The Earliest Harp Guitars

Since creating 16+ years ago, one of the most frequent questions I routinely get is along the lines of “What was the first (or earliest/oldest) harp guitar?”

I’ve never answered this, and am not about to try now. However, I think it is finally time to give a little nutshell history lesson. I’ll then let the reader decide what date they want to carve in stone for themselves and their peace of mind. (Curiously, I’ve found that laypeople cannot abide “circa” – they just have to know the exact year for every instrument they come across.)

A couple of ground rules:

  1. If you’re an early guitar scholar, please pardon the use of the “harp guitar” term for this discussion. It’s long-accepted vernacular, and I’m speaking to the harp guitar community here more so than the Baroque guitar community. (I’ll remind laypeople that the term “harp guitar” came into existence more recently.)
  2. I can’t dictate what individual readers actually determine a “guitar” to be. As you’ve long seen in my “Hybrids” gallery, I choose to differentiate obvious “lute”-bodied instruments from more obvious guitar-bodied instruments. Others might not differentiate or care about the distinction (or the underlying history behind all the specific cases). It’s your call. Then, there’s defining “guitar tuning” (and on top of that, scordatura – a fancy word for “changing the tuning” – a practice that’s of course very common today). Some of what you’ll see here will be in this gray area.
  3. Resist the temptation to jump to conclusions with all you’re about to see. To weigh in on this (which I am reluctant to do), you’d probably need to be a seasoned scholar.

Which brings us to: Monica Hall. She’s done all my work for me! (Thanks must also go to Robert Spencer for his original discoveries divulged in 1976, and all the other guitar researchers that followed.) Ms. Hall, an expert on the Baroque guitar, has been studying this for some years, writing her definitive article in 2011 (Early Music, Volume 39, Issue 1, February 2011). She recently updated her article with more details and research here:  The Chittarra Atiorbata and the Guittare Theorbée: a re-appraisal.” If you’re serious about the history of the “harp guitar” or “guitars with extra floating basses,” it’s a must read. With all of her historical occurrences, plus a couple more I’ve added, this brings the total to a minimum of ten potential “theorboed guitar” appearances in the Baroque period (roughly, 1600 to 1750). Sadly, as everyone knows, none of these instruments have survived. (Or have they?…see below.)

Ms. Hall has mainly added more about tunings, specifically more options for the Gallot instrument. The other instrument tunings (those with written music) appear to have been reliably deduced. As to pitch (especially with these mysterious “theorboed guitars”), the specific pitches are unknown; the intervals are all “relative” to an unspecified nominal pitch. Again, here one needs to be an expert historical player of these early instruments, the notation and the music. Ms. Hall seems to have left no stones unturned in examining all of this on History’s behalf. I’m not going into tunings, so feel free to investigate her analysis on the matter.

For this exercise, I’m just collating the relevant basic information for a more easily assimilated overview of these “earliest harp guitar candidates.” I’ll start with my own Reference Table below (you might want to keep it handy for reference). Note that the first ten examples occurred throughout the Baroque period (~1600-1750), so all had 5 courses on the fretted neck (= 9 fingerboard strings; the first being single, the others unison or octave pairs). The final example is a transitional instrument; then I finish up with the next wave of 18th century instruments – wherein harp guitars again disappeared until coming back strong in the next century’s “Early Romantic” period with Vienna leading the way.


As you can see, there are some major “unknowns” here – specifically, what the neck’s tuning actually was (guitar or other) and what the body configuration was (guitar, lute or unknown).

So what do we know? Here are my takeaways on the instruments above, in roughly chronological order of appearance:

#1. Known from music for a “catarra” in an undated Neapolitan guitar manuscript. Its guitar stringing and tuning have been extrapolated; the dating to the early 17th century is the domain of experts. It could have looked like a guitar, a lute or something yet again.

theorbo#2. Much has now been written and discussed about the infamous painting The Theorbo Player by Antiveduto Grammatica (1571–1626). Specifically, what is he playing – some adorable little theorbo? Well, the presence of the guitar on the table, the 5 courses on the instrument’s neck (a lute would have had 6), and the fingering of what looks like “a difficult C minor guitar chord” has convinced everyone that this is a small guitar-tuned theorbo.

