mandolins and guitars of the 1890s. The quest for increased volume was at the root of all the alterations to conventional design introduced in the L-5: it had steel strings instead of gut, the extra tension and weight of which necessitated structural strengthening of the body; the top was strong and thick and carved into a characteristic arched shape; in place of a single soundhole there were two f-holes, for greater projection of the sound and enhancement of the sympathetic vibrations of the top; the bridge was not fixed but ‘floating’ (or adjustable) and the strings passed over it and were secured to a separate metal tailpiece attached to the end of the body.

Other attempts were made in the 1930s to increase the volume projected by the acoustic guitar. Early in the decade Mario Maccaferri (1900–1993) designed for the French company Selmer a series of guitars that had distinctive D-shaped soundholes (later oval) and a unique extra sound chamber inside the body (later removed); the resulting clear, piercing tone quality became the hallmark of Django Reinhardt’s playing at that period.

20th century composers, repertory and performers

In 1920 Falla wrote Homenajele tombeau de Claude Debussy’ for Llobet, proof of his belief that the guitar ‘is coming back again, because it is peculiarly adapted for modern music’. Other Spanish composers have favoured a more nationalist idiom: Joaquin Turina (1882–1949), Federico Moreno Torroba (b 1891) and Joaquín Rodrigo (1901–99). All produced works for Segovia, and Rodrigo dedicated compositions to other Spanish recitalists such as Narciso Yepes (1927–97), Manuel Lopez Ramos and the Romero family; his Concierto de Aranjuez (1939) was a tribute to Regino Sainz de la Maza y Ruiz (1896–1981). Many concertos were written in the 20th century, the first of them by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968) in 1939. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s prolific output for guitar includes a quintet (op.143, 1950) and Platero y yo (op.190, 1960) for guitar and narrator; and his works are dedicated to many guitarists: the German Siegfried Behrend (1933–90), the American Christopher Parkening (b 1947), the Italian Oscar Ghiglia (b 1938), the Venezuelan Alirio Diaz (b 1923), the Japanese Jiro Matsuda and others. He also composed several works for guitar duo, including the Concerto for two guitars and orchestra (op.201, 1962). The combination of two guitars allows more complex writing than is possible for the solo instrument. The duo genre was firmly established in the 20th century by Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya, and further consolidated by the Brazilian brothers Sergio and Eduardo Abreu, the Athenian Guitar Duo (Liza Zoi and Evangelos Assimakopoulos), and the French-Japanese combination of Henri Dorigny and Ako Ito. At the end of the century guitar duos and trios were commonly encountered forms of music-making, as were guitar quartets (composed either for four standard guitars, or for requinto, two guitars and bass guitar), a form pioneered by Gilbert Biberian (b 1944).

Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) also wrote a concerto, but he is better known for his Douze études (1929) and Cinq préludes (1940). The Etudes evidence some progress from 19th-century stereotypes, but formulae are still present, as they are in the preludes. The guitar features prominently in South American folk music, which permeates some of the compositions of Antonio Lauro (1917–86) of Venezuela and Agustín Barrios (1885–1944) of Paraguay. The South American repertory was augmented by the Brazilian Francisco Mignone (1897–1986), the Cuban Leo Brouwer (b 1939) and Guido Santórsola (1904–94) from Uruguay. Significant South American performers have included Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Turibio Santos (Brazil) and Oscar Caceres (Uruguay).

Although the initial impetus came from Spain, the growth of modern guitar music was maintained elsewhere in Europe, with works by Frank Martin, Krenek, Alexandre Tansman, Malipiero, Petrassi, Milhaud, Daniel-Lesur and Poulenc. Despite its limited volume, the guitar played a small but significant role in many 20th-century operas and symphonies, as well as in chamber works such as Schoenberg’s Serenade op.24 (1920–23), Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (1952–4, rev. 1957), Gerhard’s Concert for Eight (1962) and Libra (1968), and Henze’s Carillon, Récitatif, Masque (1974). Henze has made frequent use of the guitar and has written several important solo works, including Drei Tentos (from Kammermusik, 1958) and two sonatas (based on Shakespearean characters) entitled Royal Winter Music (1975–7). In England, where the leading performers at the end of the 20th century were Julian Bream (b 1933) and John Williams (b 1941), the guitar did not become established in music colleges until 1961. Nonetheless English composers, or composers resident in England, made a significant contribution to the repertory. Concertos appeared by Malcolm Arnold, Stephen Dodgson, Richard Rodney Bennett and André Previn, and the solo literature was enriched by works from Britten (Nocturnal after John Dowland, 1963), Berkeley (Sonatina op.52/1, 1957, Theme and Variations op.77, 1970), Dodgson (Partita, 1963, Fantasy-Divisions, 1973), Tippett (The Blue Guitar, 1985), Walton (Five Bagatelles, 1970–71) and others. The guitar was also used effectively as an accompaniment to the voice; settings include Songs from the Chinese (Britten, 1957), Cantares (Gerhard, 1956), Five Love Songs (Musgrave, 1955) and Anon. in Love (Walton, 1959). John W. Duarte (b 1919) was a significant influence in the development of the guitar repertory, notably for his transcriptions of the Bach cello suites but also for some attractive original compositions (such as his English Suite op.31 (1967), written for Segovia).

The 20th-century repertory exhibits a wide variety of textures and styles, ranging from the predominantly tonal, romantic works inspired by Segovia to avant-garde compositions. Influences from folk music, flamenco and jazz can be found; and experimenters have introduced unexpected sonorities and extended the instrument’s percussive and idiophonic resources. In Petrassi’s Suoni notturni (1959), for example, the performer is instructed to sound notes by pulling the strings so that they slap against the frets; elsewhere sounds produced by tapping on the table are alternated with normally played sounds. Koshkin’s half-hour epic The Prince’s Toys was composed to include as many unusual effects as possible, and produces a remarkable range of sounds. Atonal writing and serial techniques were given expression on the guitar – evidence of its viability in contemporary music. One of the most interesting aspects of the history of the guitar in the 20th century is the extent to which its literature was vitalized in the transition from music composed by guitarists (or written to the restrictions of a guitarist) to compositions not determined by a conventional conception of the instrument’s possibilities. This has led to the appearance of works of considerable stature and the growth of an artistic compositional tradition such as eluded the guitar until the 20th century.

The guitar world is much detailed and rich in information; we will limit this article to this point and invite the interested readers to check the following links:


Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

The suggested URL references are a result of research on the web and are not cited in the New Grove.

"Classical Guitar" Teachers:

  • Antoine Maalouf
  • Aurine Ramadan
  • Chedid Elias
  • Eddy Dorlian
  • Fadi Rashid
  • Ghada Fares
  • Hoseib Yakoubian
  • Ibrahim Obeid
  • Jad Hedari
  • Jean Beujekian
  • Joseph Diban
  • Joseph Ichkhanian
  • Joseph Zaioun
  • Marc El Hage
  • Marie-Ange Khoury
  • Marie-Therese Minassian
  • Meguerdich Mikaelian
  • Michel Rahmé
  • Pierre Haddad
  • Rabih Sari El Din
  • Rami Hanna
  • Ramzi Bou Kamel
  • Roy Abboud
  • Walid Al Ayoubi
  • Wissam Nasreddine

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