Visual evidence confirms that the five course guitar was in use from the end of the XVc. It was called viola or vihuela de cinco ordenes. Juan Bermudo talks about a guitarra de cinco órdenes in his "Libro Primo de Declaración de Instrumentos" (1555).
The guitar had four-courses for almost 250 years

Canarios I & II - Gaspar Sanz
CD: Encuentro Sanz & Santa Cruz



Miguel Fuenllana's tablature calls for an instrument with the same basic intervals as the modern day guitar, but we do not know the specific pitches. This interval arrangement with bourdons on the last two lowest courses was common in Spain and was used for strummed popular music.
Gaspar Sanz uses the "ordinary" tuning in Spain, as described by Fuenllana, but he tells us that some used only bordones tuned in octave pairs or unison pairs at the fourth and fifth courses.


One baroque guitar tuning replicates the modern day guitar with it's uninterrupted descent from high-to low sounding strings.

Another option for a lighter texture, the bass sonorities are replaced by high pitched treble strings. The pitches descend from e' to b' to g (like the modern guitar), but then leap up to a treble d', and a' - thus making the third course the lowest sounding note. This is called re-entrant tunning since the treble sounds first and later 're enters' as one strums across the instrument.



Another tuning splits the fourth and fifth courses into actaves (one treble and bass string on each).

The one most favored by the French emplys an octave split on the fourth course and a pair of unison treble strings on the fifth course. For this tuning, the lowest sounding voice is bass d on fourth course.


One last tuning is splitting the third course into actaves: the highest sounding g' soars above the rest.

Tuning Affecting Interpretation

Robert de Visée and Nicolas Derosier prescribe what fingers to use to produce any given gesture, and they are attuned to the subtle distinctions caused by the different size fingers and different timbres produced by the fingernails and the fingertips. Visée is keenly aware of the tuning and carefully arranges the fingerings to bring out the proper octave of a course. When the bass string dominates, he has the index finger strike in an upward direction, bringing out the bordón. If he wants the treble to sound louder, he selects the thumb- for greater force.

Other artists such as Murcia employ a percussive golpe on his lively settings of Afro-American cumbés. Murcia and Sanz also employ the campanella, bell like effect, resulting from the five courses sounding in the same octave which facilitiates the playing of scales in stepewise motion by merely changing strings.

For the baroque guitarist an elegant musical phrase should be rich in nuanced timbres, each note and chord having its own color and articulation. This is in opposition to the Classical aesthetic where consistency of timbre was the desirable goal.


The Role of the Guitar in the Rise of Monody: The Earliest Manuscripts by James Tyler.
The Journal of Seventeenth Century Music


Course: groupings of strings ( Sp. órdenes)

Bourdon: when lower strings in a course is tuned in octaves, the lower is a (Sp. bordón)

Re-entrant Tunning: When both the fifth and the fourth strings, or either one, are tuned at the upper octave). Useful when playing campanelas with p and i.

Chanterelle: The practice of using the first string as a single string un order to keep the melody in tune and singing properly.



Alfabeto: Assigning numbers or letter to chords in the fingerboard.

Alphabeto Dissonante: Chords which include suspensions and dissonances.

Alphabeto Falso: Different arrangements for dissonances.

Mixed Tablatures: combining Alphabeto with Lute Tablatures


© 2006 Patricia A. Dixon