Advice and Information about 19th Century Guitars

Components of the 19th Century Guitar
Differences between modern and 19th century guitars
Tuning 19th century guitars
Strings for 19th century guitars
Antique Guitars versus Replicas
Buying Antique Guitars
Cases for 19th Century Guitars
Quality and Labeling
Restoration and Repair
Terminology - Parlor vs. Romantic

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Differences between modern and 19th century guitars

"In my idea of lutherie there is no better, only different." - Clive Titmuss

Lavigne versus ContrerasLavignes versus Contreras FrontLavignes versus Contreras Tail
ca. 1813 French Lavigne
over 1994 Contreras
Note size difference

Photos by Len Verrett,
Len Verrett's Guitar Collection
ca. 1813 French Lavigne left,
1994 Contreras middle,
ca. 1819 Lavigne right
Tail view

It is a subject of debate whether or not the modern Torres design "improved" the prior guitar design. Most informed players realize that early and modern guitars have different sounds and characteristics, and both are excellent designs for different styles of playing. It is also amazing how many articles are written about the "History of the Classical Guitar" that start off with Torres. 6-string classical guitars thrived in great popularity over 75 years before Torres; many of the guitars in the early 19th century were excellent instruments with an incredible sound, projection, and volume. These were the guitars used by Sor, Giuliani, Mertz and all the guitar composers before the 1850's. There is much unjustified bias against the sound character of the early guitar, mostly because the sound is different from a modern guitar. Some people prefer the older sound, others prefer the modern sound, while others use each guitar for different styles and pieces of music. Personally, I enjoy the easy playability, balance, and tone of the Lacote or Stauffer style guitar. Despite the smaller size, the difference in volume is minimal (maybe 10% ?) - and in some cases they are louder or project better.

One could argue that Sor used Spanish instruments which were not very different from the Torres design, thus it is not a great leap to play 19th century music on a modern guitar. Others will note that Sor also played Lacote, and most pre-1860 eminent players and composers used ladder-braced romantic guitars with different character than the Spanish design. In fact, the French and Italian guitar schools persisted until easily the 1920's, when Segovia's influence caused domination of the Spanish guitar design. You will find that each design has different tonal properties and can provide a new interpretation to music, a new filter through which to pass the musical idea.

The guitar composers of the day wrote music for the particular strengths and limitations of this instrument, and thus the music of that era tends to be better-suited to the early guitar, with its rapid attack and crisp sound. However, the musician makes a lot more difference than the instrument, and a great instrument can sound good on any style of music.

In order to change the sound, the design gradually changed over time, and due mostly to the popularity of the players in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Spanish design took over. It is best to refrain from declarations of judgement, to say one is "better" than the other. It is also not fair to compare an antique instrument to a new instrument and conclude the new design is louder, since some differences may be due to age. It is more valid to compare modern replicas, and clearly the romantic guitar design holds up. A Vihuela is not "better than" a Lute, and a Classical guitar is not "better than" a Flamenco guitar, or vice versa. Today's historically informed players realize that the pre-Torres classical-romantic guitar is a different instrument, with different characteristics that should be appreciated on its own terms.

I have 1840's Stauffer and Lacote copies, and a French Lavigne 1813 antique guitar, a Torres 1888 copy, as well as a modern concert guitar by Conteras, and I find I use them interchangeably depending on the sound or mood, or sometimes a guitar works better on a certain piece. In the composer's day, Spanish, French, and Viennese instruments all existed side by side, all with different sounds - and I think the composer would have said "pick the instrument that sounds best". Sor played fan-braced Spanish guitars which sounded similar to today's Torres-based guitars, but also played Lacote. No doubt practical concerns about traveling with one instrument are necessary.

