Medieval Instruments III: Guitars (Guitarras)

General background

When the area of art, with its impassioned, subjective, wishful thinking collides with the politically-driven, personal interpretation of amateur historians, there is bound to be colossal misinformation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in discussions about the medieval “guitars.” Just as every person wants their family tree to include Charlemagne, or other worthies, and to stretch back to the Garden of Eden, so modern guitarists want their instrument to be traced back to the Hittites and Egyptians. And God spoke King James’ English. When we add this to the yeasty mess which is Spanish history–Moorish invasions, the Battle of Tours, Roland, El Cid, Jews, the Reconquest, Infidels, Old Christians, Conversos, Heretics, the Inquisition–we get thigh-deep piles of rubbish. (My current favorite from the internet is “…the ‘guitarra morisca’ was brought to Spain by the Moors in their 16th century conquest…”) Let’s step back and take a deep breath.

The Mediterranean is one large cultural area: Europe, Asia, and Africa are artificial constructs which have no ancient relevance. From antiquity, influences that arrived at one point on its periphery eventually washed ashore all around the sea. The Romans called it “our ocean;” they weren’t the first or the last. These influences followed the currents of power from the center to outlying areas and, historically, that was usually from east to west. In the early Middle Ages the Muslim courts in the Eastern Mediterranean were the source of the most sophisticated developments in all areas of human achievement, including music. Almost all modern European musical instruments are derived from Middle Eastern ancestors. There were instruments in Europe before Islam, of course, but they were mostly supplanted by their more advanced Eastern relatives. (The one curious exception, as has been noted, was the harp.)

Around the Mediterranean were found many different kinds of plucked string instruments. They varied in body shape, number of strings and sophistication, but the most important classifying feature was, strange as it may seem, the neck. In modern systems instruments with a body and neck along which strings run, are called, generically, lutes. Lutes are further divided into short-necked and long-necked. This is no arbitrary schema for the two types came into being for different reasons and play different kinds of music.

In short lutes, as they are familiarly called, the several strings are used sequentially to produce scales or melodic passages. The modern guitar is a good example: one begins an ascending (or descending) figure on one string and passes to the next and the next without having to stretch very far up the neck. Generally only the first few positions or “frets” are used, or are needed. Thus, even if the neck were longer, it would not be particularly useful.
Long lutes developed from a very different impulse. The melodies tend to be played on only one, or two, of the strings: the others used as drones or accompanying notes to the melody. Thus, long lutes tend to have fewer strings (usually 2 or 3), while short lutes tend to have 4 or more. Long lutes proliferated in the Middle East and Central Asia and illustrations abound.

Most of the “lutes” around the Mediterranean in Roman times seem to have been short lutes. And we would expect the music they played to have been primarily melodic. The long lutes seem to have entered the Western Mediterranean only with the advent of Muslim power beginning in the 8th and 9th centuries. Thus two different kinds of similar instruments were thrust together, especially on the Spanish peninsula: the older, familiar short lutes (probably thought of as indigenous) and the newer, introduced long lutes (probably associated with Islam).

We have been using “lute” as a generic, classificatory term since the word is familiar in modern European languages. The word itself is derived from the (medieval) Arabic and referred to one particular instrument.(see the Lute page.) But the word most frequently used in Latin (the common European language and the only language used for intellectual discourse), was some form of the Greek word “kithara.” [To make things even more confusing the Greek kithara was a lyre and no relative of lutes.] Thus the Spanish word “guitarra.”

