c. 1770 Italian 5-string



The latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed the guitar in transition. The five-course configuration that had been the standard for over a century and a half, slowly gave way to single strings. The surge of evolutionary change underway saw five-course guitars, five single-string guitars, six single-string guitars, and six-course guitars (Spain) all in use in the closing years of the 1700s.



Date c. 1770
Location Italy
Length of Guitar 855mm
String Length 657mm
Upper Bout Width 216mm
Waist Width 170mm
Lower Bout Width 273mm
Side Depth at Waist 90mm
Soundboard: Spruce | Other attributes

The inspiration for transitioning to single strings may have begun with a change in taste that favored a warmer sonority. This became possible with the emergence of silk strings either loosely or closely wound in metal. Wound strings created a sound that emphasized the bass compared to what historian Christopher Page refers to as the kaleidoscopic sonority of the five-course Baroque guitar’s reentrant tuning. Additionally, wound strings avoided the inharmonicity associated with thicker gut strings.

The decline in popularity toward the end of the century of the English guittar, a six-course cittern-shaped instrument strung with wire strings and generally tuned to an open C-chord, may have been due to a growing preference for warmer-sounding gut and silk wound strings. Beginning in around 1750, the guittar was immensely popular in England and throughout Europe. However, as the century came to a close, instruments strung with wire – which included not only the guittar but also the harpsichord – became increasingly archaic. A preference for a harp-like sonority took center stage. In fact, a selling point used to promote the single-string guitar was its ability to sound like a harp with the advantage of transportability.

The guitar’s transition from courses to single strings initially took place in France and Italy. Five single string instruments first began to appear in two forms. The c. 1770 anonymous guitar in this collection is an example of one form: a modified five-course guitar reconfigured to accommodate single strings. The head stock has been truncated to accommodate fewer tuning pegs and the bridge has been changed.

There are also rare examples of original five single-string guitars. On page-41 of James Westbrook’s, An Illustrated History and Directory of Acoustic Guitars [1], both an original and modified example are shown side by side. An Italian five-string guitar (c. 1780), likely attributed to either Giovanni Battista Fabricatore or the Vinaccia family, is shown next to the c. 1770 anonymous modified five-string guitar in this collection. Many five string guitars were later fitted with a sixth string and couple this with the instrument’s relatively short-lived popularity, may help explain why so few have survived.

The next step in the guitar’s evolutionary journey from courses to individual strings was to add a sixth string. However, before six strings became the standard configuration in the early nineteenth century, composers wrote music for both the five and six-string versions. An excellent example of music written for the five-string guitar can be found on Duo Noli-Soattin’s recording of music by Doisy, Merchi, and de Lhoyer, performed on what are thought to be original five-string guitars by the Parisian makers Lambert (c. 1770) and Ory (1795) https://duonolisoattin.com/the-guitars/18th-century/

Method writers and composers wrote for a variety of configurations during this transitional period as well. The Catalonian virtuoso Sebastián Vidal (c. 1743–1803), for example, published a method in 1787 for the five-course guitar, followed by one for the five-string guitar in 1797, followed by another for the six-string guitar in 1802 [2].

For a discussion on the guitar’s transition from courses to individual strings, please see Parts III and IV of the Cambridge Guitar Symposium interviews on this website:  https://austinmarieguitars.com/cambridge-guitar-symposium/

The anonymous five-string guitar in this collection, with an ambiguous torn label that reads: “1760 Fanjaul le Marjeill” [sic], was likely built in Italy and dates from c. 1770. The hand cut mother of pearl inlay motif at the base of the soundboard below the bridge is reminiscent of the work of the Fabricatores of Naples (re: 1796 G. B. Fabricatore in this collection). Similarly, the inlaid parallel bone strips in the heel and neck running up to the head and the flamed maple back and sides are also characteristic of Fabricatore’s guitars. The embedded neck and 10 tied gut frets affirm the guitar’s five-course Baroque guitar pedigree, with two embedded frets added (11th and 12th), on the neck and soundboard. The headstock, originally crafted with 10 peg holes to accommodate five courses, has been truncated to allow for just five single strings. Two internal cross braces situated above and below the soundhole support the soundboard and the original tie bridge has been replaced with a later pin bridge.


[1]  An Illustrated History and Directory of Acoustic Guitars – Dr. James Westbrook; Anness Publishing Ltd 2015

[2]  ‘The Famous Vidal’: new light on the life and works of a guitarist in late eighteenth-century France,’ Eighteenth-Century Music, xviii (2021), 123-149. –  Damián Martín Gil; Cambridge University Press 2021