Lacote Heptacorde, Circa 1836-1839

The Lacote 7-string model in my collection was discovered in August 2010 by an amateur violinist who dabbles in guitar, who found it in a Vermont antique store that had no idea of the significance of this guitar. He took a chance and bought it because he recognized the quality of materials and craftsmanship but had not heard of Rene Lacote. He looked up the guitar label on line and found my web site, and took the instrument to two well respected luthiers/guitar builders, both of whom believe it to be an original Rene Lacote. I wound up buying it from him directly for my own collection. Before purchasing the guitar, I sent the photos to Jimmy Westbrook, Sinier De Ridder, and Bernhard Kresse - all of whom indicated that they believed the guitar to be authentic. Bernhard Kresse personally owns an 1855 Heptacorde as well. After researching this particular model of Lacote, comparing photographs in detail, inspecting the patent tuners and high quality of materials and construction, patina, wear & tear, etc., I also have no doubt whatsoever as to the authenticity.

This model of Lacote is called a Heptacorde (e.g. Seven String Guitar). It was apparently derived from collaborations between Rene Lacote and the famous French composer and student of Fernando Sor, Napoleon Coste, who composed for an advocated the 7-string guitar. Later Heptacorde models introduced the tail piece and extended fretboards. There are very few surviving original Lacote Heptacorde guitars, and thus this instrument is rare and collectable. This model of guitar is shown in two famous photos of Napoleon Coste. Two excellent articles can be found on the Harp Guitars site:

Harp Guitars Lacote Heptacorde article
Harp Guitars Lacote Heptacorde and Decacorde article

Below are the two photos of Napoleon Coste with this guitar model, which was apparently his primary instrument for composing and concertizing. Note that the photo of an older Coste shows the guitar design had evolved to include the tail piece and pass-through bridge, while the younger Coste photo shows the pin bridge. Both photos show the 7-string distinct machined headstock with enclosed Lacote patent tuners.

Lacote Heptacorde - Collection of Len Verrett - (click thumbnail to see larger image)

Several people who have inspected the label have found the year is not possible to read exactly, as it may have been written in pencil and faded. Lacote was working from this address from 1836-1844 (many thanks to James Westbrook for this information). This dating also corresponds to the construction characteristics of the guitar. Looking closely at the label, the 18 is clear, then there is a scratch or crack, and a partial number that looks like the top of an 8 or 9. The most likely date, I believe, is 1839 as I will explain later.

There is also a very old repair or resale label inside the body from a store in New York which is not in existence today. It reads: "Chas. E. Mayberry / Importer and dealer in musical instruments and musical merchandise / 179 Sixth Avenue, N.Y. / Near 13th St."

The top appears to be Spruce, tight grain and likely slow growth Alpine Spruce. The back is a single piece of slightly arched tiger maple; the sides are striped maple, also high grade as one would find on a fine violin. The binding and tuners are made of ivory, with bindings of ebony and ivory. Tuners are the Lacote patent enclosed tuners. Pin bridge; a crack on the bridge. Interestingly, the maple back is laminated onto a spruce top inside the guitar; today this is called a "double top" design which my 1994 Contreras 1A also has, as well as my circa 1813 Lavigne guitar.

The flush fingerboard frets are inlayed into ebony directly on the soundboard, with the top note being "A".

It is a seven string guitar, and is number or model #10 according to the label. The 7th string is theorboed - played entirely open, and set apart from the main 6 strings and thus technically it is a harp guitar. The guitar plays as a normal 6-string; the 7th string is quite easy to play. It has a lot of potential, listening to the tone quality getting past the buzzes and rattles. I imagine that fully repaired, the tone quality and volume would improve. It has a good dynamic range as is, surprisingly good bass response, an overall earthy Lacote tone, and as far as neck and fingerboard comfort, it plays exceptionally well on par with any guitar I've played.

