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Notes on Tablature

Tyler & Sparks cite Spanish publications from 1776 and 1780 for the 6-course gui
tar, by Vargas y Guzman who "tells us that the guitar... has 12 frets and six do
uble courses, although... some instruments have only five courses and that other
s have seven... and notes that 'the day of ciphers is over' and that players can
only expect to excel as musicians if they are familiar with the treble clef."
A major innovation for the guitar was the adoption of violin notation in the mid
-18th century, using the modern treble clef, instead of the various forms of tab
lature in use previously. This brought the guitar into the mainstream of composi
tions. Tyler & Sparks point out Merchi's opus 3 in 1757 for 5-course guitar in s
tandard notation as an early example, perhaps the inventor of this concept who '
withdrew the guitar from the servitude which it had relative to tablature' (Merc
hi, 1777). By the 1760's in France, the old tablature system was almost entirely
replaced with notation, which remained the standard for the 19th century. Howev
er, tablature never disappeared, and is still popular today. It is amusing to re
ad the tablature versus standard notation discussions from 1757-1777, which are
not unlike today's debates of beginner classical guitarists who move beyond tabl
ature into standard notation, for the same reasons: playing with ensembles, play
ing by composition and not by rote, holding to the same standards as other instr
uments, etc.. Sheet music from the mid-18th century for the 5-course guitar is p
erfectly readable on a modern instrument; the lowest note is the 5th "A" string,
but it is otherwise untapped and underserved classical guitar repertoire. Some
early compositions have notes below "A" notated an octave higher for 5-course pl
ayers, and notated as an octave "8va" below for those possessing a 6th course, b
ut this quickly became replaced with 6-string notation.
Along with using the same notation of other instruments, standard tuning changed
for the guitar to match orchestral pitch. Tyler & Sparks cite Corrette in 1762,
"[who] mentions that the guitar used to be tuned to a lower pitch, but points o
ut that 'a higher pitch makes the instrument more brilliant'".
Tyler & Sparks point out the importance of innovations in strings in the evoluti
on of the guitar from double to single courses. Gut strings have been around sin
ce at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, for thousands of years. They go o
n to note that "these thick plain gut bourdons were still less powerful than tre
ble strings of the same length, so players of plucked instruments either used th
em together with a thinner octave string for greater emphasis (as was customary
on the fourth and fifth courses of the guitar), or adopted the theorbo principle
by fitting a second pegbox above the main one, thus accommodating a number of u
nfretted bass courses with a much longer vibrating length... [With] the inventio
n of strings that were overspun with fine metal wire, [this] increased the overa
ll density of the string, thereby producing deeper and more powerful bass notes
for a given vibrating length... The earliest reference to this technique dates f
rom England in 1659..."
Although wire-wound strings with a gut or silk core have been around since the 1
7th century, they were not common and involved much manual labor to create, some
times by the player - or were extremely expensive. The fine wire was manually wo
und over the entire string, by hand. As musical demands upon the guitar changed,
the desire to have a strong bass grew, and the wire-wound strings provided a mu
ch more powerful bass response than plain gut basses. However, a double course g
uitar with 2 wire-wound bass notes was too overpowering, and it was better to us
e single courses. As production methods improved, wire-wound bass strings became
readily available and inexpensive, which resulted in their wide-spread adoption
. Wound strings were also not adopted initially because the frets were made of g
ut and tied on to the fingerboard, and metal strings tended to cut the gut frets
. Presumably, metal frets were introduced to allow the use of metal-wound string
s. Guitar publications in 1730, 1762, and later cite the benefits of metal-wound
versus plain gut bass strings. Tyler & Sparks state: "They were expensive items
(two sets could cost as much as a new guitar)... [but] from 1785 onwards, refer
ences to metal-wound bass strings can be found in [various inventory records of
the period] ..."
Alain Bieber notes that the availability of good, inexpensive Italian strings wa
s the key, and points out an important correlation. "I really suspect that the p
rogress in string making and costs was paramount in the progressive replacement
of the "course" by the thicker single string. If you look at Savarez strings web
-site you realise that Filiberto Savarese founded in Lyon the company in 1770, c
oming from Napoli. I would not be surprised to learn sometimes that the Fabricat
ores and the Savareses were living in the same street before the move! Savarese
was awarded a "privilege", just arrived. This is now called something like a pat
ent. He became after a few years Monsieur Savaresse, more French. When the famil
y affairs were taken by Meissonnier, I were told in the mid 1800's, they became
known as Savarez, I suppose because it was fashionable to be Spanish at that tim
e. Remember the wife of Napoléon III (Napoléon le petit) was Eugenia de Montijo a pu
re "hija de Espana". This is also an explanation for the hit that was instantly
Carmen of Bizet."
During the late 18th century in Italy, Tyler & Sparks point out that "some playe
rs began to abandon the use of courses and mount their instruments with just fiv
e single strings. The use of a single chanterelle (first string) had.. been comm
on for centuries.., but the practice was now sometimes being adopted throughout
the entire instrument.... [Merchi in 1777 states]: 'I shall use this foreward to
say a word about my manner of stringing the guitar with single strings. It is e
asier to find five true strings, than a larger number; single strings are easier
to put in tune, and to pluck cleanly; moreover, they render pure, strong, and s
mooth sounds, approaching those of the harp; above all, if one uses slightly thi
cker strings.'... Illustrations in late 18th century method books show that play
ers who favoured single strings simply left five of the ten tuning pegs on their
five-course guitars empty, and there is no convincing evidence that five [singl
e] string guitars were ever built as a distinct type."
Regarding nails or no-nails, Richard Savino pointed out to me in a private lesso
n several method books and illustrations from the Baroque era, showing players w
ho used fingernails, and others who did not. It is generally acknowledged today
that the nails/no-nails practices have been in use throughout the adoption of pl
ucked stringed instruments. Sor was not typical of Spaniards in this regard, mos
t of whom used fingernails. Tyler & Sparks refer to a 1799 Madrid publication wh
ich "gives advice on how to trim the right-hand nials with scissors, then polish
them with sandpaper so that they will not catch on the strings, and they seem u
nimpressed by those who prefer to play with the fingertips."
"It also seems that we are very much ignorant about the music played on these gu
itars, since only a few sources mention six courses, pricipally Ferandiere and M
oretti. The conventional reasoning has it that the guitar went from being an "ar
t music" instrument, played by cultivated and wealthy amateurs and professionals
, to being more of a "pop music" instrument, for which the opportunity to print
and distribute music was slim. Nevertheless, both of the above composers are imp
ortant enough to make the instrument interesting. I found it wonderful to play a
nd full of surprises when playing music I normally play on the modern guitar, or
did as a student, usually the sonatas of Scarlatti and his school. Many of thes
e pieces, such as those of the Portuguese Seixas, or of Soler and Mateo Albeniz,
derive much of thier texture and rhythm from the guitar music of the streets, w
hich the composers have drawn into the typical Neapolitan binary sonata form. Th
ere is also a substantial repertoire for harp and for dulcimer, in both printed
and MS form. Untravelled territory. "