[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


10. What's in a soundhole ?

THE soundhole with its characteristic mosaic pattern is a fairly recent development in the history of the guitar. This article looks through the soundhole at some of the evolutionary stages that led to the modern guitar.

The action of plucking strings came more naturally to European music than bowing them (Fig 1). So guitarlike instruments appeared at a very early stage, and share their misty origins with other plucked stringed instruments like the lyre, lute and harp. As well as its name, the lute retained many constructional details that belie its Arabic origins. It is very probable that the word 'sitar' was borrowed by Europeans and transformed into its many variants, such as cittern, gittern, and guitar. The guitar, even by the 14th century, seems to have kept little more than the name. However, some of these early instruments were also known as vihuelas or violas, and it is here that our story starts. To avoid confusion, I will call these instruments 'violas' from here on.

Before there were round soundholes, there were, to judge from early illustrations, C-holes, very like many renaissance viols. This is not at all surprising, as the viol is descended from the viola. To begin with, men sat with the viola across their knees, just like a modern guitar or lute player, and played it with their fingers. Before the 11th century there is no trace of the use of bows in Europe, but within a hundred years, once the idea caught on, it spread like wildfire, and gathered a quite unstoppable momentum. This finally led to the development of the violin - the instrument that has done more than any other to shape the course of western music.

To begin with, whether bowed or plucked, the instruments were essentially the same, often played in a guitarist's' position even when using a bow. We can find illustrations of this rather awkward playing position (Fig 2). Sometimes the bow was held almost vertically downwards, and the right elbow high in the air. Then the playing styles became better distinguished: one was 'de mano' (with the hand) and the other 'de arco' (with the bow). Finally, the instruments themselves became modified to suit each style. Just as with natural evolution, we come to a branch in the tree, and the guitar and viol are born, separate and distinct. The viol retained the tied gut frets and C- or F-holes of its ancestor, but guitar design was to lead gradually away in new directions.

By the end of the 13th century, there were certainly violas with single round soundholes, although they were probably not completely open. Since no instruments survive from so early, it is difficult to reconstruct such details. In surviving illustrations it is often possible to make out some sort of pattern across the area of the hole. It seems reasonable to assume that the styles were similar to those which survived in other contemporary instruments. The decorative lute rose was carved directly into the soundboard and often surrounded by circular patterns of shallow chip carving. Dulcimers, psalteries and the harpsichord family often favoured a separate carved rose that was set into the soundboard after the hole was cut. For the smaller instruments, this was usually made of wood, although many of the later keyboard makers cast theirs in metal.

By the time of the baroque guitar, around 1700, the soundboard was often plastered in ornate inlay work round the soundhole, while inside it makers developed the most complicated soundhole decoration ever used in the guitar's entire history. Layers of vellum were punched into patterns as intricate as lace, then assembled into different layers to form a receding cone (Fig 3). All this decoration hides a construction that is remarkably crude in many respects. In one painting, the ornate soundhole of a guitar glints a bright metallic gold. It is probable that this was first carved in wood, then gilded before it was set in.

As we have discussed elsewhere, the quest for acoustic improvements (in the late 1700s) led to a more austere instrument with cleaner lines and less cluttered decoration. At about the same time, the soundhole was opened up for good. The open hole was then decorated round its edge. Sometimes the patterns were built up in rings, and this style has survived in many modern steel string guitars. Sometimes there are diamond or triangular inlays, and this is often still the case with mandolins.

Antonio Torres was the main pioneer of a classical guitar of recognisably 'modern' build. In the process he has been credited with some innovations that were not, in fact, his. Equally, some of his originality has been little appreciated. Herring-bone and mosaic patterns were not new as decorations, but from early in his career Torres pioneered their regular use for rosette decorations. One of the earliest surviving guitars with mosaic inlays round the soundhole was built by him, dated 1854 (Fig 4). These rosettes are one of Torres' lasting contributions to guitar design. They have certainly stood the test of time, as they are now almost universal! His rosettes were one of a number of carefully thought out details that gave his guitars a strong new identity. They are one of the clearest symbols that the guitar had come of age.

©1991 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", August 1991

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