The Musical Instrument collection at Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, includes over 900 instruments. Amongst this collection is one of the earliest six-stringed guitars.Although there have been guitars made with the distinctive classical shape for centuries, the guitar in the Musical Instrument collection is one of the first holding six strings and made in England. It was donated to the Museum by W. Guermonprez in 1962.The instrument is known as a Spanish guitar due to its shape rather than its origin. The guitar is made from maple or sycamore wood. It is decorated with marquetry, which is a pattern of inlaid wood, and has leaf designs across the bridge.
Clues to the Guitar’s Origins
It can be difficult to date a guitar or to identify its maker because the clues to these can sometimes only be found in inaccessible places inside the guitar’s body or sound board. Technology, however, can be used to gain information. Dr James Westbrook, a Research Fellow at the Music Faculty, University of Cambridge, has been analysing X-rays and CT scans made of the six-string guitar in the Musical Instrument collection.
By counting the rings of the wood, revealed by the scans, James noted that the last visible tree-ring on the guitar was from 1781. As a few rings are usually lost in the making of these instruments, he concluded that the tree used to make the soundboard was felled c 1785. Wood was then usually cured for at least 10 years before being used, so it is likely that the guitar was made in the Regency period and after 1795.
The X-ray of the sound board also revealed that the supports inside the guitar were placed at angles rather than placed horizontally across the body. This very unusual positioning will help James in his research to identify the guitar’s maker.
The Coffin Case
Whilst researching the six-string guitar in the Musical Instrument collection, James Westmore also considered its case.Named a coffin case because of its shape, it is likely to be the original case for the guitar because of the snug fit. The case’s red lining indicates that it is from England (French cases, for example, have green linings).
Furthermore, the fastening hooks are fixed in an upwards position so if the case is carried on its side (e.g. by the handle) these hooks will unhook, causing the case to open. This fault was rectified later and, although the case cannot be dated from this fact, it could indicate further that the guitar was made c1800.
James Westbrook is currently undertaking more detailed research on the guitar and by spring 2011 we may be able to provide more evidence about the name of the maker and the date of the guitar.