The Guitar in the SCA Period

For good reason, the lute garners much interest in the SCA.  The music of the lute from the late SCA Period is well preserved and accessible.  John Dowland and many others composed timeless masterpieces for the lute that still speak to the listener and performer today.  Somewhat unfortunately, the popularity of the lute and its music has overshadowed the music of the late period guitar.  When I first began playing instrumental music on my guitar in the SCA, I started out with the renaissance lute literature.  I later became interested in the history of the guitar, and in researching my instrument, discovered that there exists a rather impressive extant literature for the renaissance guitar.  After delving into the guitar music from the 1500s, I can attest to the fact that the surviving music for the renaissance guitar is worthy of our attention.  Numerous galliards, almans, pavans, bransles, fantasias, etc. written for the renaissance guitar are just begging to be given the spotlight once again in the 'current Renaissance" of the SCA.  Each time I transcribe and learn a new (to me) renaissance guitar piece, I take great pleasure in knowing that when I perform the piece at an event, it will very likely be the first time that most (if not all) of my audience has heard the piece.  Even in the SCA.  At each event, this ancient music becomes new again.


Below is a brief overview of the development of the guitar within the SCA Period.  For a more detailed discussion and references, see my article "The Guitar in the SCA Period" here.  If you're interested in post-period guitar history, check out my "History of the Guitar" class notes here (includes a discussion of the lute, vihuela and guitar in period, and the post-period development of the guitar).  Both contain references so that you can research further!

The Vihuela

The vihuela de mano (viola da mano in Italy) was the instrument of choice in Spain throughout the 1500s.  The vihuela effectively replaced the lute in Spain.  The typical vihuela had 6 courses (or pairs) of strings, tuned to the same intervals as the lute (that is, the same tuning intervals as the classical guitar, but with the 3rd string tuned a half step lower).  Vihuelas of 5 and 7 courses are known to have existed.  Unlike the lute, the vihuela had a flat back and a figure-eight waisted shape (like the renaissance guitar and modern guitar!).  While period sources discuss the vihuela and 4-course guitar as separate instruments, based on the flat-backed, waisted design of the two instruments, it appears that the history of the guitar begins with the vihuela in Spain.

Portion of a Fantasia from Miguel de Fuenllana's Orphenica Lyra (1554).  This piece is for a 6-course vihuela and written in Italian tablature

Depiction of a vihuela from Luis Milan's El Maestro (1536)

The Four-Course (Renaissance) Guitar

Cover of Guillaume Morlaye's Premier Livre, published in 1552.  Morlaye's book is one of several french 4-course guitar books published in the mid-1500s.

Bransles for the 4-course (renaissance) guitar music from Adrian Le Roy's 1551 guitar book.  Notation is in french tablature.

The renaissance guitar had 4 courses (pairs) of strings, typically with a chanterelle (single string) serving as the first "course."  The instrument was smaller in scale than the modern guitar (string length was 10cm or more shorter than the classical guitar, for example).  The strings and frets of the instrument were made of gut, with the frets simply tied around the guitar neck.  The instrument was tuned to the same intervals as the modern guitar, with bourdons (octave tuned pair of strings) for the 4th, lowest pitched course.  Music for the renaissance guitar can be played on a modern guitar without retuning the instrument!  A number of guitar books were published in the mid-1500s by spanish and french guitarists.  Depending on the nationality of the composer, notation for the renaissance guitar can be in french tablature (the same notation used by John Dowland for the lute) or italian tablature (the notation used by Luis Milan for the vihuela).  

Portion of a 4-course guitar Fantasia in Italian tablature from Miguel de Fuenllana's Orphenica Lyra (1554)

The Five-Course Guitar

The five-course guitar (guitarra spagnola, often called the "baroque guitar") also originated in the SCA period (mid-1500s).  The instrument became larger-bodied than the earlier four-course guitar, and also used the same tuning intervals of the modern guitar (top 5 strings).  The instrument had 5 courses (pairs) of gut strings, with gut frets tied around the guitar neck.  Like the renaissance guitar, the first "course" was typically a single string (chanterelle).  There were bourdons (octave pairs) on the 4th and 5th courses, at least during the late SCA Period (as described by Amat 1596).  Reentrant tunings where the 5th or both the 4th and 5th courses were tuned in unisons also became common going into the Baroque period.  


Fuenllana (1554) included a few pieces of 5-course music in this Orphenica Lyra for an instrument he called a "five course vihuela."  It is possible that this is the first music written for the 5-course guitar.  Near the end of the SCA period, Jaun Carlos Amat (1596) published a 5-course guitar treatise for playing strummed guitar chords.  Also in the 1590s, manuscripts appear with alfabeto (chord) notation.  Alfabeto was a notation system that developed with the 5-course guitar, and in some ways, is quite similar to todays notation for guitar chords along with song lyrics and/or staff notation. Unfortunately for the modern guitarist, the alfabeto letters do not correspond to modern chord names, though the chord shapes/notes are the same.  So, near the end of the SCA period, there would have been Spanish guitarists strumming chords on their guitars - much like today!

Alfabeto (guitar chord) chart from Montesardo (1606)

 Me with my little 5-course guitar.  This instrument is a descendant of the 4-course guitar, and eventually surpassed the lute in popularity (post-period).

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  • Want more information on the guitar in the SCA period?  Check out my article here.  
  • If you play the guitar and are looking for some music, check out my "Music Books, Transcriptions and Composers" pages (Page 1 and Page 2)
  • For information on the notation used for the period guitar, lute and vihuela, click here.

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