Now, it is common for a people to explain the novel in terms of the familiar. A (Mexican) torta is described as a “Mexican sandwich” in the U.S. and gyoza are called “Japanese dumplings.” (My favorite was in the window of a Middle Eastern cafe in San Diego some years ago: “On Thursdays we have felafel: the Lebanese taco.”) In al-Andaluz and the Christian kingdoms of the Middle Ages, the three religions existed together, not always harmoniously, but among each other. The situation had existed for several hundred years and there could be no thought of “native” or “foreign.” Ideas of “race” were several hundred years in the future. The three groups identified themselves primarily by religion. The Jews were always a minority, thus kingdoms thought of themselves as Christian or Muslim, within which all three existed. In the early centuries Islamic culture was the magnet. As the Muslim kingdoms slowly lost power the Christian kingdoms, relying heavily on immigrants from France and the rest of Europe, became a cultural force to be reckoned with.
It is in this context that we must interpret the terms Guitarra Latina (Latin/European guitar) and Guitarra Morisca (Moorish/Muslim guitar). The “Latin” guitar is most likely to be a short lute, perhaps manifesting itself in many shapes and sizes. And the “Moorish” guitar a long lute, represented by the modern family of tars and sazes. (Though we must always be on guard against our modern preconceptions of fixed, standardized terminology: in traditional, oral societies names, and their referrents, can be much more flexible and changeable.)
In the illuminations of the Cantigas we can see evidence of this basic difference between the two kinds of instruments. The Latin guitars are played by Christians and the Moorish guitars by Muslims as well as those Christians most heavily influenced by Islamic technology: knights. Once again a careful study of dress and rank pays dividends.

Guitarra Morisca

Cantiga CXX [MS erroneously has CXXX]
Cantiga CXL
Cantiga CXXX

There are three illuminations which show instruments clearly in the tanbur-tar-saz family of Middle Eastern long lutes. The most famous (or infamous) is the pairing of a Muslim and Christian in Cantiga 120. Some commentators have seen the Christian berating the Muslim when it is fairly obvious he is represented as singing. The Muslim’s face has unfortunately been disfigured, perhaps intentionally, but probably not by a Christian. (See my dissertation for a discussion of this.) Even without the turban and dark (gray) skin and beard the left hand figure would be identifiable as Muslim for he is wearing the required shoulder patches on his embroidered, full-sleeved saya and is barefoot. But he also wears the fur-lined jumper, pellote, fashionable among the upper classes at the time. The righthand figure is wearing a stiff gold hat, the birrete, worn only by nobles, and the saya encordada, the tunic laced up the left side to show off the camisa. He also wears red stockings, theoretically restricted by sumptuary laws, which were constantly restated. But most distinctively, he is armed with a sword and sword belt. He is clearly a knight. Arms were generally not worn indoors, and certainly not in court: one checked weapons at the door. The armiger, the king’s sword bearer, was the sole exception. This is clearly not in court but a social occasion, witness the low three-legged stool with wine pitcher and cup. There is one other sign that this man is a knight: his saya comes only to the knee. The fashionable length in court was halfway down the shins. Only knights and other people who needed freedom of movement (including laborers) wore their saya short.

The instruments themselves are quite large with oval bodies, long necks, and large round pegdiscs. The number of pegs and strings is indistinct but intended to be numerous, probably in courses. Interestingly, the faces of the instruments are depicted as white and the triangle of dots is usually diagnostic of a skin face. All the Muslim’s guitarra’s decorations are consistent with small pinhole decorations in a skin whereas the Christian’s top also has a seemingly continuous scalloped design which would have been impossible in skin, though it could have been painted on. If the faces were actually wood, the decoration would indicate a skin-faced predecessor, as such details often outlive their literal need.

The next picture, Cantiga 140, shows a seated noble, wearing the birrete, a green camisa under a reddish-brown saya with three-quarter length sleeves, red hose, and gold embroidered shoes. He holds a plectrum in one hand while the other turns the tuning pegs. He is clearly not playing but rather tuning. And since it takes cooperation for two musicians to get in tune with each other, it is fair to say the other musician is engaged in tuning as well by giving him his note.

