The Music Room
History of the Guitar

The 17th Century


It is known that king Louis XIV of France himself played the guitar and regarded it as his favorite instrument. He had for his teacher one of the most important French guitarists known to us - Robert de Visée (1650-1725).

Jean Baptiste Lully was also a great composer of that time who played the guitar and composed for the instrument.René Voboam represented the height of French instrument building (illustration - guitar on the right) in the seventeenth century, and he made a guitar dated 1641. It is an example of the more ornate style of instrument making.

Alexandre Voboam and his son Jean also made guitars in the seventeenth century.

The guitar on the left with inlaid mother-of-pearl was made by Domenico Sellas in Venice, about 1670.

German and Dutch influence

A considerable number of works containing guitar music were published in seventeenth century Holland, including the work of Isabel van Laughenhove. But it was in Germany that the instrument achieved its greatest popularity in Northern Europe.Among the number of German guitars still in existence, the first known German-made guitar was built by Jacobus Stadler in 1624. It is typical curved, stripped back and shows strong Italian influence. A seventeenth century guitar of an entirely different type was made by a priest, Father John of Apsom. The back of the instrument is decorated with a crucifixion scene

The most outstanding guitar maker of all Europe was Joachim Tielke of Hamburg (1641-1719). His striking guitars were made and decorated with materials such as ivory, tortoise shell, ebony, gold and silver, mother-of-pearl, jaracanda wood.

The workmanship was consistently of the highest quality. On one of them, the sides are made of ivory with pictures engraved on them. These pictures represent scenes from Genesis. His other guitars are covered with Tielke-type floral decorations surrounding mythological scenes, a characteristic of his handiwork. This tendency toward elaborate decoration, as manifested in Tielke instruments, represents the height of German craftmanship; it is comparable to that of the masters of the Italian Renaissance.

Spain and Portugal

Although the guitar was less popular in Spain than in Italy and was not as popular as the vihuela was in the previous century, some important works were established and a number of fine guitarists became known in that country.One of the prominent Spanish guitarists of the time, Francisco Corbera, dedicated his work Guitarra Española y sus differencias de sonos to Philip IV, king of Spain from 1621 to 1665. But the most notable Spanish guitarist of the seventeenth century was Gaspar Sanz.Sanz studied the guitar in Italy and also organ and music theory. He became an organist at the King's Chapel in Naples. Upon his return in Spain, he published three books of guitar music in 1674, 1675 and 1697. The books contain the author's extensive instructions for improvisation and performance, using the two methods of playing: strumming and plucking. He believed the former technique was most suitable for dance music. The tuning he used was A-D-G-B-E.


In addition to being a guitarist and organist, Sanz was also an accomplished composer. Solo music occupies a large part of his book. Also included are many dances and passacaglias. Much of his writing is in tablature but there are several short passages in modern notation.

The next significant publication after that of Sanz appeared in Madrid in 1677. It was written by Lucas de Ribayaz. It contains dances based on folk melodies.

Perhaps the most important Spanish composer of the seventeenth century was Don Francisco Guerau, a priest and musician in the court of Carlos II. His book, Poema harmonico compuesto de varias cifres por el temple de la Guitarra Española, published in 1694, contains fifteen passacaglias and ten dances of various types including a pavana and a galliard. Inside the book, he gives a series of instructions on tablature and ornamentation in addition to some very valuable comments on hand position and guitar technique which are interesting for historic and pedagogic reasons. He showed the utilization of the barré and had a great concern with the right hand position and the position of the thumb of the left hand. He contributed in the development of a considerably advanced technique.In Portugal, the monarch John IV (1603-1656) founded the most comprehensive music library in seventeenth century Europe. One of Portugal's most outstanding guitarists was Doisi de Velasco. His first book was published in Naples in 1640. A second work appeared five years later. Many Spanish and Portuguese works were published in Italy during the seventeenth century. This indicates that the greater popularity of the guitar in Italy led Spanish and Portuguese masters to feel that they could realize higher profits if their works were printed in Italy rather than at home.



The guitar was of considerable significance in Italian musical life at this time and more instruments of this period have survived there than in any other country. The most important factor which led to the popularity of the guitar in Italy and to the enrichment of its literature was the introduction from Spain of the plucked style of playing the instrument. For that reason, the guitar in Italy came to be called chitaria spagñuola. The plucked style of playing the instrument eventually replaced the strumming of chords that dominated the sixteenth century Italian practice. The plucking technique was in turn derived from the vihuela technique that the Spaniards adapted for their guitar.

Once the Italians had adopted the term chitarra spagñuola, they seem to have gradually widened its meaning so that for the rest of the seventeenth century it became a general term. The designation "Spanish guitar" persists to the present day as an extension of the seventeenth century usage.

The two essentially different techniques of guitar playing (strumming and plucking) co-existed in seventeenth century Italy. The plucking technique was expressed in tablature notation. The strumming of chords was indicated by a special notation developed by sixteenth and seventeenth century composers. This consisted of a chart of standard chords, each identified by capital letters.

Seventeenth century Italian composers were numerous, and included Girolamo Montesardo whose work is an illustration of guitar music early in the seventeenth century, and Benedetto Sanseverio, who composed pieces in the form of passacaglias, chaconnes and sarabandes.

The most famous guitarist-composer of the 17th century was Francisco Corbetta (Corbetti). Corbetta traveled through Italy as a concert guitarist and toured the rest of Europe with great success, his travels bringing him to many royal courts. He was a great virtuoso and used different types of tablatures to notate his music. The forms of his compositions varied - toccatas, passacailles, sinfonias and so on, but the most significant are his suites, which consisted of the Almanda, Courrente and Sarabande. They were the earliest suites of the Baroque period and Corbetta grouped his pieces and indicated they were to be played as a set.

Giovanni Battista Granata was the most prolific of the seventeenth century masters. His compositions were published in seven volumes each of a substantial size. The pieces for solo guitar include preludes, toccatas, correntes and others, and were complex.

Other important Italian composers were Domenico Pelligrini and Ludovico Roncalli. These composers wrote in tablature systems as the other composers had done previously in the seventeenth century. Many of these composers travelled throughout Europe carrying with them the guitar and its music.

The plethora of Italian seventeenth century manuscripts and published works is matched by a large number of surviving guitars found in museums throughout the world. Unlike the guitars from the north with their rather uniform designs and patterns, the Italian guitars displayed a great variety of ornamentation.

Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737) of Cremona, the most famous Italian instrument maker of the seventeenth century, is best known for his matchless violins, violas and cellos, but he was also known to have built harps, ceteras and guitars, and two of his guitars have survived to the present day.