Northern Renaissance Instruments
6 Needham Avenue, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AA, U.K.
Phone & Fax. +44 (0) 161 881 8134 ; proprietor: Dr. Ephraim Segerman [USA]
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ; on internet: http://www.nrinst.co.uk
EARLY CLASSICAL GUITAR STRINGS
The Table gives gut diameters (or equivalent gut diameters), recommended types and prices of strings for all classical guitars before the nylon era. The MEDIUM columns represent the usual stringings for each period, and the LIGHT and HEAVY columns represent lighter and heavier versions of these stringings.
When the classical guitar was first growing in popularity early in the 19th century, the designs were not as resonant as modern ones, and hard plucking on high-tension thick strings were needed for the acoustic power the players needed when playing with violins. Such stringing is shown in the three columns to the far right. Violins then were of acoustically advanced design, and used particularly heavy strings themselves to project in large halls of indifferent resonance. Later in the 19th century, players of both violins and guitars became more relaxed about their ability to project, and used lighter strings to make playing easier and to articulate faster. The Torres model of classical guitar grew in popularity early in the 20th century. It was more resonant for nail playing than previous models, and so the advantages of even lighter stringing could be exploited without further loss of projection.
The first three columns give specifications for the modern 'early music movement'. The musicians started out playing on surviving original 19th century instruments, and they used the lightest strings that worked for them musically. One reason for this approach was that they were concerned about damaging the old instruments. The other was that they thought that string tensions tended to increase with time (actually the reverse of what really happened), so they reasoned that the strings would have been noticeably lighter than on recent classical guitars.
In 'Shelley's Guitar and 19th Century Stringing Practices' (FoMRHI Quarterly 67, April 1992, Comm. 1096, pp. 41-2), we reported the research that led to these stringings. We had the opportunity to examine the strings associated with the guitar given by Percy Bysshe Shelley to Jane Williams in 1822. It was given to the Bodleian Library (Oxford) late in the 19th century by the Williams family. On the instrument and in the case were what most probably were the original strings plus some later 19th century replacements. Measurements of the probably original strings indicated that they were at 9 or 10 Kg tension, and the later 19th century replacements were at about 7 Kg tension.
In our history of violin stringing, we discussed (The Strad, March 1988, p. 201) a statement by Flesch (1923) about an old letter enclosing strings for replacement that was sent by Paganini to the Schott firm. It was shown to Heermann around 1890, and he measured them. From Flesch's report of Heermann's response, we can determine that the diameters were about 25 and 32.5 thou. Heermann and Flesch assumed that they were unusual violin strings. Indeed, they don't make sense as violin strings tuned in fifths, but they make perfect sense as guitar strings. At the time, we thought that they were guitar 2nd and 3rd strings, confirming the 'early music' stringing at about 4.5 Kg tension. In the light of the evidence from Shelley's guitar, it is clear that they were most likely Paganini's 1st and 2nd strings at about 7 Kg tension.
The 19th century guitar's 4th string was usually made of metal wound on silk. When we made them according to 'early music' specifications, they broke much too quickly. We used the thinnest wire that we could handle, but there just were not enough silk strands to take the tension. We looked into whether there might have been stronger silk available, but silk technology historians knew of none. With the heavier stringing indicated by Shelley's guitar and the new interpretation of Paganini's stringing, the problem vanished. Heavier strings could have more of the extra heaviness in the silk than in the metal, and there are enough added strands to take the added tension. To us, this practical experience is confirmation that 19th century stringing for the classical guitar was heavier than it is today.