Alfabeto Notation - Guitar Chords in the SCA Period

Alfabeto was an alternative to tablature, developed for the 5-course guitar, where various letters and symbols were used to represent certain chords on the guitar.  The letters used to depict alfabeto were in no way related to the modern chord names, although the alfabeto chords themselves are equivalent to those played today on the modern guitar (minus the 6th string).  By the early 1600s, a number of alfabeto books were printed.  There are at least three surviving pre-1600 alfabeto manuscripts, including one, the Matheo Bezon MS from 1599, with an alfabeto chart (Zuluaga, 2013 discusses the Bezon MS in detail) that very closely matches the printed alfabeto chart of Montesardo from 1606. 


Another early approach to depicting guitar chords was published in 1596 by Amat.  Amat’s 5-course guitar chord treatise identified the various guitar chords by numbers rather than letters. While Amat’s book was reprinted several times, it seems that it was alfabeto in the style of Montesardo that became the favorite notation for the guitarists going into, and continuing through, the Baroque Period. 


Alfabeto chord charts are organized similar to Italian Tablature.  Numbers on the charts represent the fret of the course/string to be played.  The uppermost line of the chart represents the lowest pitched course of the guitar (5th course), while the bottom line of the alfabeto chart represents the highest-pitched course/string (1st course).  Letters and symbols above the tablature indicate the chord “names.”  


For more information on alfabeto, see my classes and articles pages on this website.

Transcription to staff notation and modern tablature of the chords for 5-course guitar from Amat (1596).  Modern guitar chord diagrams and chord names added above the staff notation.  The numbers between the staff notation and modern tablature are the chord "names" used by Amat (e.g. "1n," "12b").  Transcribed by Johann von Solothurn.  These guitar chords were being strummed on the guitar in the SCA period!

Alfabeto chart from Montesardo (1606)

Transcription of the alfabeto chart for 5-course guitar from Montesardo (1606).  Transcribed by Johann von Solothurn.  Montesardo's alfabeto chart closely matches the alfabeto chart from the 1599 Bezon Manuscript (although the Bezon MS chart is incomplete).

Alfabeto song from Kapsberger 1610.  Alfabeto chords are depicted as letters above the staff notation (also includes tablature for chitarrone rather than guitar)

Johann von Solothurn

Johann is a bard and Court Musician in the Kingdom of Atlantia.  Johann enjoys sharing his art.  If you would like Johann to assist you in organizing or judging bardic/music competitions, teaching classes, or if you would like him to drop by your camp and perform, just send him a note (email below).  

Johann von Solothurn

Barony of Black Diamond

email/contact Johann here