Northern Renaissance Instruments

6 Needham Avenue, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AA, U.K.

Phone & Fax. +44 (0) 161 881 8134; proprietor: Dr. Ephraim Segerman [USA]

e-mail: ; on internet:


'Baroque guitar' is a modern term. The instrument was called a 'guitar' unless there was ambiguity with respect to a different instrument, such as the wire-strung English guitar, in which case it was called a 'Spanish guitar'. Peg and bridge provision was made for 10 strings in 5 pairs. Yet often the first course used only a single string rather than a pair.

String Lengths and Size Names

Italian manuals indicated that there were three sizes. The usual one, being the middle size, was called 'chitarra mezzano'. Its string length was 65-70 cm, and the nominal pitch of the first course was stated to be e' in some sources and d' in others. Whenever a pitch standard was relevant, it usually was about a tone below modern. The 'chitarra grande' was tuned a tone lower than the chitarra mezzano (the Strad in the Ashmolean is one), and the 'chitarra piccola' was tuned a fourth higher (a fifth higher than the chitarra grande). The 'chitarrino' was a survival of the 4-course Renaissance guitar, and was treated like a chitarra piccola without its 5th course.

Tuning Pitches

The baroque guitar methods never indicated that one tunes the highest string as high as it can go without breaking, as was often the case with the lute, violin and viols. An analysis of Praetorius's string usage indicates that for that highest pitch, the string stop (in metres) multiplied by the frequency (in Hz) is about 210. For string conservation when not having to conform to an ensemble's pitch standard, we would expect that the highest string of a baroque guitar would then usually be lower than this for its length. If that pitch was a semitone below the highest pitch for the length, the pitches of the first string (or course) would be:

If necessary for playing with other instruments, the guitar could be tuned higher, but this was rarely necessary before well into the 18th century because of the low pitch standard. Modern players of these instruments tend to use somewhat higher pitches than these. This presents no problems with nylon strings, but if the original gut string material is used, players will have to tolerate a higher rate of first-string breakage than the original players did.

Relative Pitches of the Strings

The second course always was a unison pair tuned a fourth below the first. The third course also was always a unison pair, and it was tuned a major third below the second. Each string of the fourth course could be tuned either a fourth lower than the third, in which case it was called a 'bourdon', or a fifth higher than the third (an octave above the bourdon). If there was one of each, it was said that the course 'had one bourdon'. The bourdon was the string of the pair that was placed closest to the third course. The fifth course could also have two, one or no bourdons. With two bourdons both strings were at the lower octave, and with no bourdons both strings were at the higher octave. These possibilities for the fifth course were the same as for the fourth course, but at a fourth lower in pitch. As with the fourth course, when there was one bourdon, it was on the side nearest to the previously-mentioned course.

The number of bourdons on the fourth and fifth courses varied considerably. Both having two bourdons was rare, used only in Spain. This tuning was mainly used for strumming, and possibly had descended from the Renaissance vihuela, which also had unison pairs at the low octave in Spain. Single bourdons on both courses were common in Spain, Italy and France. One bourdon on the fourth course and no bourdons on the fifth was common in the late 17th century 'golden' period, mainly in France, but used some elsewhere. No bourdons on either course was used throughout the period, and mainly for strumming. There were many subtleties of strumming.

Modern players, who are usually either lute or guitar players, tend to be largely attracted to music from the 'golden' period, but are loathe to lose the range when the fifth course has no bourdon, so one bourdon on each tends to be the most popular.

String specifications

We have information about the diameters of baroque guitar stringing from five sources, and it has been analysed in FoMRHI Comm. 1676 (Oct. 1999) and Comm. 1798 (Jan. 2002). They each have one bourdon on the 4th and 5th courses. That bourdon is gut in Montesardo's and Stradivari's sets, open-wound on gut in Castillion's set, open-wound on silk in Corrette's set and close-wound on silk in Baillon's set. The specifications of Corrette are suitable for players used to lute-like string tensions, and those of Baillon for those used to modern guitar string tensions.


Specifications after Montesardo (1606), Stradivari (c.1700), Castillion (1729), Corrette (1763) and Baillon (1781). LT = low-twist gut, HT = high-twist gut.

Metric Equivalents