So now things become most complicated. Being built exactly like a lute, if these instruments were intended specifically to be guitar-tuned, then it seems we have wider definitions for guitars in the Baroque era…or is it only when they are expanded into an experimental “harp guitar” version? (As always, I seem to get the organological oxymorons dumped on my shoulders.)

Below: The musician’s photorealistic fingers placed on very real strings and frets to play “chord L” (C minor) never convinced me, until I realized that the poor guy had probably just been posing for too long and had let his fingers relax. So Grammatica captured them in a wonderfully graphic but sloppy pose with the fingers slipped off their strings and frets.

grammatica closeup

Sanz-AcebedarioNeed more detail? At right is the chord diagram with pitches from the alfabetto system, as it appeared in Gaspar Sanz’s 1697 tutor (thanks to Stephen Barber’s additions to Robert Spencer’s work on this). Note that the low 5th course is notated on top, with the 1st at the bottom; the number of dots indicates which fingers to use (matching the numbers on the staff notation).

Above right is Sanz’s illustration of the finger placement for chord L. Looks close enough to me!

chitarra_tiorbatta_rabel-name #3. A cryptic illustration dated 1626 that most presume is showing real instruments. They are overly stylized – I’m not sure I’d call that thing either guitar- or lute-shaped; it’s basically a rectangle! However, it’s a clue that the artist may have seen a genuine theorboed guitar.

#4. This one is obscure. A tiny reference in the tireless Christopher Page’s book The Guitar in Stuart England about an aristocratic Buckinghamshire lad who went to France, where in 1650 his teacher apparently had a 5-course guitar retrofitted for extra floating basses for his student. A “one off”? Or was he emulating some local trend? I think it’s safe to presume that this one was indeed a guitar and tuned like one.

granata4#5. Perhaps the most important example. Make that two. Do they equal a “smoking gun”?

The Italian composer Granata wrote some lovely pieces for a “chitarra atiorbata” (= “theorboed guitar”) in 1659. The image below is from an earlier 1651 Granata manuscript. Guitar scholars and players have put 2 & 2 together to suggest that the actual “chitarra atiorbata” is being depicted (reversed to left-handed by a symmetry-obsessed engraver; I’ve flipped the cropped instrument at left).

Personally, I don’t have any problem subscribing to this logical line of reasoning.

I’ve previously blogged about a couple modern players who have commissioned instruments emulating the illustration to perform the Granata material. I’ll revisit them in Part 2.


For the Granata instrument, Ms. Hall and consensus gives this tuning (harp guitarists: note that adding 7 basses to a 5-course guitar ends up at a low A).


#6. This is another key theorboed-something, because, again, music was written specifically for it (Gallot). But experts tell us that even though the stringing configuration was the same as for the Granata music above – and despite the name (“guitare theorbée”) – the tuning was an open minor/major. Combining that with the appearance in the same manuscript of 5-course mandore music (the mandore tuning being nearly identical to this instrument) and the absence of any illustration, Ms. Hall offers that Gallot’s instrument might perhaps have been intended as a novel “arch-mandore,” with a lute body to match. A fascinating bit of plucked string instrument history that may be even more of an outlier hybrid instrument than some of these other theorboed lute-guitars.

#7. This obscure reference is a “guitarre angelique” invented by Nicolas Derosier with music published circa 1691. The manuscript is lost; all that’s known (from Tyler & Sparks, 2002, p,128-130) is that the instrument was “described by the Flemish guitarist Castillion as having eight strings more than the normal guitar.” Neither their pitch nor configuration is known. Whether it had single floating strings as in the lute-style angelique or (for example) an additional four double fretted courses is not known. Personally, I’m favoring another theorboed guitar, the name inspired by the French Angelique introduced in the mid-1600s.

