Can antique guitars be played?
Our answer is Yes, with no problem, as long as the musician pays attention to his instrument and gives it the necessary care and maintenance; there's no inconvenience in playing on an antique instrument. As an easy demonstration, we mention the violin – the answer generally is "it does not compare"!
As a matter of fact, even if these two instruments are not the same, their use is comparable and so is the relationship musician-instrument-luthier. We would like to demonstrate that the popular belief about the antique guitar being "emptied" or "dead", whereas the violin built around the same period would have gained in sound and fineness is a recent myth. It is our wish to dissipate this misunderstanding depriving many musicians from the pleasure of playing baroque, romantic or classical repertoire on antique instruments - contemporary of the compositions they play.
First, let's have some history and remember that the guitar has been known in many different formats depending on the period and the country of origin of the luthier who conceived it. This instrument occupied its place in the musical world much earlier than when the violin made its appearance. The first tablatures (musical notation) were written for the guitar, and generally, it was present in all European courts, superseding the lute. The instrument also evolved together with the discoveries of glues, strings, luthiers' techniques; numerous composers expressed their talent thanks to this instrument.
Near the end of the 18th century, in Europe, techniques regarding instrument making evolved: violins were equipped with a new angle thus giving more power to the sound; at the same time, "luthiers-violin" developed a new passion for antique instruments, the majority of them Italian instruments, leaving aside their own creativity in favour of the patrimony and its study. "Luthiers-guitar" discovered a passion for a modern instrument, with 6 strings, very fashionable, and with lots of promises for the future.
So "Luthiers-violin" then valorised the patrimony, thinking that their own creations would be less performing than those of past authors and directed amateurs towards antique violins, much more expensive than their own production. "Luthiers-guitar", on the contrary, oriented their customers towards their own production, sustaining that antique guitars had given all they could, and that only a modern creation could satisfy a demanding musician.
Of course, the "reasonable" lies is in between those two affirmations and instruments are only the result of a collaboration between the luthier (more or less capable...) that looks after them, and the musician playing them... (more or less good musician…) this situation applicable to any period.
Therefore, it is quite possible to play on an antique guitar treated with care and respect by a careful musician who could be able to detect eventual existing parasite "noise": a competent luthier could very well remedy to such problems.
Like in many situations, prevention and 'listening' are the best of remedies…
However, there is an exception: guitars made "post Torrès", that is, after the 1860's. That new model seduced musicians and replaced formats of preceding periods (as in its time the guitar had taken the place of the luth) and became, in the beginning of the 20th century, THE absolute model and "luthiers-guitar" only made that model, giving up the diversity of other guitar formats. It is such a different pattern from what was made up to then. The body (the box) is larger, the top is wide and fine, the fan bracing is fine, almost in the direction of the soundboard wood. This radical modification made it that the tops – under the pressure of the strings – suffered important deformations. A hump creates itself under the bridge, a hollowness under the strings, and sometimes the fingerboard enters in the top which hardly supports the great tension of the strings and the thickness of the soundboard against the strong fingerboard. All these are secondary effects difficult to correct. Moreover, these guitars, of Spanish inspiration, are difficult to open and restore. Unless the luthier - if he would still be alive - could make a new 'identical' top, thus keeping the original personality, often those guitars cannot be played anymore.
This concerns only guitars made after Torrès on this particular Spanish model; instruments made before 1860 are not concerned. Tops of antique guitars, of all periods and of all countries, are narrower and thicker, the bracing is 'ladder' style (bracing is perpendicular to the epicea used for the top), sometimes in "X" or in "Y", tensions are straighter, and borders solidly fixed to the ribs. If these guitars have been correctly maintained (not "forgotten", hung on the wall or placed in a showcase, with the strings in tension) they can be played and we have counted numerous instruments made by Panormo, Stauffer, Fabricatore, Pagès or Lacote, and all other makers from those nice schools, that are being played giving great pleasure to their owners and... to our ears! We need to add to that list guitars from the 18th century that allow to play the music as it was written, that is for 5 choeurs, without using transcriptions for 6 strings. In particular the still very attractive antique Spanish instruments giving a rich and intact sonority to players. We have seen and heard a 1660 Voboam and a Sellas from the same period, perfectly restored and kept in good conditions, played by a marvellous guitarist on "YouTube"...
All these antique guitars offer a large variety of sounds and "tessitura" corresponding to the various epochs of the repertoire, to the style of "lutherie" and to the regions of production. Similarly to violins, for which specialized luthiers have taken great care in preserving and restoring the specificities and the qualities of each maker for each period and each region, guitars represent a real patrimony with famous or less well known authors, composers, 'star' musicians, and repertoires.
For the past 40 years we have been dealing in antique guitars; when musicians visiting our workshop take an original guitar in their hands and start to play they always make the same observation: "It's incredible how it plays well... it sounds so nice, strange for such a small box... etc... "I want to precise that we never modify the instruments brought to our workshop. They are "restored" as the instrument requires, but we always keep them in their original conception.
During the last decades, "luthiers-guitar", particularly French ones, self-censored themselves by making only one type of guitar: "Spanish-type guitar, after "Torrès". The majority of musicians now play on guitars, formats of which did not exist when the pieces they play were written, thus giving a "global" uniformity to their interpretation! Numerous antique guitars, still beautiful and in good state, reasonably priced (far from prices of violins) remain mute in antique shops, where, lacking the specific know-how, owners do not maintain them and do not ask musicians to play the instruments…
Baroque music has known the same paradox some decades ago: antique instruments, authentic and playable, were not taken in consideration giving a preference to modern and "normalized" instruments: "viola da gamba" were replaced by cellos, "viola d'amore" were replaced by violas, violins set up with steel strings, chin rests and fine tuners! No exception was made for modern "brass" instruments, equipped with numerous keys, with no relationship to the instruments for which that music was written. Discovering "authentic" instruments allowed musicians to re-appropriate themselves the repertoire, thus allowing an evolution in the musical interpretation.
Nowadays, if we listen to "antique" music recorded in the 60's, we can only smile with indulgence; this repertoire has made such progress in the interpretation and the comprehension that everyone agrees: music has to be played with instruments (or fac-similes) conceived for a given historic repertoire.
This is the paradox that we wanted to raise: and the answer to the recurring question is: YES, antique guitars can be played with no problem!