Playing a Guitar with a Seventh String: Nineteenth-century Performance Practices By Neil Caulkins

In the mid-nineteenth century, the establishment of a canon of great composers was well underway.  This corresponded with a general current in European culture glorifying “the genius.”  Associated with this was an increased focus upon the notated works by these “geniuses” -a reification of the musical score.  This focus upon the composer as genius lead to both increased indication within the musical scores as to performance (tempos, dynamics, crescendos, etc.) and the disappearance of improvisation. “The need for a fully specifying notation really became urgent, when it became the norm for music to travel independently of the composer, when one and the same composition began to be repeated in numerous performances.”[1]

However, around 1851 the French translation by Napoleon Coste of Fernando Sor’s guitar method was published.[2] In an appendix, added by Coste, he extols the virtues of a seven-string guitar he named the “Heptacorde.”[3]  He describes numerous advantages and qualities present in the seven-string guitar, of which the ordinary guitar is bereft.  Coste recounts how a seven-string guitar gained jury approval at a then-recent musical instrument exposition.[4]  Like many instruments, the guitar would settle into its current/modern form in the nineteenth-century, but, at the midpoint, it had not yet done so.  {My seven-string nineteenth-century guitar, which is pictured below, was built by Scot Tremblay (  It is modeled after an 1840 French instrument.}

Coste then proceeds to give numerous musical examples, or “studies”, that serve to show how to use the seven-string guitar and how to employ it in music not written for it.  These studies consist of a given line of music, and then an alternate line that demonstrates the musical advantage of having the one extra low D this instrument afforded.  See musical example 1.  Some of the changes made between the given example, and what one could realize with a seven-string instrument are significantly different. See musical example 2.

What this depicts is a sense of license the performer has to enhance written music.  Whether this freedom with the written score came from the still-existing sense of improvisation of the time or was a product of a new innovation in the physical instrument itself does not really matter.  The important point is that these studies of what one could do with an extended-range guitar could only exist if it was acceptable in performance to depart from the written score.  These studies afford a glimpse into how Coste expected his readers to use the seventh string, and a glimpse at what level of departure from the written score Coste anticipated his reader would eagerly embrace.

Given the freedom exhibited in these studies, I have rewritten several cadences in my duet parts to take advantage of the seventh-string on my nineteenth-century guitar.  In Musical Example 3, there is a cadence in D major from one of my parts.  The first line is as written, and the second line is how I play it with my seven-string guitar in light of Coste’s studies.

[1] Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. 224-5.

[2] RiBS0789.

[3] Sor’s Method (Appendix by Coste) pg 45.

[4] Id.




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