The Spanish vs. The English Guitar

During the Regency, two different types of guitar were known in England. Authors, and readers, of Regency romances, may wish to know something of the differences between the two, should they feature in a story sent in our favorite period. Today, music is available to most of us in many forms. However, during the Regency, like so many other things, those who lived at that time had to make their own music, typically by playing an instrument. A guitar was a convenient, and relatively inexpensive, instrument which enabled quite a number of our Regency ancestors, mostly women, to enjoy music nearly any time they wanted it.

The differences between the Spanish and the English guitar . . .

Stringed instruments have been made and used by humans for at least five thousand years. The stringed musical instrument known today as the guitar had its origins in the early Renaissance period in Europe, though it can trace its decent from those very early instruments. Part of the lute family of chordophones, the guitar is a stringed instrument which is played with both hands, one strumming or plucking the strings, typically over the opening to the sound box, while the fingers of the other hand press the strings against the frets of the neck. There were several variations of this stringed instrument which appeared on the Continent, though it is not clear if any of them made their way across the Channel to England before the eighteenth century. These instruments were particularly popular in the countries which bordered the northern Mediterranean basin, especially in Spain.

Those early guitars were strung in four courses of strings. For the guitar, the course consisted of two strings, so those early instruments actually had eight strings, strung in pairs. The strings of the instrument were also played in pairs. It is believed that the use of strings in courses may have been done to help increase the volume of the music, at a time when stringed instruments could not be amplified and their sound was not as strong as that of instruments such as horns and flutes. However, the use of strings in courses also had the effect of altering the tone of the music. It was usual to tune the strings in each course to the same pitch, though sometimes in different octaves. In the seventeenth century, guitars were more often strung with five courses of strings, that is, ten strings, in five pairs. These guitars were popular in Italy, France and Spain from the sixteenth century through the seventeenth, particularly with members of the aristocracy. In the late eighteenth century, during the French Revolution, when the Committee of Safety confiscated the property of many aristocrats, that property included hundreds of guitars.

For multiple reasons, the guitar became a popular instrument for the production of casual music, primarily in the home. It did not make a very loud or strong sound, which made it difficult to play as part of a chamber group or orchestra. However, it was relatively easy to learn to play, which made it popular, particularly among ladies. Due to its fairly simple construction, from some basic materials, the guitar was available for lower costs than were more complex instruments. It was also not a large or heavy instrument, making it easy to move and to store until wanted. Unlike the cello and other larger stringed instruments, which were typically played with a bow while held between the knees, the guitar could be played by a woman holding it on her lap, while maintaining an appropriately decorous posture, something which was essential to most proper ladies of the day.

From about the mid-eighteenth century, guitars in Europe, particularly in France and Italy, were more often strung with six single strings than with four or five courses of string pairs. The only exception was the twelve-string guitar, which was strung in six courses of paired strings. Regardless of the number of strings used, strings for these guitars were still made of animal gut, typically from the tough fiber which could be found in the walls of the intestines of the larger domestic herbivores. Despite the fact that this material was often called catgut, strings of musical instruments were never made from the intestines of cats. Generally, guitar, and other instrument strings, were most often made from the intestines of sheep or goats, though the fibers from the intestines of cattle, pigs, horses, mules or donkeys were sometimes used.

The instrument with the figure-eight-shaped, flat-back body and the long neck, which is similar to the classical guitar of today, was known as the Spanish guitar across much of Europe by the last decades of the eighteenth century. This was due in large part to the fact that this instrument was very popular and widely used in Spain, and, to a lesser extent, in Portugal. In particular, quite a number of Spanish composers were writing music specifically for the guitar. Though other European composers were not as likely to write music for the Spanish guitar, Ludwig von Beethoven is reported to have said that "The guitar is an orchestra in itself." This was after attending a solo concert given by a master guitarist in Vienna, in 1806. Over the next decade, the popularity of this type of guitar spread across Europe, even into Austria and the German states. Famously, in December of 1818, a well-beloved Christmas carol, Silent Night, was composed specifically for the guitar.

The early four-course strung guitar was known in England from the sixteenth century, but it is quite difficult to distinguish between it and a similar instrument known as the cittern, which had been known there from Elizabethan times. Regardless of which instrument was actually in use, the concept of a plucked or strummed stringed instrument was certainly known in England. The six-string Spanish guitar was introduced in Britain about 1780, though it does not appear to have been widely adopted. Then, when the war against Napoleon pushed onto the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish guitar came to the attention of many more people. During the course of the Peninsular Wars, thousands of British soldiers were sent to Portugal in order to protect that country from the French. While there, those soldiers who were interested in music were captivated by the Spanish guitar, which was also widely used in Portugal. Relatively inexpensive and light-weight, it was an ideal instrument for a music-loving solider who was often on the move. Many of those guitars would make their way back to England when those soldiers returned home.