#8. Stradivari built harp guitars. Just let that one simmer a bit. Has it sunk in? It bears repeating: The great Antonio Stradivari built harp guitars. At the very least, he drew one…or two. The evidence consists of two different portions of plans (from the early 1700s, experts say) labeled “citara/chitara tiorbata.” Forget the spelling variation – surely these represent the same intended instrument? Frustratingly, no indication of the body shape survived; but Antonio built guitars, not lutes, so I’m putting my money on guitar body and tuning. The two pieces of the puzzle seem to indicate a very long bass scale. See Part 2 for what this monster may have looked like! The image at right is detail from a c.1719 painting (Watteau: Les Charmes de la vie). Robert Spencer – his 1976 Early Music article being the original source of the musical clue in the next entry – suggested that this image might represent the instrument named in that music: the “chitarrone francese.” Biggest clue? The 4 treble-side neck tuners, denoting a 9-string (5-course guitar) neck. Again, we have a lute body that doesn’t appear to trouble those interested in the purely musical history.

#10. This is our final “unknown instrument” that had music written for it, again in guitar tuning, but with just five basses. A 1733 Italian manuscript by Fontanelli includes music for a “chitarrone francese.” Though the name puzzled me, Spencer reminded us of the confusion back then over “Kithara”-derived terms, and suggested that the “French” connotation might perhaps relate to the Watteau painting.

brussels-1578-web#11. Hiding in plain sight in Brussels’ Musical Instrument Museum is #1578, long cataloged as an “Angelique.” My friends Andreas Schlegel and Joachim Ludtke (I’m their Lute in Europe book retailer in the U.S.) deduced that this was not a French angelique but an Italian instrument seemingly meant for 5-course guitar tuning (the 9 original neck pegs being one giveaway). They label it a “Chitarra atiorbata (?) in lautenform,” akin to the Grammatica and Watteau instruments. The single-rose instrument is quite small, with a 53.8 cm (21.2”) scale and dimensions of 128.5 cm (50.6”) x 24.6 (9.7” x 11.5 (4.5”). The museum dated the instrument to c.1650-1750, which of course fits right in this period under study.

Vallejo-va-minerThe “Arpetta.” Before I leave the Baroque period, I should mention  this curiosity, which, while not a theorboed guitar, might have been a form of (or part of a) harp guitar. Discussed in Tyler/Sparks (2002), p.59, it was mentioned by G. B. Abatessa in 1652 and  Antonio di Micheli in 1680. Abatessa’s reference was in tuning this “arpetta” to the guitar. Tyler found nothing to indicate what it might have been (a small harp-like instrument?), so hypothesized an appendage on the guitar, along the lines of the well-known Vallejo instrument of a century+ later (pictured at right). He also mentioned an 18th century drawing of a similar “Tyorba Christalina” (which I need to track down!). These short “zither strings” were akin to today’s “super-treble” harp guitar strings. For now, I’m calling Tyler’s guess about the earlier 17th century “arpetta” very intriguing but a long shot.

This then ends the “Baroque period.” As you’ve seen, there are many unknowns above, not the least of which is whether these various instruments looked like guitars or theorboes. And why that was. And if that’s even important in the field of organology or harp guitars. While I would argue “yes,” for purposes of investigating these instruments as musical objects, the difference may be only a curiosity. (And I’m in no hurry to go down that rabbit hole!)

#12 & 13. What comes next are two instruments famously held in the Paris Cite de la Musique that represent an interesting transition from the “Baroque” period into the “Classical” period.

While these have been up on since its inception, I just now added some “visual corrections.”


two-citedelamusiqueThe above closeup is how they appear at a glance – a 6 string neck and a 5-string neck – the exact opposite of the actuality.

The blonde instrument (E.980.2.296) currently has six strings on the neck but Benoit Meulle-Stef long ago pointed out how the sixth tuner had obviously been added later, squeezed into the head to fit, as shown here.

The brown instrument (E.980.2.297) does have six strings, but one tuner went missing, and it hasn’t been recreated yet.

For the full shot at right, I took the liberty of Photoshopping in the original configuration of each for proper comparison. I’ve sized them together based on the stated total lengths, but the relationship does not look remotely in scale to me.

The above are anonymous French instruments, with suggested dates of c.1760-1780 for #296 and c.1780-1799 for #297 (I haven’t got consensus on those dates yet, and the museum has changed them many times over the years). Thus, they were created after the ten Baroque instruments above had all seen their musical fashions come to an end.

