The Terz Guitar (Terz, Tierce, Third, or Tertz)

Juan Perfumo, Cadiz Spain, 1853 Terz, Lennart Borg Terz Guadagnini Terzina Early Terz
Terz Guitar
56cm scale

Juan Perfumo, Cadiz (Spain), 1853.
Terz Guitar after
Anonymous German Models

- Clive Titmuss, luthier
Guadagnini Terzina Terz guitar (early 19th century)

Kresse Schuster Terz

Romantic Terz Guitar Characteristics

Period Terz guitar - JA Schuster
After Staufer-Legnani
Vienna around 1845
Bernhard Kresse

Popularity of the Terz Guitar
In the early 19th century, the terz guitar was so popular that the majority of duets published called for the primary guitar one part as terz guitar with one normal second guitar. This is usually indicated by the notation "tierce" or various other spellings. In Vienna, the terz guitar was especially popular, and in fact many original editions of duets from Vienna in this time period do not specify "terz", but the guitar parts are often in different keys off by a third (for example guitar 1 is 3 sharps / A major and guitar 2 is no sharps / C major), which is an indication of terz guitar being required. So common was the terz guitar for ensembles, that it was assumed. The terz guitar does not seem to have been used for solo music, although there would be no need to indicate that, since any guitar score could be played on a terz guitar or a normal guitar. The terz guitar was used for ensemble situations, where its treble range and brightness resulted in superior projection: it is often found in guitar duos, piano with guitar duos, and other combinations, including terz guitar with full orchestra, as in the case of Giuliani's 3rd concerto. The amount of music written for terz guitar in ensemble situations was vast.

Terz Pitch and Scale
The Terz guitar is tuned a minor third higher than a regular guitar, the same tuning as if you put a capo at the third fret of a normal guitar (e.g. open strings are G-C-F-A#-D-G). It has a much shorter scale length, typically 530-560mm, compared to the Torres 650mm scale, or even the period 625-635 scale. Italian Terz guitars were tiny in size, whereas Viennese Terz guitars adapted the Stauffer model, with its pronounced upper and lower bouts, to the smaller scale.

Tranposed Terz Music
Even though Terz guitar is tuned three notes higher, you play ordinary guitar music on it, except it sounds a third higher than written. Music written for normal pitch guitar may sound strange at the higher pitch of a terz guitar. Most people do not realize that a normal guitar in fact sounds an octave lower than the music is written. Because the Terz guitar sounds a third higher than the music is written, the guitar parts for duets with Terz and Normal guitar are written in different keys to account for the transposition. For example, if Guitar 1 - Terz is A major, Guitar 2 - Normal is written in C major. The Terz guitar in that case is actually playing in the key of C, although the music is written in A. Dr. Buckland was able to find several previously unknown Terz works by finding duets with mismatched keys, off by a third.

The advantages of a guitar with a root a third higher than a normal guitar with a capo are easy to see. A capo 3 reduces the number of frets available by 3, so that the highest note that can be played at the 12th fret is C# instead of E. The capo is confusing, since the frets are no longer at their original points, for example the 12th fret is no longer a point of reference, whereas a Terz guitar maintains the original frets. Modern editions of 19th century guitar music which claim it can be played with Capo 3 on a normal guitar are often not realistic, given the often frequent 12th position jumps and other idiomatic fingerings.

Terz Guitar Strings
The Romantic Terz Guitar was used for classical music and strung with gut strings, though today Nylon can be used instead. La Bella makes strings today specifically for classical / romantic Terz guitar, though I found their 2001L strings work fine as well. This web site has a section on Terz Guitar Gauges. DO NOT tune your normal guitar a third higher - this will cause too much tension and can damage your instrument. A terz guitar is 56-57cm scale, and even so, it still often requires lighter strings. M. Ophee sells string sets of very light gauge, so that you can string a 650 scale guitar as terz if needed - this is useful if you have an instrument not in service and need to play a couple of terz pieces but don't want to buy a terz guitar.

Earliest Terz Guitars
Dr. Buckland mentions that the earliest Terz work was by Von Call in 1807, and Giuliani's first reference to Terz was in 1815, though an 1812 work mentions "con capotasto alla terza posizione o tasto" - in other words, with a capo at the Terz position, if desired. Buckland mentions that even though such instruments were used frequently, "Publishers may well have been motivated by sales to not give the impression that a musician would need a specialized instrument to perform a work unless absolutely necessary."

Dr. Buckland notes in the abstract to his thesis: "Also known as the Chitarrino, the terz guitar enjoyed a brief period of popularity during the first half of the nineteenth century. Related to the standard six-string guitar, the terz guitar produces a louder and higher pitched sound... Advocates of the terz guitar praised its brilliant tone, fast response, and ability to project through orchestral accompaniment. Today, it is all but forgotten and a vast body of repertoire is left unplayed."

