19th century guitars

Construction and repair of Classical Guitar and related instruments

19th century guitars

Postby jwp » Sun Sep 29, 2013 10:26 pm

In looking around the net, I came across William Carter's recording of early works of Sor (William Carter, Fernando Sor Early Works, Linn Records). These are played without fingernails on a replica 19th century guitar made by Tony Johnson. In his remarks on the recording, Mr. Carter says

... surviving 19th century guitars are often extremely difficult to play with fingertips. The choice is often between audibility and dexterity and even with one's best efforts, many surviving instruments (and modern copies) are so heavily built that playing them without nails feels, I imagine, like trying to eat steak with no teeth! .... [A] chance conversation with someone working as a curator of antique furniture gave me some useful ideas about my situation. I learned the informal "Law of Furniture Survival" - surviving antique furniture is almost always uncomfortable. A comfortable chair will be sat on until it wears out. By analogy we could guess that guitars (which as domestic instruments have rarely been cherished like old violins or cellos) which are fun to play would be played into oblivion and that ones with heavier construction (which suit nail players better anyway) would be more likely to survive.

I was wondering if those of you who build 19th century style instruments had found that to be the case when you research them? Do the heavily used ones tend to be of noticeably lighter construction than the ones that don't seem to have been much played?
John W. Pierce
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Re: 19th century guitars

Postby Scot Tremblay » Sun Sep 29, 2013 11:34 pm

Hmmm...I would say that after almost a lifetime of examining, playing and making 19th century guitars that I cannot agree with much in that statement. I would also not take the statement from the curator of antique furniture as truth as it applies to musical instruments. I have nothing against antique furniture curators but I think the author has made an erroneous leap of logic in equating a guitar to a piece of furniture or even a violin/cello. The very nature of the guitar and the way it is built tends to give it a "best before" date which isn't necessarily applicable to violins, cellos, violas, or chairs.

I will conceed that many (certainly not all) 19th century guitar builders did tend to utilize thicker (could read "heavier") tops and often backs than modern builders would but to make this statement "... surviving 19th century guitars are often extremely difficult to play with fingertips. The choice is often between audibility and dexterity and even with one's best efforts, many surviving instruments (and modern copies) are so heavily built that playing them without nails feels, I imagine, like trying to eat steak with no teeth! ...." shows a complete lack of understanding of the principles of 19th century building IMO. Some of the loudest,and easiest playing instruments I know of were made in the 19th century.

I'm not sure why Mr. carter would make such a statement when it is clearly inaccurate to those who work with these instruments on a daily basis. Perhaps to advance the reputation of his friend, the guitar maker who made his instrument...It's puzzling...

However, after reading the full liner notes, where I suspect this excerpt came from, I see there are a number of bold statements which seem a little "over the top" and ill informed.
Scot Tremblay Guitars

“If you can kiss a girl and play a guitar at the same time, you’re not giving the kiss the attention it deserves” Albert Einstein (slightly altered for relevancy)
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Re: 19th century guitars

Postby romanticguitars » Sun Sep 29, 2013 11:44 pm

I certainly lack Scot's experience with building 19th century instruments, that said, I absolutely agree with everything he said. The guitars that I have built are easly on the fingers whether tips or nails, whatever.
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Re: 19th century guitars

Postby jwp » Mon Sep 30, 2013 7:53 am

My thanks to all of you. It seemed a little strange to me, but it's not something I know anything about.
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