[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


1. The Origin of Fanstrutting

BEFORE about 1780, no guitars had fanstruts of any kind. In fact, guitar design had made little significant progress in at least 350 years. For the whole of this period the guitar and, as far as we can judge, the vihuela too, remained remarkably crude in their construction, far inferior to the lute and to the entire violin family. This seems very surprising when you consider the magnificent appearance of many baroque guitars with their ornate heads, great moustached bridges, receding conical roses of unsurpassed delicacy, and lavishly decorated backs, sides and sometimes even soundboards.

The one notable exception of this period can be found in the almost classical restraint of Stradivari, who, with the rare talents of both craftsman and artist, created instruments (including guitars) of clean, bold lines that remain fresh and exciting to this day. However, even he contributed little to internal improvements in guitar design, devoting by far the greater part of his energies to the violin family.

The key to this apparent contradiction may be found in precisely this flood of decoration: a maker must decide at the outset whether he is primarily building a musical instrument or a work of art. This is not to say that they never go hand in hand, but it is rare. There is little doubt in my mind that makers of this period generally considered that the most important aspect of the guitar was its appearance and that tone was therefore secondary. Apparently they were often rather indifferent to the sound of their instruments!

The cycle that leads to constructional improvement has often begun with the composer. More demanding music requires better techniques from the performer. The performer requires higher standards from his instrument, and when the maker obliges, it makes new possibilities available to the composers. So it was that the guitar remained in the doldrums for much of the 18th century.

Bracing patterns for all plucked stringed instruments up to about 1780 show considerable similarities and are based round the transverse bar - bars running at right angles to the grain of the soundboard. This can be clearly seen in the barring of the 'typical' Renaissance lute (Fig 1). It is interesting to see that, in this great complexity of bars, one or two small struts are beginning to creep round towards the line of the grain. However, they are not sufficiently important in the overall system to be recognised as fanstruts. The barring of the only surviving vihuela is much simpler, but essentially similar. It is almost identical with the common pattern of most baroque guitars. Occasionally, a third bar was added in front of and parallel to the bridge. No guitar, orpharion, vihuela, or cittern up to this time has ever been discovered to rival the sophistication of the lute.

We are forced to ask ourselves why this pattern should recur so often in so many instruments, and I believe that the answer is quite simple. If you take a square piece of soundboard material of even thickness, it behaves very differently along and across the grain. Unlike metal or plastic, it is very directional: it will bend very easily across the grain, but is much more rigid along it (Fig 2). The immediate conclusion is that the bars must provide stiffness to compensate for the weakness of the timber. To create approximately equal rigidity in both directions, a barring system could be used as in Fig.3. The pattern looks familiar, doesn't it? And this is how it remained for centuries!

You may argue that an invention of such subtlety requires a great leap of intuition, and that this takes time. However, guitar makers did not need to discover a marvellous new principle - it had already been in use for generations. What is surprising is that it took them so long. From the early 16th century, all they had to do was to take apart a violin! And there, staring them in the face, would have been what they were looking for: the bass bar. It is hard to miss. It is the only bar in the entire instrument. And it runs almost exactly down the line of the grain for most of the length of the soundboard.

There is nothing to suggest that any principles of guitar design were ever learnt from the violin. In fact, it appears just the opposite - that guitar makers eventually worked it out all over again for themselves. Because Torres is often considered 'the father of the classical guitar', it is sometimes implied that he was the inventor of the fanstrutting system. Many features of our modern instruments we do owe to his brilliant mind but, in fact, the fanstrut is not one of them.

Our story now takes us to Cadiz, in the last decades of the 18th century. This was the home of guitar makers Josef Benedid and Jose Pages. An instrument by Pages, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is the earliest surviving guitar known to use fanstrutting. It was made in 1798. It is clear that these two makers were familiar with each other's work, and the similarities are so great that it is probable that they collaborated on problems of guitar construction.

These guitars have a rather curious soundboard layout, with only three fanstruts, but they represent a milestone in guitar design, and pave the way for the work of so many of the famous makers of the 19th century; for example, Antonio Torres, Louis Panormo, Vincente Arias and Manuel Ramirez.

©1990 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", August 1990

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