Curiously, the English guitar was not really a guitar as we know the instrument, though it was a stringed instrument which was initially played by plucking or strumming the strings. This instrument was introduced into England in the mid-eighteenth century, probably from France. Despite its country of origin, it became known in Britain as the English guitar after about 1780, in order to distinguish it from the larger, figure-eight shaped Spanish guitar, which had recently been introduced. During this period, quite a lot of music was written for the English guitar. Both guitar types were in use in Britain though the end of the eighteenth century, though, at that time, the English guitar seems to have been more popular, particularly with ladies of the upper classes. Musically-inclined gentlemen at the time typically played the violin or the flute.

The shape of the body of the English guitar was usually round, pear-shaped or oval. However, some of the English guitar bodies had more of a triangular shape, with the widest edge at the bottom and the tapering sides coming together into a point at the base of the neck. Unlike the Spanish guitar, the body of most English guitars had a slightly curved or arched back board. In addition to a very different shape, the body was smaller than that of the Spanish guitar and the English guitar had a noticeably shorter and wider neck. While the Spanish guitar had six strings, the English guitar had ten strings, which made the wider neck necessary. The English guitar strings were made of metal, usually of brass and steel. In some cases, the strings for an English guitar might be made of metal-wrapped silk.

Metal, or metal-wrapped, strings were more reliable than gut strings, which sometimes broke under the stress of extended play. However, metal strings were hard on the tender fingers of the ladies who typically played the English guitar. In order to solve the problem, an inventor living in London, Christian Claus, developed a mechanism which could be attached to the English guitar, inside the sound box. This mechanism consisted of a series of keys which operated a set of hammers that would strike the guitar strings through the sound hole opening when the appropriate key was pressed. Though the sound was slightly different, since the strings were struck rather than strummed or plucked, the hammer mechanism protected the soft skin of ladies’ fingers as they played. Late in the eighteenth century, this mechanism went into production at the firm of Longman & Broderip of London, and became known officially as the "piano-forte guitar."

When the English guitar was first introduced into Britain, it quickly became popular with many genteel ladies. So much so that there was a significant drop ln the sale of harpsichords, which put that industry in great jeopardy. A Swiss harpsichord maker, Jacob Kirkman, who had recently emigrated to London, hit upon a possible solution to save the harpsichord business. He acquired a considerable number of inexpensive guitars which he handed out, for free, to street balladeers, milliner’s girls and others of the lower classes who wanted them and would be willing to play them in public. Kirkman arranged for them all to have basic lessons in how to play the guitar and it was not long before guitars were being played everywhere on the streets of London. As the guitar became more strongly associated with the lower classes, many upper-class ladies became ashamed of their favorite instrument. Quite a few of those ladies gave up the guitar and returned to the harpsichord, though a few continued to play the instrument they most enjoyed. The popularity of the English guitar gradually revived a few years later.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the English guitar was once again falling out of fashion in Britain, even the keyed "piano-forte" version. The Spanish guitar was known, but was not widely popular. At about that same time, a new stringed instrument, the harp-lute guitar, was invented, by Edward Light of London. This instrument was based on the English guitar and met with some success. Then, in 1810, Light introduced an even more popular instrument, the harp-lute. Also based on the English guitar, the harp-lute became one of the most fashionable instruments for upper-class ladies during the Regency. It was easy to learn and allowed a lady to show off her hands as she played. It was also fairly small, so a lady could hold it on her lap while maintaining proper posture as she played. Even better, it was thought to have an almost angelic sound.

By the time the Regency began, the English guitar and the Spanish guitar were both known and played in Britain. However, neither of them was considered particularly fashionable at that time and therefore, were not popular among the upper classes. The harp-lute was, by far, the stringed instrument most popular with the more affluent upper-class ladies. But those ladies who loved music, but could not afford a harp-lute, may very well have been happy to have either an English or a Spanish guitar. Despite the fact that the English guitar was no longer the rage in the best circles during the Regency, there were still quite a number of them to be found in Britain. English guitars, with or without Christian Claus’ key and hammer mechanism, might be found in the music rooms, lumber rooms or attics of a great many houses. Though they could be a few years old and might be out of tune, a luthier, that is, a craftsman who made and/or repaired stringed instruments, would be able to refurbish the instrument to get into playing trim. Though there might be some cost for the repair or refurbishment an English guitar, it would be significantly less than the cost of a new instrument.

There were also quite a few Spanish guitars to be found in Britain during the Regency. Some were older instruments that had been acquired in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Even more had been brought back from the Iberian Peninsula by soldiers, diplomats and others who were participating in the effort to force the French out of Spain. Like the English guitar, older instruments could be repaired or refurbished by a luthier if they were not in playing condition. Though the English guitar was almost always played by ladies, who found its gut strings easier on their fingers, it does appear that at least a few Regency men enjoyed playing the Spanish guitar. However, both the Spanish and the English guitar, like the harp-lute, were most often used in the making of casual, private music. This might include impromptu recitals among family and close friends or a family member playing for the pleasure of the others on an evening in.