Evidence for Terz Guitar
Some believe (including Ophee) that there was not a different instrument called a "terz" guitar, but rather this referred to the practice of tuning. Buckland and others including myself strongly dispute this notion, citing the distinctly different sizes and scales of surviving instruments, as well as clear indications on original 19th century sheet music that a "terz guitar or capo at the 3rd fret is required". Given the tension at a third higher, a 56-57 scale is a necessity, and even so, the strings must be light. It is possible to string with super-thin gauges to achieve terz tuning on a longer scale, but thin strings can also be thin sounding; though this may be the only realistic option available for players with a secondary guitar not in service who wish to play terz guitar material.

In the preface to several Giuliani facsimile original editions, it is quite clear that a separate instrument called a "Terz" guitar existed, and not just a capo III. The sheet music states that you could play it with a 3rd position capo (presumably so that if you did not own a terz you would still buy the music), or you could play it on a "Pure Terz" guitar. Examples:

"Col capo tasto alla 3a posizione, o Terz Chitarra." - Giuliani opus 75.
"Col capotasto alla terza posizione o pure Terz Chitarra" - Giuliani opus 67 facsimile, Tecla.

Ensemble and Projection Benefits
"The practice of using a guitar in terz tuning was found to be beneficial in ensemble settings where enhanced presence and projection are needed. For the same reason, it was also found to be useful for solo performances. In addition to acoustic considerations, instruments suited to the higher pitch have a shorter string length that enhances playability. "

There is some debate about the volume of Terz guitar. Some players claim it is louder. Buckland notes that this is largely perception: "The psycho-acoustic effect is tremendously important. The Fletcher-Munson theory of correlation between frequency and amplitude shows that higher pitched sounds take less absolute sound intensity to have the same perceived amplitude of lower pitch by human ears up to about 4000-5000 hz. The terz guitar "seems" louder. But perception can be reality."

Luthier Clive Titmuss describes the volume and projection characteristics:

"The soprano is not really louder than the alto, her dispersion is different, the frequency response of the room is different, the psychology of being higher is largely responsible for this effect. Loudness is a very subjective phenomenon... Terz guitars are not louder or more projecting, just higher. They tend to be a bit worse in the balance. They tend to have no middle and be very strong on top. This makes them better suited to ensemble playing, where they can better compete with louder instruments or groups. Hence, we see that this is not lost on Giuliani and Diabelli, who wrote concertos and guitar/piano music. Mertz also wrote his work with piano for terz. The normal guitar could not compete with a mid-19th c. piano, just as modern guitars are useless in the guitar/piano repertoire of the early 19th c... The balance problem comes with strings or modern instruments. The terz is a solution to this problem. As a solo instrument, it is fine in your salon, but not so good in a larger venue, or one that is very absorbent."

Terz guitars were typically used for ensembles. The surviving repertoire for terz guitar is nearly all for terz + guitar, terz + piano, or terz + orchestra. There are several readily available guitar duets by Mertz and Giuliani for Terz guitar and normal guitar. The Mertz duet book in the Chanterelle series says guitar 1 is Capo 3, but this was originally Terz guitar, in fact it would be difficult if not impossible to play these duos with a Capo 3 modern guitar, while they are very playable on a Terz. Giuliani wrote Terz and keyboard duos, and concertos for Terz guitar. Terz guitar was popular for duet work, because it cuts through the ensemble effectively, but very little music is available in modern editions. Some terz ensemble music can be found in the hands of collectors or in some libraries especially in Europe, and a large number of terz duos are available for free download from REX.

Vihuela and Lute Repertoire
The other advantage of Terz guitar is that it matches the pitch of the Renaissance Lute. The Lute was also tuned a third higher than the regular guitar, exactly like the Terz guitar, the only difference being the third string was dropped a half step from G to F# on the lute. Modern guitarists sometimes capo the third fret and drop the G to F# to play lute music. With a Terz guitar, you can merely drop the third G string a half step to F# (actually from B-flat to A, since it is a third higher). This is much easier to play because a capo is often confusing, and the capo reduces the number of available frets. There is a vast pool of Renaissance Lute music available, which is best suited to Terz guitar. The Vihuela repertoire is tuned the same, thus terz guitar is also suited to all the Vihuela music available by tuning down the 3rd string a half-step. There is a vast pool of lute tablature available for free on the Internet; all my lute friends advise that one should learn to read the tablature in the same tuning (French tab is easiest).

Why should you get a Terz Guitar?
If you are considering purchasing a terz guitar, keep in mind the available repertoire and how you will use the instrument in order to justify it. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much repertoire is available. The Vihuela and Ren Lute material alone is vast. Here is what I have been able to locate:

Finding a Terz Guitar
Period Terz guitars are extremely difficult to locate; this can be a long, frustrating, fruitless experience. Some of them are mis-classified as "child guitars" because of the much smaller body size, and short usually 56 scale. Since Terz guitars fell out of favor and fell into obscurity for over 100 years, many of them were used by children as cheap guitars, eventually thrown away, and very few survive.The surviving instruments can be in bad condition, as they are often mistaken for a "child's guitar". It is much better to get a replica.

The smaller size does not make them cheaper to build than bigger guitars; in fact sometimes they can be more difficult because common moldings do not exist.