#296 should interest historians most as this “Baroque straggler” still had five courses on the neck, but they were single.

#297 abandons the moustache bridge and 3-dimensional rose (retaining an inset decoration), and adds the final sixth string.

Feivezdeleplanque-smithsonianNext –

I included these two similar 4+6 instruments to show additional different design appointments and also illustrate how common these instruments may have been in the late 1700s.

The beautiful Deleplanque (Lille, France) at left (Smithsonian 60.1371), was made in 1790 yet features a Baroque moustache bridge.

The plain yet elegant instrument at right comes from about the same time (built or repaired by “F. Fievez,” owned by Jean-Michel Renard).






Villaume&Giron,1791-LeipzigVillaume&Giron,Troyes,c.1795-sinierderidderThese fabulous Villaume & Giron (Troyes, France) instruments show an even more interesting variation – from 5 double courses to 6 single. But this “transition” was instant, as both were built about the same time! In truth, the guitar’s change from 5-to-6 courses (and double-to-single) took decades, and varied across Europe.

5-course neck: 1791, University of Leipzig #596; 6-string neck: c.1790-c.1795, consensus. There is also a third V&G nearly identical to the asymmetrical model. And dig the graphic design of those bridges!

And a final transitional instrument: the…what?

dbl-archGraphically striking “hybrid” instruments, most curators and writers have referred to these curiosities as “double arch-citterns,” but Anthony Baines more properly guessed double arch-guitar. Surely that’s what these flat back instruments were tuned and played as? (Obvious clues: they had gut strings and a tie bridge and many had tied gut frets as well.) Had they had ribbed, bowl backs, we’d probably think of them as guitar/lute hybrids; the “cittern” vibe perhaps comes from the non-standard guitar shape. Nothing whatsoever regarding their use – terminology, tuning, music – has yet been found to my knowledge. Yet these were almost as common as theorboed guitars in a slightly earlier period. Known by many different French makers, they are all very similar and surprisingly standardized. These weren’t experimental instruments; they enjoyed a dedicated focus and movement of some kind. Each has a standard length neck and a much shorter one (quint?). Like the theorboed guitars, these saw a quick transition – or perhaps an “either/or” case – from 5 courses to six on each neck; I’ve never seen doubled courses, however.

Surprisingly, neither specific terminology nor music for these later c.1760-1790s instruments have yet been found as far as I know. I expect that to change as more floating-string-savvy historical music players explore even further back in time.

Okay, I wanted to include the above for completeness and to finish up the 1700s (these theorboed guitar designs seem to have stopped dead at 1800), but I’ve now way overshot the original “First Harp Guitar?” question.

Conclusion? Is there irrefutable proof that a theorboed figure 8-shaped guitar with a flat back and separate sides and tuned like the 5-course guitar existed prior to the second half of the 1700s? Technically, no. But I think with all the clues above we can reasonably be certain that such instruments did indeed exist in Italy and France. And any hypothetical or verifiable lute-bodied instruments of similar tunings are also a part of this history and musical story (but not something I care to introduce to the whole “harp guitar” boondoggle!).

Currently, I think it would be safest to say that “true guitars with floating strings (additional open basses)” or “the first 5-course harp guitars” were “likely being built, composed for, and played by the middle of the 17th century.” (But don’t quote me…choose your own wiggle words!)

So, sorry harp guitar nerds – no single “first instrument,” and no “hard date.”

But still pretty cool, huh?!

Next: Today’s Luthiers and Players who are dedicated enough to build and play these things!

Image credits:
The Theorbo Player: Pinterest
Close-up: Early Music journal
Hand engraving:
Alfabetto system (chord alphabet):
Chantres Grenadins, Granata: Early Music journal
Brussels #1578: Musical Instrument Museum, Brussels
Vallejo: Miner
Paris #296 & 297: Cite de la Musique, Paris
Deleplanque: Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.
Fievez: Jean Michel Renard
V&G: University of Leipzig
V&G2: Sinier de Ridder
Double arch-guitars: Cite de la Musique, Paris

  1. Drew Baldwin Says:

    Wow! That’s amazing stuff, Gregg!

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