11 String Alto Guitar

Classical guitarists exploring the lute repetoire may well reach the conclusion that those works will only ever sound their best when played on the lute itself. That's what happened to me, in any event! It is a dilemma because lute right hand technique uses the flesh of the fingertips while the guitar calls for some length of fingernail. 

In late 2012 I acquired a new 11 String Alto Guitar (a.k.a. Altgittaren) in an endeavour to get somewhat the better of the situation. As you may see from the image this instrument design is significantly different to the standard six string guitar, in having a dual length neck and fingerboard. The main fingerboard appears much the same as a standard guitar but is in fact shorter by about 10 cms and supports 7 strings, while the secondary neck extends well beyond normal and supports a further 4 bass strings.

 Front view of alto guitar

Various tunings are possible but the general intention of this design is to allow classical guitarists to  better realise(2) lute compositions, so the most common scheme for the altgittaren adopts that of an 11 course lute. The design was conceived by Swedes Georg Bolin and Per-Olof Johnson in the 1960s and exploited to superb effect by Göran Söllscher in a series of recordings of Bach and Weiss lute works.

In the context of the classical guitar's ongoing popularity it has become commercially viable to deliver high quality process-built instruments at a price within reach of mere mortals such as me. My instrument for example was manufactured by Italian firm Milagra, and retailed in Australia for around AUD $3,500. See Laudarra for further information and sales of these instruments.

I have to admit that I found it more difficult than I expected to adapt my playing technique to the different proportions of the altgittarren. Most of the disorientation has been in my right (plucking) hand owing to the fact that the first six strings, where 99% of the action occurs, are offset by a couple of centimetres, relative to standard. If you look closely at the graphic you'll see that the 6th string, which is dark coloured, intersects the soundhole at its centre rather than toward its upper edge. So the strings are not where they "should" to be as far as one's right hand & forearm are concerned.

I feel the same lateral disorientation, although to a lesser extent, in my left (fretting) hand. Longitudinally however my left hand feels liberated by the shorter, more lute like, scale length, with previously impossible stretches now within reach.

The sound of the primary notes, which is slightly tinkly, causes the open bass strings to sympathetically resonate and the resulting feedback loop sustains the note well beyond normal. The ongoing resonance of the basses also produces a drone effect, akin to but not so clearly audible as that of the sitar; rather more a sheen with a hint of echo/reverberation.

Overall the altegitarren is a very effective compromise for a guitarist with a particular interest in renaissance baroque repetoire but who does not want to go to the extent of playing the lute itself.

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