Circa-1830 French-style Gut-string
April 19, 2011
At nearly 200 years old, this small-bodied gut-string is still touring.
It has no name or pedigree. Its tuners are not gold engraved—though the knobs may be ivory—and its rosette and purfling are simple and almost understated. This guitar was made to be played, and play it does. For John Dowdall, the guitar’s current owner, it has become his favorite-ever instrument. He rehearses with it, records with it, and tours with it, and says it has never performed less than perfectly since he acquired it in 2006. Dowdall still marvels that there is not one single out-of-tune spot or buzzing fret on this ancient guitar.
The neck and fretboard have a small profile, much like a modern steel-string guitar, with a width of around 1.75", giving the player plenty of room to maneuver. The top is spruce, and the back and sides appear to be Brazilian rosewood—they have the unmistakable chunkiness and caramel-to-dark chocolate coloring of fine Brazilian. The polish on the neck is too aged and dark to be able to see enough grain to even guess what it might be. The fretboard appears to be ebony, and has held up remarkably well over the past two centuries. The guitar has almost no physical damage, and as far as Dowdall knows, every piece of the 6-string is original. The little mustache and smiling bridge pins are indicative of French-style guitar making of the period, as are the rosette and purfling. However, the single piece of fretwire being used for the saddle is a German convention. Dowdall uses varnished gut strings, which he says stay in tune better than modern nylon strings and are far less sensitive to weather.
With Red Cedar Chamber, an ensemble founded by Dowdall and flautist Jan Boland that specializes in 19th-century chamber music, this diminutive beauty has found an ideal home. It blends perfectly with Boland’s 1830 wooden flute, and even holds its own in duets with a pianoforte from the same period.
You can hear this guitar on two recordings by Red Cedar Chamber—2011’s Gaspard Kummer: Chamber Music for Flute, Guitar and Strings and 2007’s Johann Neponuk Hummel: Chamber Music at Schonbrunn, both on the Fleur de Son Classics label (fleurdeson.com).