Neither the Spanish nor the English guitar was commonly included among the instruments played by chamber groups or orchestras which gave public concerts in Britain during the Regency. That was primarily due to the fact that neither instrument could produce particularly loud music at that time. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, that the decedents of the Spanish guitar, now known more commonly as the classical guitar, were made larger and given various improvements which enabled the instrument to produce a louder sound than had been possible during the Regency. By the mid-nineteenth century, the English guitar had become and outdated and obsolete instrument which was seldom played. Those that survived were viewed by most people as musical curiosities.

Dear Regency Authors, if you are planning a romance with one or more musically-inclined characters who cannot afford the most fashionable stringed instruments, you might want to consider allowing them to play a Spanish or an English guitar. Very few men ever played an English guitar, so it would be more accurate to give that instrument to a female character. Though it seems that many Regency women who discovered the Spanish guitar enjoyed playing it, quite a number of men also played the Spanish guitar during our favorite period. At least some of them may have acquired their instrument, and learned to play it, while serving in the Peninsular War. Perhaps your hero brings a Spanish guitar back to England from the Iberian Peninsula. Will he play it himself, or might he make a gift of it to the heroine, even teaching her to play it. Will that be their path to romance? Or, mayhap the heroine enjoys playing her deceased mother’s English guitar. Might she be mocked by a more affluent, but very arrogant and status-conscious young woman, who considers the instrument old-fashioned? Will that behavior bring the hero to her defense? It must be noted that not a lot of new music was written for either the English or the Spanish guitar in Britain during the Regency. But most music could be transcribed to be played on either instrument. Perhaps your heroine, and her father or brother, have music shop, where they sell sheet music for a wide range of instruments. Could it be that the heroine is adept at transcribing current musical pieces for the guitar, which brings in needed extra business to the shop? Will that skill in some way result in her becoming acquainted with the hero? The Spanish guitar, in particular, was light and easily portable. Therefore, it would make an ideal means by which to enjoy an alfresco recital. Mayhap the heroine likes to play her guitar in the garden, and it is there that the hero comes upon her. Or, maybe the hero takes his guitar with him so he can serenade the heroine when he takes her out for a picnic. How else might a Spanish or an English guitar bring a special harmony to a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to The Spanish vs. The English Guitar

  1. there’s an ackermann’s print of a lady playing Spanish guitar, 1819 which I tried to post but to no avail. She’s wearing a striped dress and has the sort of expression which makes me want to caption it “So, doctor, if I play the guitar, I will cure myself of costive habits?” which I think is meant to be soulful. I’m just wondering how much contraband you could hide inside a guitar body and how detrimental it would be to the tone; I may have to stuff my own Spanish guitar with rocks wrapped in silk scarves to simulate emeralds, rubies and silks for a John Company man with light fingers and a musical ability

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If you mean that you were not able to post an image here, that is no surprise. I avoid using images because I do not want to have to deal with the issues of copyright. Since I expect others to respect my copyright, I make it a point to respect the copyright of others. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research and verify the accuracy of the images which are floating around on the Net. I prefer to devote my research efforts to my articles. Since romance novels are not usually illustrated, I feel the written description of things is of more value to most romance authors.

      Contraband hidden inside the sound box of a Spanish guitar may well affect the tone. But if that contraband is small and not very heavy, is secured inside the sound box near the base of neck, and if the guitar is re-tuned once the contraband is in place, it may be possible to obscure the fact that there is anything inside the guitar. Though I cannot imagine that customs officers in the Regency would demand someone play an instrument they were bringing into a country, as is often done today. So long as the contraband cannot be heard rolling around inside the sound box, your character may well get away with his smuggling.

      At the other end of the spectrum from smuggling, I came across a book written for children during the Regency which centered on a Spanish guitar. It was entitled The Spanish Guitar: A Tale; for the Use of Young Persons, was written by Elizabeth Isabella Spence and was first published in 1814. It must have been a steady seller, since it was reprinted several times in the years that followed. Spence, a Scottish writer, was the niece of James Fordyce, he of the Sermons for Young Women. The Spanish Guitar is the story of the widow of a solider who is obliged to move her family from London to the country in order to be able to afford to support them. Her eldest daughter offers to take on extra responsibilities in order to help her mother. Then, a women in their new home gives the daughter a Spanish guitar. She becomes so involved with learning and playing the instrument that she fails to meet her responsibilities to her family. Once she is brought to her senses, she then decides to give up the guitar completely. Over the course of the rest of the story, the girl learns that she can enjoy playing the guitar, in moderation, and still help her family. It all ends with that nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. If you are interested, you can download a copy of The Spanish Guitar from Google Books.

  2. Oh, that’s fair enough . It is PD, but I can see why you avoid any.
    I wasn’t thinking so much of the customs demanding playing, but some female on the ship saying “Oh you have not played your guitar lately, why don’t you give us a song?” . I was wondering about this smuggler being caught … When I camped regularly with girl guides, I used to unstring it and stuff it with socks to make sure they kept dry until I needed my guitar for campfire sing-songs when they got shoved in the waterproof guitar case.

    Hehe a terribly improving tale, Certainly suitable to use for the girls in my Charity School series, when I get there, thank you.

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