Regarding ease of play on the scale length, many early 19th century guitars were also 650 scale. They range from 596 to 650. While 630 and 650 scale is only 3% different, it does make a huge difference, since 3% of 650 is 19.5 mm - a large percentage of the size of your hand. It makes a difference in reach - often a millimeter's distance on a guitar is a huge gulf. I have found the difference say between the Lacote and modern guitar in terms of playing ease is a stark contrast. It's many things: scale length, neck width, neck thickness, neck angle, string tension, neck shape, fret height and shape, and action - all of which contribute to the playing experience. Also the talent of the luthier. That said, I sometimes prefer the power and sustain, softness and fullness of the modern guitar - a good trade-off for being harder to play on certain pieces, while the Lacote, with its virtuosic ease, clarity, and crunchy, crisp sound works better in other situations. In some cases, I like to record the same piece on different instruments because each instrument provides its own color and resonance pattern.

The debate over period instruments is not confined to the guitar. In the keyboard arena, there is similar debate over using harpsichord, piano-forte, and concert piano. Early 19th c. repertoire can be bone-chillingly emotionally intense on a Viennese 1820 piano-forte, or a concert Steinway. Both yield a very different listening experience, and both are good. It is amusing to see the 're-discovery' of the piano-forte and fighting bias of the 'superior' concert grand… and which one is 'better.' This is like arguing over which painting is 'better' - it is qualitative art, once a certain point of achievement is reached.

The 19th-century Early Romantic Guitar is different from today's classical guitar. They are identical in many ways also: same number of strings, same tuning (though sometimes tuned lower than A440), same basic body shape. We see a lot more variation in body shape, bridge ornamentation, decoration, and so forth on 19th century guitars. Each builder often made guitars with a different appearance than other makers, while other builders made clones of popular models. When examining period guitars, one gets the sense that practically every one is unique, within a few major schools of design. Today's modern classical guitars all look the same; only the rosette and purfling fine details separate them sylistically. Over time, guitars have become much less ornate. The earliest 19th century guitars, Fabricatore in particular, were very ornately decorated like older Baroque guitars.

Generally, the guitars were more balanced between bass, mid and treble (though some are treble dominated), and easier to play. Modern guitars have more bass dominance (though anyone who has played a Panormo will argue with that), more sustain for sure, and a slower mellow attack because of the fan bracing system, body shape and size, and nylon strings. Whether modern guitars have greater volume is a subject for debate: the Stauffer, Lacote and Panormo guitars were quite loud, with excellent projection. There are, however, physical principles at work with the longer scale and larger body increasing the volume, but the frequency dispersion can make some romantic guitars surprisingly good at projecting in a concert hall.

Also, the line of reasoning that says a louder guitar is better would lead to the conclusion that the steel-string guitar is superior to the classical guitar because of its greater volume, and that the electric guitar with its incredible capacity for loud volume and nearly infinite array of tones is "superior" to the classical acoustic instruments. With good, accurate amplification for acoustic instruments available today, it is possible to bring the sound of any guitar to a larger audience.

Interestingly, the skinny neck, low action, and short scale is not unique to 19th century guitar. In fact, it is more popular than ever. Most electric guitars today have around a 628mm scale, the same or even less than many period guitars. Electric guitars in particular have the same low action as early romantic guitars. Steel string acoustic and electric guitars share the skinny neck of the 19th century guitar. Steel-string acoustic and electric guitars outsell all categories of classical guitars, probably by more than 100 to 1. With the short scale, skinny neck, and low action of these early guitars, most players find them a lot easier to play, and more similar to the feel of an electric guitar neck. The only gripes tend to be that it takes some getting used to, if you are accustomed to a 650 scale classical guitar. Also, the fingers are more closely cramped together, versus being more spread out on a modern classical: this can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the piece. The short scale is an advantage for big stretch or smaller hands. The skinny neck is easier to play, but certain chords can be too clumped together, especially the A chord fingered 1-2-3, which was fingered back then as 1-1 (half barre)-2.