Some of the luthiers listed on this site sell Terz guitar replicas.

Terz Gary Southwell - Terz Guitar by Gary Southwell:

"All I can say for sure about this instrument is that it was built in England around 1830-1840 and its maker has obviously been influenced by the Panormos. It has a spruce top with rosewood sides and a back of rosewood veneer on a pine ground. The head and neck are mahogany, with an ebony fingerboard and 18 silver nickel frets. It has an ebony bridge with ebony and mother of pearl rosette and purfling decoration. (It is also offered with simplified decoration.) It has a string length of 56.5cm and was tuned up to G at 440 pitch. These little guitars, with their brilliant and powerful tone, were very popular, especially for duet work."

The Quint Guitar and other variants

Viennese Quint Guitar
Viennese Quint Guitar
Photo: Bernhard Kresse
In addition to the terz guitar, there were other tuning possibilities. However, only the terz guitar had wide acceptance as evidenced by the body of published repertoire.

This rare Viennese "Quint-guitar" would have been tuned a fifth higher than normal pitch. It is 49cm scale, compared to terz 57cm scale, or standard 62-66cm guitar scale; the shorter scale lessens the string tension to offset the higher tension of higher pitch. Presumably, "Quart" or fourth instruments may have existed as well.

It is a Stauffer-school, or by J.G Stauffer himself, unfortunately it is not labelled.

Requinto Guitars and Modern Terz Guitars

The Terz guitar has made somewhat of a comeback lately, in different form. Steel-string terz guitars by Martin and others have been re-issued. Make no mistake, however, these are a completely different breed of instrument than the Romantic Terz Guitar - the only thing they have in common is the tuning. The Martin Terz guitar is a steel-string folk guitar played with a pick usually; the romantic terz guitar was used for classical music, and plucked.

The Latin American and Spanish "Requinto" guitar also share the tuning of the romantic terz guitar. These guitars are slightly smaller than a 3/4 size guitar. Some Requintos are tuned to A, e.g. same as Capo 5, while others are tuned to G, e.g. same as Capo 3, romantic terz guitar tuning.

The Requintos from Spain can be custom-ordered from a luthier; they are basically scaled down classical guitars, suitable for classical music. Student requinto guitars such as Burguet and Alhambra are available for generally under $500. Good concert-grade instruments from Spain of course cost much more.

The Latin American and specifically Mexican Requinto guitar has a deeper body than even a regular classical guitar, often with a cut-away shape. These guitars are designed to be the lead guitar in a Mariachi band, for folk music.

According to Fernandez Music,

"When applied to musical instruments, the term requinto is used in both Spanish and Portuguese to mean a smaller, higher-pitched version of another instrument.

The requinto guitar is a six-string nylon guitar with a scale length of 530 to 540mm, this is about 18% smaller than a standard guitar scale (650 to 655mm). Many requintos have cutaways. Requintos made in Mexico typically have a deeper body than a standard guitar (110mm as opposed to 105mm), while requintos made in Spain tend to be of the same depth as the standard classical. In Mexico, the requinto is typically used in a "trio romantico", which includes the use of two other guitars along with the requinto.

There are small, medium, and large bodied requintos. They are usually tuned: A,D,G, c, e, a. (like a guitar fretted at the 5th fret). Occasionally, one comes across a long-scale requinto--with a scale of 570 to 585mm. Such instruments should be tuned G,C,F,b flat, d, g (like the 3rd fret on a standard guitar) in order not to put too much stress on the soundboard.

I have never played one of these guitars myself, but Dr. Buckland advises to stay clear of them for Early Romantic Guitar:

"While its scale length certainly is appropriate, the sound, in my opinion, definitely is not. It has been my experience that these guitars, and similar Japanese guitars as used in guitar orchestras, vary in sound from dull and flat to overly 'twangy'. The attack quality is all wrong as they tend to get lost in the mix. A true Terz guitar has a brilliant attack but at the same time a singing quality. They are very responsive, and one learns quickly to vary articulation to mix these two seemingly incongruous qualities."

Alto Guitars

Guitarist Sean O'Connor notes that players of the 11-string alto guitar can also use their instrument to access all of the terz guitar repertoire, since the Alto guitar is essentially a terz guitar with 5 extra open bass strings tuned diatonically down from the 6th. In fact, playing lute music with guitar technique was the reason for its creation in the 1960s by Per-Olof Johnson and George Bolin. The 19th century duets for terz and prime guitar add considerably to the available material for the alto guitar, for example the fine duos by Giuliani, Mertz (such as "Deutsche Weiss", "Barcarolle", and "Der Ball"), and many others.

Dr. James Buckland is an authority on the 19th Century Terz guitar, whose material is used extensively for this page. Buckland graduated with a D.M.A. performance degree at USC, where his Doctoral research paper on the 19th century terz guitar earned him the Dean's Award for Distinguished Graduate Endeavors. Email: Dr. Buckland has cataloged the known sources of Terz guitar material, which continues to grow. Buckland is also a luthier of Terz and modern guitars who has recorded on his own instruments; see the "Recordings Page for a review of his CD.

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