The guitar is basically sound and playable, as the neck is well connected and still set properly, though it does have some buzzing likely due to the crack which needs repair. There is a crack down the back, and there are some old repairs to the spruce top, but the guitar is basically unrestored which I feel in this case is a good thing. The finish is still original according to Bill Cumpiano, luthier. There are some other minor cracks and some pieces of the ivory binding are damaged, particularly around the sound hole. The tuners are interesting in that all of the gears are concealed. All of the tuners turn freely, albeit with some squeaking.

Overall the guitar is quite well made of fine materials, and impressive craftsmanship. The neck is comfortable to play; in fact is one of the best playing guitars I have encountered.

Although it is playable as-is, it has several issues that must be addressed and it will need a restoration by a skilled luthier who understands period instruments and maintaining originality where possible. Given the good original condition, it should come out of restoration quite well, and should improve substantially once the buzzing and rattling issues are addressed, and the cosmetic problems are repaired (e.g. missing binding, the old top repair with a splice of wood of different stain than the rest of the top, crack repairs, and metal tarnish.

The scale length is on the short side at 580mm. Many guitars of this era were 630 or 635 scale, but they varied considerably, with common scale lengths of 596, 610, 620, 630, 635, 640, and 650. Today's standard is 650. The nut width is 4.7cm, very typical of Lacote and other 19th century guitars. I do not believe this was a Terz guitar, as they are usually around 530mm in scale and have a smaller body.

The following excerpt comes from Gregg Miner's Harp Guitars web site:

According to expert Bruno Marlat (in the liner notes to Brigitte Zaczek's 2005 CD Romantic Guitar Vol. II, as translated by Steven Edminster), as early as 1835 "the use of a seventh string puts in an appearance" in Coste's opus 5, "Souvenirs de Flandres" (published with the support of Lacôte). Marlat astutely notes that "even though this may simply have involved the exploitation of an older idea, people referred to it as an 'invention'."

Marlat cites additional provenance, including that Lacôte "received a prize in 1839 for a seven-string guitar which was described as 'perfectly crafted, having in addition a very beautiful tone quality.' At the next fair, in 1844, he presented 'several heptacorde guitars which are perfectly crafted and have a beautiful quality of tone, instruments which were awarded top ranking positions in the contest'." Marlat concludes (as would I) that the specific name "heptacorde" came from Coste since "we read in the appendix on the seventh string which he added to his 'N. Coste’s New and Enlarged edition of Sor’s Guitar Method' the following statement: 'Some years ago I arranged to have built in the workshop of Mr. Lacôte, a maker of stringed instruments in Paris, a guitar designed to yield a larger volume of tone and, above all, a more beautiful quality of tone. [….] I called this new type of guitar a Heptacorde'." This then, is our proof on the origin of the heptacorde, if we take Coste at his word. Unfortunately, Coste also claimed (in the introduction to his "25 Etudes de genre pour la guitare, opus 38" per Marlat) that "This improvement was immediately adopted and taken further in Vienna, Austria."

Again, this guitar was made sometime between 1836-1844 based on the address on the label. The Harp Guitars Lacote Heptacorde and Decacorde article shows a surviving 1842 Lacote Heptacorde. There are two items of note regarding the 1842 guitar: 1) The 1842 guitar does not have a flush fingerboard; it is glued or raised, (though other examples of Lacote guitars in the early 1840's still show flush fingerboards) 2) The 1842 guitar label mentions the 1839 exposition prize (see 1842 Heptacorde Label). Both of these factors on my instrument (flush fingerboard and no mention of the exposition medal), tend to indicate that it was made between 1836-1839. It is possible that this guitar could have been one of the instruments presented by Lacote for the exposition, as the Ivory bindings and purfling were surely a more costly feature, or it could have been made prior to the exposition. It seems reasonable that after winning the award in 1839, that the Heptacorde guitars after 1839 would have indicated the prize mention on the label as did the 1842 guitar.