I have often noticed that flamenco guitars and 19th century guitars are similar in some ways (though very different in other ways). Both have a more rapid attack, a quicker response, more rapid decay and less sustain, lower action, and are easier to play than modern classicals. There is an interesting article on this topic titled Classical vs. Flamenco Guitar Construction which also quotes RE Brune's article: "In his article, "Cultural Origins of the Modern Guitar," (Soundboard, Fall 1997) Richard Bruné has argued that the modern flamenco guitar is closer to the 19th century guitar ... "

Buying Antique Guitars versus Replicas

Anton Staufer Original
Anton Staufer Original and
Anton Staufer Copy by Kresse
Anton Staufer Copy by Kresse

Photos courtesy of Bernhard Kresse

Antique guitars often turn brown due to the effects of sunlight ultra-violet rays over time.

As an owner of antique guitars as well as replicas, I can tell you there are plusses and minuses for each.

Generally, you should start with a good replica if possible. With replicas, an average player will enjoy the sound and appearance of a period guitar, and have a good working instrument that will endure heavy practice and wear and tear. Assuming you buy a good guitar, with a replica, everything works: there are no cracks, buzzes, fret problems, repair issues, intonation problems, cosmetic blemishes, etc.. A replica will generally allow higher tension strings at normal tension, but check with the builder first to make sure. An antique guitar is a lot like driving an antique CAR - it is neat to have a genuine Model T Ford, but you would not want to drive the antique to work every day or take it on the freeway.

Personally, I prefer playing the replicas as a musician. The new guitars are loud and responsive, with no problems, and they can be played hard. As long as the guitar conforms to the design and materials of the period, the experience of playing a replica is every bit as satisfying and interesting as the original, and probably more so.

Since the top of the guitar is made of wood, new guitar tops have more elasticity and therefore they are louder than old tops. It is said that a guitar top will "wear out" after 30-40 years. While this is not exactly true, it is true that the guitar will get less loud and change its sound character over time, especially if the wood gets old and brittle. Volume is not everything, however, since nowadays we have amplification, and the tone can become more mature and deeper in an old instrument (the same applies for old violins, etc.). If you play an original antique, it will not sound like it did originally anyway due to the effects of age on the materials, and the high likelihood of subsequent repair jobs an alterations. I have often wondered why new replicas do not quite sound like the originals, and perhaps it is due to the effects of age, and one could argue that the replica may sound closer to how the original sounded when it was new. It may also be that certain elements of construction, like wood laminate, are not done today, which may change the sound.

An antique is also a lot of responsibility to preserve its historical value, since it is undoubtedly one of a kind and bordering on extinction. If you are not prepared to take pains to keep the guitar from additional wear and tear, I strongly suggest to get a replica and not a real antique. You have to worry about exposure to central heating, humidity levels, etc. These guitars have already had a lot of wear and tear. A replica preserves the antique for the occasional "Sunday Drive" and keeps it alive for future generations. It is also important to undergo repairs and restoration in a manner that preserves the historical styles.

Antiques are fragile, and have defects to work around due to their age. Even the period guitar in the best condition is said to be in great condition "for its age" - meaning that no guitar that is over 150 years old is going to be free of problems. Do not expect it to be free of rattles, buzzes, and have perfect intonation. Guitars that are playable are sometimes called "players" - meaning that it can be played for occasional use, not that you can practice on it 2 hours a day for the next 10 years. If they are not said to be playable, you can assume that the guitar requires restoration to play at all.

That being said, an antique guitar has its own strong appeal. There is something special about holding a piece of history in your hands. Replicas do not usually capture every last full detail of workmanship and ornamentation. The guitars tell their own story. A replica is usually very close, and good enough for today's demands, but there is sometimes no substitute for the real thing. Back then, hand craftsmanship was important, and luthiers had apprentices and craftsmen who really took the time to build the guitar. You will see highly ornamented vine inlays, purfling, etc., that were incredibly labor-intensive. No matter how good the replica, I have always observed first hand that the old guitars just sound different. It is subtle, but real. No luthier today builds exactly like they did back then. Nobody knows exactly how they did things, though we know generally how they did things. There are different tools, different glues, varnishes, and so forth. Also, today, we do not always have access to the same choice quality of woods available in the 19th century. Also, there is no substitute for 150 years of wood aging - an open, deep, "woody" sound. Of course, that means that the guitar sounds different today than when it was built, due to 150+ years of aging.

