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.




Upcoming Concert! Friday, January 12, 7:00 pm at Central WA Univ Recital Hall: Guitar and Friends: a program of Early Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music


On January 12th, 2018 at 7:00 pm, in the Central Washington University Music Department recital hall. Neil Caulkins will perform an evening of seldom heard early nineteenth-century chamber music with guitar. He will be joined by CWU faculty members Hal Ott (flute) and Jeff Snedeker (French horn). He will also perform with Yakima symphony principal cellist, Kara Hunnicutt.

The recital will feature the Serenade for flute and guitar by Charles Blum (1786-1844), Sonate, Op. 24, for flute and guitar by Theodore Gaude (1782-?), Serenade, Op. 4, for flute, guitar, and French horn by Christian Dickhut (?-1830), and the Pot-Pourri, Op. 21, for guitar and cello by Frederic Dotzauer (1783-1860). Neil will be playing his Scot Tremblay seven-string guitar that is modeled after a French instrument from around the 1830s.  Dr. Ott will be playing an original flute from the 1820s.

The CWU Music building is located off Alder Street in Ellensburg WA. The concert is free to the public.

Improvised Preludes in the Early 19th Century


Neil will be presenting a paper on the performance practice of improvised preludes as informed by early 19th-century guitar methods. The practice of improvising a prelude before a significant work was employed well into the 19th century.  It was done by soloists (including guitarists) and ensembles.  Neil will be presenting what we can know of the characteristics of these preludes, and how we can compose/improvise our own, from existing sources in the early 19th-century guitar literature. He will present the paper at CWU on May 12, at Eastern Washington University in Cheney on the 19th, and at the Musicking Conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR on May 26th.

Old & New Guitars

DSCN1478We just dropped off a guitar built in Germany around 1850 with master builder Scot Tremblay for repairs.  We are very excited to get it concert-ready again. We also picked out woods for a “Terz” guitar that we commissioned Scot to build for us.  A “Terz” was a smaller guitar that was tuned a third higher (in G rather than E). There is a tremendous number of duets for regular guitar with the “Terz” from the early 19th century, as well as concerti and duets with forte piano. Ours will have a European spruce top, bird’s-eye maple back and sides, and an Indonesian Macasar Ebony fret board.  We are very excited about these instruments and could not be more pleased with Scot’s work. Pictured is Scot holding our German instrument that’s in need of repair.


Friday, November 11th at Noon upstairs in the Eveleth Green Gallery at 408 N. Pearl St., Ellensburg, WA.  Admission is free but donations will be accepted to benefit art classes for adults with disabilities. Neil and Tamara will perform a recital of delightful early 19th century guitar duets on a pair of historic instruments.  Neil plays a reproduction built by Scot Tremblay. It is a 7-string instrument modeled after one built in Mirecourt, France in 1830 by a builder named Aubrey-Marie.  Tamara plays an original French instrument built around 1830.  They will perform works by Lhoyer, Henry, Giuliani, and Mertz.dscn7943-cropped