How Portuguese Guitar Works

How Portuguese Guitar Works

When referring to Portuguese traditional music, fado inevitably comes to mind. In this particular style of Portuguese music a singer is accompanied by two instruments: a classical guitar (more commonly known as viola) and a pear-shaped plucked chordophone, with six courses of double strings – the Portuguese guitar.

The characteristic sonority of this instrument is a great part of what makes fado so distinguishable from any other style of traditional music in Europe. While from an ethnological and a musicological perspective this instrument has gained the attention of a handful of researchers (de Oliveira 2000; Cabral 1998), the scientific study of the vibroacoustic dynamics of these instruments is very recent. Fortunately, as with most other instruments, decades of refining craftsmanship have provided Portuguese guitars of excellent quality. Even if still unknown to the greater part of the musical world, the sonority, timbre and dynamical range of the Portuguese guitar continue to seduce many new listeners.


Directly descended from the Renaissance European cittern, the Portuguese guitar as we know it today underwent considerable technical modifications in the last century (dimensions, mechanical tuning system, etc.) although it has kept the same number of six double courses, the string tuning, and the finger plucking technique characteristic of this type of instrument which is named dedilho, meaning the use of the forefinger nail upward and downward, as a plectrum.

There is evidence of the guitar’s use in Portugal since the thirteenth century (in its earlier form, the cı´tole) amongst troubadour and minstrel circles and in the Renaissance period, although initially it was restricted to noblemen in court circles.

Later, its use became more popular, and references have been found to citterns being played in the theater as well as in taverns and barbershops, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in particular. In 1649, the catalog of the Royal Music Library of King John IV of Portugal was published, containing the best-known books of cittern music from foreign composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Further development

The complexity and technical difficulty of the musical pieces leads to the belief that there were highly skilled players in Portugal during that period. Later in the eighteenth century (ca. 1750) the so-called English guitar made its appearance in Portugal.

It was a type of cittern locally modified by German, English, Scottish, and Dutch makers, and it was enthusiastically greeted by the new mercantile bourgeoisie of the city of Porto who used it in the domestic context of Hausmusik practice.

The use of this type of guitar never became widespread. It disappeared in the second half of the nineteenth century when the popular version of the cittern came into fashion again by its association with the Lisbon song (fado) accompaniment. Nowadays, the Portuguese guitar has become fashionable for solo music as well as for accompaniment, and its wide repertoire is often presented in concert halls and at classical and world music festivals around the world (Cabral

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