Buying Antique Guitars

It often makes sense to buy antique guitars in Europe or Canada and ship them, especially because the supply in Europe is much better. With the weak dollar, however, buying from the UK or EU adds at least 30% to the cost. The good news about buying antiques over 100 years old is that in the USA, they are free from any import tariffs. New guitars, however, have a whopping 8.7% tax! Don't lie about the age; if you get caught they nail you with a steep fine. You just buy the antique guitar usually through email, and it gets shipped to your door. If you find one in the USA, there is no sales tax across state lines, but there is of course shipping.

See the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. See Chapter 97 Works of art, collectors' pieces and antiques: subsection 9706.00.00.60.

Shipping is not a big deal. Ask them to carefully pack it. I have bought guitars from Europe before, it costs about $100-$200 to ship, including insurance. Music shops do this all the time.

Payment is handled in many ways, also not a problem to buy internationally. PayPal is popular in Europe, and some vendors will insist on PayPal. Others will allow you to use credit cards; the credit card company handles the currency exchange rate. Others may want a Money Order from your bank, a personal check, or even a direct deposit. Ask your vendor.

If the price is given in Euros, Pounds, Canadian, or any other currency, there are many free exchange rate converters on the Internet including the Yahoo Currency Exchange Rates.

Some collectors buy guitars at auctions. Traditional Auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's of London hold on-site auctions, but they will display the items on the web site before the auction (type "guitar" into the Search field). There are viewings in advance of the sale (usually in London). Occasionally, they will have a Musical Instrument auction which includes early guitars (for example the Sotheby's and Christie's November 2002 auction). The information on line is minimal; you then need to ask for a "condition report" and electronic photos. The catalog is available for sale, but it usually does not contain any more information than the basics already on the web site. If you are unable to attend in person, you can submit a proxy bid. This is the maximum amount you are willing to bid, which is kept secret from other bidders and the seller. The house staff will bid on your behalf. You need to register in advance in order to bid - and this includes bank references and so forth.

There are many things to consider with an auction house, and you should do your research before bidding. Contact the auction house several weeks in advance of the auction so that they can advise buyers on exporting and shipping property. It is best to contact them with regards to specific lots and be advised of any licenses required to send the property.

Among the considerations are, the currency may need to be converted. There is a "buyers premium" of around 15-20% added to your bid. If you are in the USA buying from Europe, note that VAT tax is required of European buyers. If you are outside the EU, you are entitled to a VAT refund on proof of export. In the USA, VAT tax is not required; however, you might have to pay this amount (15%-20%) and later file for reimbursement, depending on how long before the item ships, and whether you use the auction house's shipper. The auction house shipper is usually more expensive than other means. Sometimes customs tax may be assessed instead of VAT, probably around $200 or so for a $3000 guitar. In all, figure a rough guess of 50% additional costs over the bid amount.

Antique Guitars with Ivory: Many antique guitars contain Ivory. In the USA, Ivory is covered in the Endangered Species Act. In order to import antique Ivory, I am told that an Import / Export license is required: a 4-6 week process and about $200. If the shipping description or any of the associated documentation mentions the Ivory, your item will be held up in customs until the licensing issues are resolved. The traditional auction houses are very strict about things like Ivory and VAT and they play strictly "by the book." Of course, any new Ivory is strictly forbidden and the item would be rightfully confiscated. Sotheby's advises that at present, a CITES license (for endangered species) are required to export items outside the EU; these can take up to 6 weeks to obtain from DEFRA.

EBAY and sites like it are completely on-line auction sites. The transaction is basically one between private individuals. The computer handles the bidding automatically, with split-second timing. It is not uncommon for the real bidders to jump in only 30 seconds before the auction close, and the computer rapidly determines the winning bid as the minimum bid within the bidders maximum bid required to exceed the next highest bidder's maximum, by increments of usually $5. EBAY takes a cut of the sale from the seller.

