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Two 4-course Renaissance guitars (2021), 55 cm mensur

  • Woods:
    • Guitar 1: Air-dried quilted Oregon Big Leaf Maple (back and sides), Sitka Spruce (top), Mahogany (neck and head), Pearwood (rosette), Snakewood and Ebony (fingerboard and head plate), Cocobolo (pegs), Plum (bridge)
    • Guitar 2: Flamed Hard Maple (back, sides, and head plate), Sitka Spruce (top), Mahogany (neck and head), Pearwood (rosette), Birdseye Maple (fingerboard), Plum (bridge and pegs)
  • Other: Bison bone nut. Goat parchment (rosette).
  • Finish: Oil varnish.

  • Notes:

I built these two guitars based on an adaptation of the 4-course guitar plan and dissertation by Jesus Alonso Yllana.

Yllana writes (translated from the original Spanish): 

“The plan of this four-course guitar is the result of the development of a work methodology for the study of archaeological remains of musical instruments that have been found in underwater archaeological excavations. With this objective, the remains of four-course guitars were chosen. The extraction of the remains without a systematic excavation prevents us from stating categorically that the ship was part of the fleet of 1733 that is probably its origin. Nor would the fact of these being instruments that travelled in the ship San Fernando in this fleet from New Spain actually assure us that they were recently made at that time.

For this reason, I have historically framed the pieces that have appeared, I have studied in depth all the information that we currently have about this guitar, and I have resorted to the reconstruction of an instrument of which we do not have originals. Throughout the investigation I have been analyzing the documents available to make the widest possible description at the present time of this guitar and thus be able to compare it with the data coming from the study of the archaeological remains. As a result, I can conclude that we are dealing with fragments of at least three copies of a Spanish 4-course guitar model. Therefore, although we do not know its construction date, we can say with certainty that they are the only known remains of a 4-course guitar that agree with all the data offered by the documentation of the sixteenth century, so it would not be strange if they belonged to an instrument of that time." (https://www.lutesociety.org/pages/four-course-guitar)

For his reconstruction, Yllana unites the sole surviving back piece with the larger neck piece, rendering a guitar of very small body and very long neck, which does not match the iconography of descriptions from the time and -- to me -- does not seem aesthetically pleasing. While it is not inconceivable that these parts could go together, given that there were multiple instruments, there is no reason to assume that they must belong together.

My interpretation of this instrument is based on the premise that there may have been guitars of multiple sizes on the ship and that the surviving back and neck are actually part of two separate sizes. I made the choice to use the recovered back piece as a template for the geometry of the body, but I have scaled it up so that the body is more in proportion to those found in 16th century iconography. As such, my recreation has a scale length of 55cm, which allows it to be tuned to a top string of a’ (at A-440) and permits 10 tied frets on the neck. The depth of the guitar is based on the depth of the surviving neck block, with an assumption that the instrument would be very slightly deeper at the bottom block. The result is a guitar of good proportion, comfortable to hold, with a smaller average body depth (~45mm) than usually used by modern builders. This slimmer profile, though less complex in sound than a larger body, creates an immediacy of sound and has great projection. 

A copy of Yllana’s original dissertation and plan are available from The Lute Society (UK).

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