Early Guitar Masters
In the Christian era, the guitar is mentioned in two forms in the thirteenth
century: the Latin guitar and the Moorish guitar. Both are illustrated in beautiful
miniatures in the manuscript “Cantigas de Santa Maria” attributed to Alfonso the
Wise of Spain. Of the two, the Latin guitar is closer to the figure-eight shape
of the guitar as it developed in Spain and Italy.
In early sixteenth-century Spain, the vihuela became the instrument of choice
for the serious musician. The vihuela was in fact an early form of the guitar, with
six pairs of strings. Vihuela music may be played without alteration on the modern
guitar. The only significant difference was the pairing of strings to produce a
stronger sound, comparable to the 12-string guitar of today. The vihuela was played
with the fingers, and a considerable repertoire of music existed for it in the notation
form known as “tablature.” The tuning was like that of the Renaissance lute, which
in the rest of Europe was considered the “King of Instruments” and whose music is
now a fertile source for guitarists.
At the same time, a smaller guitar, first with four and then with five sets of
strings (known as courses), developed as a less sophisticated instrument for chording
and the strumming style known as rasgueado used as accompaniment for the dance.
Surprisingly, at the end of the sixteenth century, the vihuela went out of favor
and it was the humbler form of guitar that survived, now established with five courses.
The name Spanish guitar became attached to this instrument, possibly to distinguish
it from the earlier fourcourse variety, although guitars were also well known in
Italy. Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615– 1681), a famous Italian player, published extensively
in the finger style that went beyond simple chording. Corbetta’s playing was so
popular that it soon became the rage among seventeenth-century courtiers in France
and England, launching the guitar in those countries. In France the talented Robert
de Visée (c. 1660–c. 1720) played frequently for Louis XIV, to whom he dedicated
his collection of pieces published in 1682. Back in Spain, Gaspar Sanz’s famous
1674 instruction site included detailed technique instruction and a fine collection
of pieces that are still widely played.
The history of the guitar includes periods of fantastic popularity followed by
periods of decline. The eighteenth century proved a time of low ebb for the guitar,
until at its end the double strings gave place to single ones, and the sixth string
was added to create the familiar form of today’s guitar. Sheep’s gut was used for
the first three strings. The basses were formed by winding silver-plated copper
wire onto a core of silk thread.
With the sixth string came a new wave of popularity with the public, led and
inspired by virtuoso players who also composed and wrote instruction methods for
the guitar in its new form. The main centers were Vienna and Paris, and great players
such as Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) from Italy and Fernando Sor (1778–1839) from
Spain were drawn to emigrate to the north where enthusiastic audiences and students
awaited them. Both composed extensively for the guitar, and laid the foundation
for the solo repertoire. Ferdinando Carulli (1770–1841) produced a guitar method
that is used to this day, and the “25 Melodious Studies” of Matteo Carcassi (1792–1853)
are still part of the standard student repertoire.
Following this great wave of popularity came a period of decline and neglect,
and by the middle of the nineteenth century the guitar was little played and rarely
heard in concert. It was really thanks to Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) that public
interest was again awakened.
Although not as active a performer as Sor or Giuliani, Tárrega’s reputation spread
due to his wonderful compositions and his ability to produce an extremely beautiful
and distinctive sound. This was due partially to his intimate knowledge of the guitar
fingerboard and use of the higher positions on it to achieve a particular romantic
quality. The general public tended to become familiar only with the first five frets
or so of the guitar, and to favor student pieces that stayed within this limited
range. Tárrega ignored these limitations to concentrate on works that exploited
the whole guitar, and as a result founded a school of playing and composing that
Although not a student of Tárrega, Andrés Segovia (1893–1987) in a sense carried
on the tradition and played Tárrega’s works extensively in concert. Where Tárrega
had been somewhat retiring as a player, and really preferred playing for intimate
groups of friends and admirers, Segovia took the guitar to the world, and brought
the world into his concerts with a hitherto unknown level of virtuosity and musicianship.
It was due to him that the guitar is now recognized as an instrument worthy of serious
study, and his interaction with composers inspired the bulk of the existing repertoire.
In parallel with the growth of composed music for the guitar came popular developments
in the field of folk music. In Spain the guitar had been used since the earliest
times as a strummed accompaniment for dancing, and it had a long and respected history
as an accompaniment for the voice. In the nineteenth century, the style known as
flamenco evolved as accompaniment for the songs and dances of Andalusia. Inspired
by the gypsies and deriving from their songs and dances as they blended with traditional
folk music, the style developed into a complex and vigorous art form. The guitar
was the principal instrument of accompaniment, and the continuing search for variety
combined with a spirit of competition among the players resulted in an elevation
of guitar technique to its highest levels. Many flamenco guitarists do not read
music, and the style evolved primarily through exchange of ideas and experimentation.
The legendary Ramón Montoya (1880–1949) is credited as the originator of many of
the best falsetas, the name given to the musical phrases used to intersperse the
verses of the songs and to embellish the dance accompaniments. Traditionally flamenco
has not been considered as a solo art for the guitarist, the player being essentially
a skilled accompanist for the song and dance. However today flamenco guitarists
appear in concert and play improvisations based on their accompaniment skills to
the delight of the fans or aficionados.
In the academic world of today the guitar has achieved a level of recognition
and respect that was certainly lacking 50 years ago. Today many universities and
music conservatories offer a music degree with the guitar accepted as the major
instrument. In the popular field, the guitar holds its own in spite of the comparative
ease of playing of the synthesizer. Though the sound is electronically amplified
and often deliberately distorted, the human touch is always apparent, and no keyboard
can ever quite simulate the effect of fingers on strings.