The old chicken and egg problem, with music. Chances are you already knew that the ukulele, that little guitar that people use for accompanying Hawaiian and pop music, as well as a lot of pieces from the Tin Pan Alley era, was born in the late XIX century, when some Portuguese luthiers landed in Hawaii. So obviously the ukulele derives from the guitar. But did you know that before guitar existed there was an instrument that looked very, very much like a ukulele? See what the angel in the picture is playing.
The instrument in question is called a “gittern” in English. You can read all about it, including how confusing the name is, in this Wikipedia article. The gittern was very popular from the XI to the XVI century, as witnessed by scores of images recorded on codices and other publications from the era before Gutenberg. A sampler is shown below, taken from the excellent article at earlymusicmuse.com by Ian Pittaway. Researchers today seem to agree that unlike its contemporary the lute, which clearly derives from the Middle Eastern “Oud” (which means “wood”), the gittern was actually born in Europe, possibly of Greek and Roman roots.
Second from lower right is an actual surviving gittern from that time (you can see it bigger if you right-click the picture and open it in a new tab). Gitterns are carved from a solid piece of wood, to which a soundboard is glued. Scale length is thirteen to eighteen inches, just like a ukulele. The original gittern had four strings, which were often doubled up as in a mandolin in order to increase the volume. Later, gitterns were made with five and even six sets of strings. The guitar itself underwent a very similar evolution, as Ian Pittaway tells us in this other article, and it began with a tuning identical to that of the modern ukulele.
Now, you may say that the instrument in the pictures is a mandolin, so it’s the mandolin that we’re talking about. Aside from the fact that the original gitterns had single strings, not doubled up like a mandolin, there is evidence supporting that gitterns were tuned in fourths rather than fifths like mandolins. This actually makes a lot of difference in how the instrument is played. A string instrument tuned in fourths, like the guitar, is most suited for strumming chords because the interval between strings allow the player’s fingers to be positioned comfortably. Not so with the mandolin, as any mandolin player can attest. Its fifths tuning makes it quite appropriate for playing melodies, but the large interval between strings causes awkward fingerings for making chords. One reason why mandolins are so much more popular than the larger instruments of its family (mandola and octave mandolin or Irish bouzouki) is that you don’t have to stretch your fingers so much with such a short scale.
What was gittern music like? You can actually see that in a few YouTube videos, like this one (gittern on the left, the instrument on the right is a citola; also observe how the gittern player keeps making something very similar to a ukulele C chord, with a single finger on the first string), or this one with a five-course gittern. You can find more easily. In general it sounds quite medieval, but with frequent strummings that are quite ukulele-like. No surviving pieces exist specifically written for the gittern, but to this one must add a plethora of pieces written for the lute which, quite apparently, had a compatible tuning and used the same playing technique.
And what was that tuning? According to Pittaway’s article, a XIV century music textbook gives it a tuning of ADGC, which is not far from the modern ukulele’s standard tuning of GCEA, merely 3 semitones higher on 1st and 2nd strings, just 2 semitones higher on 3rd and 4th. Chord positions are slightly different because of having a fourth between 2nd and 3rd rather than the major third common in guitars and its derivatives, which has been in use since the guitar made its appearance in the XV century, which makes chords easier to play.
Can you imagine a medieval bard singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” before a royal court? It was quite possible, and it might have changed world history.
2 thoughts to “The XI century ukulele”
Thank you crediting my composite picture and gittern article. Some of the claims you make in your article are contrary to the evidence: the gittern is not essentially a ukulele, and there is no evidence of a connection, nor of a connection between the gittern and the guitar (as I make clear in my article). Some of the confusion may arise from the very muddled Wikipedia article, which fails to recognise that the word gittern has meant 3 distinct things historically, 1 of which is guitar, but only in renaissance France and England. This does not mean, however, that the gittern and guitar are related, only that the name was used for both instruments. In a similar way, a ladybird takes its name from a lady and a bird, but is in no sense either a lady or a bird. You claim a relationship between gittern tuning and ukelele tuning, but then have to go to special lengths to explain why they’re not the same which, of course, they are not.
There are other misunderstandings. You state that few surviving pieces exist specifically written for the gittern. The actual number is zero! The 6 string guitar historically came before the 12 string guitar, so it is not true the former is a simplification of the latter. Paul Guy’s article, which you reference, makes several errors, and begins with one: that the guitar can be traced back over 4000 years. This is only the case if we count anything with a neck and strings that can be plucked as a guitar, which is clearly an error. As I state in this article, https://earlymusicmuse.com/guitarhistory/, the earliest evidence of the guitar – a distinct family organologically related to today’s guitars – is 1488. Anything earlier than that is always identifiable as from a non-guitar group.
Excellent points. I’ve updated the article to reflect the facts you bring up. I hope it’s accurate now. Though the intent was not to claim that the gittern and the ukulele are the same thing, or that the guitar derives from the gittern, but to reveal how we keep reinventing things that existed before. A lot of thanks.