This brings up a fascinating subject in medieval iconography. Almost all the pictures of King David in early manuscripts show him holding a harp or harp-like instrument. But seldom is he portrayed as playing: he is almost always tuning! This is a topic for another day but suffice it to say that of the 40 illustrations of musicians in the Cantigas manuscript (E2) there are 34 which show two persons and fully ten of the pictures show people tuning! Perhaps non-musicians were impressed with both the things musicians did: playing and tuning. That calls to mind Thomas Mace’s comment that a lutenist would spend half his life tuning. And I have seen crowds burst into applause when a bagpiper was just tuning up. [Then there is the infamous 1971 Concert for Bangladesh where Ravi Shankar received thunderous applause for tuning his sitar. A video even exists.]

This musician also is distinctive in that he sports a thin, short beard around his jaw. In general, Christian men were clean shaven; only Jews (always) and Muslims (frequently) wore beards. Among Christians the one notable exception was knights. So this young noble was also a knight or, at least, affected military airs. In addition, it seems that the guitarra morisca, ordinarily played only by Muslims, was played by non-Muslim military men. This may have been partly a result of the intimate contact between the various religions in military circles, as well as the pragmatic attitude taken, traditionally, by knights. Good technology, like science, knows no borders or religion. The various armies utilized the best weapons and the best fighters from North and South. Christian and Muslim mercenaries fought for kingdoms irrespective of religion. The evidence seems to indicate that the guitarra morisca was one of the favored instruments of this warrior class.

The other player, though not bearded (he may represent a youth), is armed with a sword belt and dagger. He is also noble, wearing a purple-red capa or manto with shoulder hole over a knee-length dark green saya with laced cuffs, black hose and what look like knitted shoes.

Both men hold identical instruments which have a strange brace-like affair connecting the neck and body. I have no explanation for this unique feature and no understanding of what its function might be. The guitarras would look like the following instruments without it. The face is undoubtedly wood with typical paired, crescent-shaped soundholes. Three strings are depicted but five pegs, a common problem.

The last picture, Cantiga 130, shows two nobles, neither one obviously a knight, with two-stringed guitarras which have the three dot convention for skin heads. The figure on the left, once again, is tuning. He wears the birrete, an unusual white-striped red saya with laced cuffs, black hose, and golden shoes. He is covered with an ambiguous dark green cloak. The man on the right is bareheaded, wearing a red saya encordada, blue pellote, red hose, and gold embroidered shoes.


One of the first instruments I made for Alfonso X was a guitarra morisca from an old “tater bug” mandolin body I had. The neck is poplar, canted back at a substantial angle so that the bridge is 2 1/2″ high, powerfully driving the Spanish cedar face and making it quite loud. There are three courses (1-2-2) usually tuned D-A-d but occasionally A’-A-e. Some of the bone frets are partial.

Another guitarra morisca, from 2001, was inspired by a beautiful wooden bowl I acquired which was exactly the right shape. Its provenance is unknown, perhaps Africa, but was traditionally carved with a square foot on the bottom which became a small reliquary on the back of the instrument. The strings are arranged 2-1-1 and the frets are tied on. I have also made several 2- and 3-stringed instruments from other small wooden bowls.


The tanbur-tar-saz family in the Middle East, from which the Guitarra Morisca came, has always had occasional unusually-shaped instruments in addition to the common oval form. When I found this unfinished piece of wood in a thrift store it cried out to me. I have no idea what the original person intended, but it was probably a musical instrument. It is two pieces of walnut joined together down the middle, shaped, and hollowed out to a fairly thin wall on the sides. I cannot find an illustration of an instrument with this specific shape but it looks reasonably familiar. With a long maple neck with tied-on diatonic frets, pegbox patterned after a 6th century Central Asian example, three strings, and a skin face, it produces a wonderful contrast to the other long-necked lutes.