Guitar Cases

If you are buying a new replica, insist on a custom-fitted case with the sale. 19th century guitars are odd-sized and no cases are available to fit them. The cases must be custom made.

Most antique guitars do not come with the original case; the case wears out much more quickly than the instrument. A case is a critical investment: it protects the guitar in storage and transport to performance. Without a case, the instrument is in constant danger of being scraped, scuffed, dinged, etc..

The low-budget solution is to buy an inexpensive standard classical guitar case and pad the extra room with old T-shirts or a towel. However, this is cumbersome when taking the instrument in and out, but it beats nothing at all. Sometimes a requinto, parlor guitar, or child guitar case will work, but make sure you take the measurements first since these instruments vary a lot in size.

Modern Case Company makes custom cases for any guitar for about $200 in the USA. You will need to make detailed measurements of your guitar using their form to fill out and send in. It also helps to trace the instrument. I looked everywhere, and even asked all the luthiers at the Miami GFA convention about case makers, and Modern Case Company was the only one. The case I ordered was very nice, but it took 3 months (they claim they were in the middle of moving their headquarters and the wait time is usually less). There are some makers in Europe, but the shipping was too high.

Quality and Labeling

Pons Label
Pons aîné, Paris (France), 1825
Labeled on headstock. This guitar is rare and expensive.
Pons was Lacote's teacher; his guitars were played by Giuliani.
Napoleon's wife commissioned a famous guitar by Pons.

Photo courtesy of Sinier de Ridder.

Just like today, in the 19th century there were cheap guitars, mid-level guitars, and expensive concert guitars. Unfortunately, only an expert can discern the difference on historical guitars. Let your own eyes and ears be the judge otherwise. If you like the sound, then it is a good guitar. As a collectable, the aesthetics can be important too: a very detailed decoration can be quite attractive.

Lavigne Label
Lavigne , Paris (France), circa 1819
collection of Len Verrett

Photo courtesy of Sinier de Ridder.
Many guitars exist that are unlabeled. The label is paper or animal skin which is glued with animal glue to wood. These labels tend to deteriorate and come off over time. Without the label, it will never be known exactly who, when, or where the instrument was built. When a label is missing, there are a small number of expert luthiers who, for a fee, can sometimes find the builder or the workshop by observation of the craftsmanship, and the interior building (blocks, bars, scales etc..) and also liken it to other guitars and with photos. Obviously, the presence of the label increases the guitar's value. If you are looking for a player for your own use, however, you can usually buy a lot better guitar for less money by getting an unlabeled instrument.

Some guitars contain counterfeit labels. The counterfeit label may have been created in 1900 for example, and thus appear to be very old. I have personally seen a guitar built in the 1820's with a fake 1770's label! Counterfeit labels may have been drawn by hand, or printed. Also, the label from a broken instrument may have been removed and placed inside another less valuable guitar. If you are going to spend a lot of money on a labeled guitar, it is best to obtain a "Certificate of Authenticity" from a reputable specialist luthier to assure that the guitar is genuine. For example, in earlier times Franciolini of Florentine is documented as having templates for fake label production, and produced labels from 1785, 1779 and other implausibly early dates based on the instrument's construction, presumably to sell to collectors.

Another value factor is whether the parts are original or replacement. Many guitars have had major parts replaced: the top, the back, the neck, the frets, headstock, bridge, nut, tuning pegs, etc.. Any replacement will diminish the guitar's value considerably. Beware especially of guitars where modern elements have been inserted, for example, a modern headstock and neck on an old guitar will nearly destroy the value. Also, modernizations may or may not improve the playability and sound because they were not part of the original design. Sometimes parts must be replaced because they are unrecoverable, but make sure they conform to period design characteristics.

Some guitars may have been over-restored. Too much sanding, scraping, too many repairs, and re-varnishing can result in a guitar which looks pretty but sounds dead. There is no substitute for playing the instrument in person for expensive acquisitions. A collector wants the original instrument. A player should probably look for a good replica instead, unless you are able to try it first to be sure, or if you trust the luthier's opinion of the instrument.

Restoration and Repair

Fabricatore, Napoli, 1826
Restoration of an Italian guitar made by Fabricatore, Napoli, 1826.

Believe it or not, this can be restored, and worth it for a Fabricatore. Probably not worth it for a lesser guitar.

Photo courtesy of Van Gool.

Even the period guitar in the best of condition will probably require some form of repair. Even a guitar that has been stored in a bank vault for 175 years untouched will have damage, due to the effects of air, humidity, and neck tension over time. Give some hard thought to restoration, because it WILL affect the instrument's playability and resale value.

Guitar repair might look easy, but there are many factors that make it more complicated than it appears. I cannot emphasize enough, having seen many instruments ruined by home repairs, leave the repair jobs to a qualified technician. Do not take a period guitar to your local guitar shop that sells steel-string and electric guitars. Despite their claims to the contrary, they usually do not understand classical guitars, and especially period guitars. There are special kinds of frets, varnishes, etc., to consider.

In order to get repair, I suggest using a luthier who builds at least classical guitars. Make sure they appreciate attempting to keep the historical components intact. If the guitar is very valuable and rare, take it to a specialist, for example the luthiers listed on this page.

Keep in mind if you take on a restoration project that you might wind up spending more on repairs for a cheap household guitar of the 19th century, which was not a good guitar even in its prime, than you would spend by paying more for a fully-restored guitar. Other times, a few hundred dollars of repairs will make the instrument playable and increase its value.

Period guitars fall into the following categories:

Terminology - Parlor vs. Romantic

You will see early romantic guitars listed as "Parlor" or "Parlour" Guitars, or "Early Romantic" / "Romantic" Guitars, or "19th Century" Guitars or "Antique Guitars". Early Romantic guitars are not parlor guitars.

Parlor Guitar The term "Parlor" guitar is frequently misused. A "Parlor" guitar is actually a guitar with a smaller body size, around the turn of the 20th century. Some true parlor guitars are gut/nylon, but many are steel-string. However, lots of 19th century classical guitars are mis-labeled as "Parlor" guitars, so keep that in mind as you look around using search engines and such. Be careful to make sure the guitar is nylon / gut strung, and not steel string, if you are buying sight unseen. The body shape gives them away, as the distance from the bridge to the bottom of the guitar gets greater after the 1850's. The "parlor" guitars are not worth as much generally as the early 19th century guitars. Use the term "parlor" when searching for these instruments because they are frequently referred to as such by shops who are not familiar with them.
Parlor Guitar
Very Different

"Antique" guitar is vague; since this can mean a guitar from 1920, as well as from 1820.. or even an electric guitar from 1970 can be considered "antique"! However, you will get a lot of search engine hits on "antique guitar" if you weed through them. On EBAY in particular, "antique guitar" is the best way to search.

"19th Century" guitar is also vague. The style of guitar we are talking about dates back actually to the late 1700's / 18th century, and ends around the middle of the 19th-century, only half of the century. Guitars with Torres design characteristics after around 1850 are technically 19th century, but a totally different breed of instrument. However, not all builders immediately adopted the Torres design; Panormo continued into 1860, and many guitars can be found from as late as the 1880's which were built in the earlier style. Again, the term is still useful when searching.

The most accurate depiction of these guitars, and the style of music, is probably "Early Romantic Guitar" because it best matches the generally accepted time period of music. It also recognizes the time span of circa 1770-1860. "Romantic" guitar, though useful to search, is also not accurate because the later music of say, Albeniz, Tarrega, and Granados is also considered "Romantic", but really a later era.

The editor especially welcomes comments and ideas for this web site.
Please send an email to Len if you would like to contribute text, links, photos or information.

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