Guitarra latina

Unlike the Guitarra Morisca, which came from the Middle East, was associated with Islamic culture, and had a recognizable structure, Guitarra Latina was probably a more generic term. For musicians in Alfonso’s time it may have meant only “a plucked stringed instrument: not the Muslim one.” Though there is a regional flavor, the instruments looked like those found elsewhere in Europe: short lutes, with short necks, but which occasionally seem to have adopted some of the long lutes’ characteristics. Thus we cannot be certain of their precise role in the music: whether they were considered and played as short lutes or long. Some of these plucked instruments are shown paired with fiddles. In France and England this combination of fiddle and “citole” was popular for several centuries.

Above are the three illuminations showing what is likely the guitarra latina: two of the characteristic “Spanish” type and two others. First is the typical pairing of fiddle and Latin guitar, or citole. Once again they are tuning. Next is an almost identical picture: fiddle and plucked instrument, though of a very different type. It is a short lute, that is, the neck is shorter than the body, but it has a sickle-shaped peg box terminating in an animal head, a characteristic of French instruments. Its oval body, reminiscent of the Guitarra Morisca, may also have a skin face. Third, there is one of each of the two types of Latin guitars, though the neck of the instrument on the right, also with an oval soundbox, seems a little long. But that may only be an artistic effect, along with the rather large pegbox (depicted as big as the body).


Above, with detail of the Latin guitars, is the illumination for the prologue to manuscript E2. Alfonso, in the middle, symbolically dictates the book to his tonsured scribes at the right, while his courtiers, on the left, look on with approval. Meanwhile, in the wings, musicians wait their turn. Even in such a prestigious position–the first illumination of the manuscript–they are depicted tuning. One wonders whether the illustrator was well acquainted with musicians and naturally portrayed them in their second-most-common activity or whether he was not musical and merely amazed at how much time they spent doing it. Even though the instruments shown are fiddle and guitarra latina (times two), they are tuning separately, so perhaps they will not play as a duo, or the separation is an artistic convenience. Notice that, though the musicians are well dressed, including red hose, they wear none of the trappings of nobility: unlike many of the musicians in the body of the manuscript who are clearly depicted as noble performers.

Then, in a prologue from a different manuscript, a fiddler gives the pitch both to another fiddler and a Latin guitar player.

Finally, from the Book of Games, another example of the classic fiddle-guitarra latina duo with two noble players, relaxing.

We have had two guitarras latina in Alfonso X. The one we used most I made in 1980. The assumption has always been that most medieval stringed instruments were carved out of the block rather than built up from staves. This is more an article of faith (or lack of faith in medieval technology) than a reflection of fact. But it is true that in traditional Eurasian instrument making, even today, it is more common (and seemingly easier and faster) for the craftsman to hollow out the body with an adze than to take the time to split, saw, plane, and join planks. In Al-Andalus, however, the technology was certainly available and used in lute construction, so I chose to build this instrument up, as I had the fiddles some years before. The cherry neck has inlaid bone, mixed diatonic frets, bearing four strings and the head is derived from the famous eagle vase of Abbot Suger. The body is made from maple with a fancy walnut and maple back and a spruce face. It has a very loud, clear, pleasant sound. I was inspired by traditional banjo tunings which arrange the strings to enable the melody to be played in as open a tuning as possible. Thus we use a variety of different tunings for different cantigas, including DACF, DADF, DADA (and CGCG), DGCD, DGCG, and the “lute” tuning, DGCF. Each one has a unique quality (an “advantage”) which we try to exploit.

Many of our instruments, being of unusual sizes and shapes, do not have cases but the fiddles and the Guitarra Latina are exceptions. Tina, as we call her (from La Tina), resides in a 19th century wood fiddle case with her name on the lid, lined with sheepskin, colorful felt, and an ex voto of eyes to protect her from harm. The eagle head is hooded when not being played, as the first picture shows. The instrument’s pegbox also bears red glass and carnelian beads, a 13th century Abbasid dirham, and an apotropaic (Turkish) eye bead. One can’t be too careful after seven centuries.