A New ABC for Holding the Guitar:

Aguado + Bassoonist strap = Comfort

 by Thomas F. Heck

Guitarists have wrestled for a long time with the question of how best to hold the guitar when one is seated. The rounded lower bout of the guitar makes it especially prone to rotate in the lap, as the instrument seeks stability in a horizontal position of some kind. Most jazz guitarists today have evidently adjusted to this  reality, for when seated they either tend to hang the incurved lower bout of the guitar over their right leg,[1] or they just use a strap all the time.[2] But around 1800, when the early classic guitar—considerably smaller than today’s instruments—was just coming into prominence, guitar teachers apparently did not understand very much about the need to support the guitar’s neck independently of the guitarist’s left hand. They advocated seated postures which by today’s standards appear quite impractical.

 It was almost universally recommended that the guitar’s lower body be rested on the player’s right thigh or leg, its neck being of necessity supported with the left hand. A classic description of the conventional seated playing posture was offered by Federico Moretti in his Principios para tocar la guitarra de seis órdenes (Madrid, 1799), as translated here by Paul Sparks:

1. The lower part of the body of the guitar must rest on the right thigh. 2. The left arm must be high, in a semicircle, and at least six inches from the body.  3. The fingerboard … ought to be supported by the semicircle that the index finger forms with the thumb. 4. The fingers of the left hand have to be arched over the strings, because in this way you hold the hand in a more elegant position, and have the fingers better prepared to press down on the strings. 5. The right arm rests naturally on the upper end part of the body of the guitar… 6. The right hand will be correct if it is held almost horizontally with the strings, in which position it happens that the fingers can pluck more easily… 7. The little and ring fingers of the same hand ought to rest on the table of the guitar in the space between the bridge and the soundhole or rose…[3]

 A good example of an early 19th-century method that propagates this prevailing wisdom is Antoine-Marcel Lemoine, Nouvelle méthode courte et facile pour la guitarre…(Paris, c.1800-03). Here the author states:

One must take the guitar in the left hand and hold the neck between the thumb and the index finger, without however hindering the free movement of that finger, given that squeezing too hard would numb its nerves and prevent its use in fingering. Secondly, one must place the guitar on the right thigh, and set the little finger of the right hand on the table next to the chanterelle but without touching it …[4]

 F. Molino, in his Le Maître de guitare, extrait de la Grande Méthode, dédiée à S.A.R. Madame Duchesse de Berry (Paris, Chez l’auteur, c. 1810?) includes a lithograph showing this playing technique, but the woman pictured is aided by a low footstool to elevate her left leg somewhat.

From the Molino Method

Figure 1 – Molino’s Le Maître de guitare (c. 1810)

 By 1820, an observer like Franz X Knize, author of Vollständige Guitarre-Schule oder leichtfasslicher Unterricht…(Prag, 1820) must have seen every conceivable variation on this basic theme. He wrote “So viel Guitarrspieler als es giebt, beinahe eben so viele Arten giebt es das Instrument zu halten.” (“There are nearly as many ways to hold the instrument as there are guitar players.”) Some time around 1820 another engraving of how to hold the guitar appeared on the title page of Bortolazzi’s Neuer und gründlicher Unterricht die Guitarre … spielen zu lernen / Nuova ed esatta scuola per la chitarra …, op. 21 (Vienna: Verlag des lithographischen Instituts, pl. no. 303). The putto is sitting on a cloud (so much for stable seating!), and the guitar is likewise quite unstable, being once again completely dependent on the left hand for support

Figure 2 – from title page of Bortolazzi’s
Neuer und gründlicher Unterricht (c. 1820)

A. Some Advantages to Aguado’s Proposal of 1825…

 Given the precedents and the lack of systematic analysis of the subject, there is something quite original about how Aguado recommended holding the guitar in his second guitar method, that of 1825, published in Madrid with the title Escuela de Guitarra.[5] In Matanya Ophee’s online article, we find a very clear illustration of Aguado’s thinking, revealed in a lithographic plate from that Escuela

Figure 3 – Lithograph from Aguado’s second guitar method,
Escuela de Guitarra (Madrid, 1825)

Aguado’s guitarist here has assumed a relaxed, stress-free sitting position, with his shoulders, torso, and legs in relatively good alignment. Note also that:

About Aguado’s new position Ophee writes, “Perhaps the most noticeable change in Aguado’s technique from 1820 to 1825 has to do with the sitting position. … Clearly, this position places the guitar to the right, an aspect which greatly facilitates left hand movements.” Ophee makes an important point, with which practically any guitarist who has played using a well-adjusted shoulder strap, for example, would agree. A guitar supported in this way tends to rotate so that the neck comes more to the player’s front, while the body (lower bout in particular) swings to the player’s right side, usually resting against the right hip. Nothing could be more natural. It appears that Aguado was the first guitarist to advocate such a relaxed relationship between the seated guitarist and his instrument.

  And Some Drawbacks

 In twenty-twenty hindsight, however, there are arguably two disadvantages to Aguado’s 1825 position as pictured. The first is that apparently nothing supports the weight of the guitar’s neck except the player’s left arm, leaving the problem of the toppling guitar alluded to earlier still to be solved. Without the left hand’s support, the instrument as pictured would still tend to rotate down until nearly horizontal on the player’s right thigh. That is no way to hold any string instrument, for the left hand must be able to move freely about the neck.

 The second drawback is that the player is not centered in his chair. He is clearly shown sitting (player’s perspective) on the left of the seat so that the guitar’s lower bout can be supported on the right side of the same. Sitting off-center in this manner can be problematic, because (a) straight chairs without arms are not generally wide enough to provide the required sitting surface, and (b) most chairs are designed to hold the seated person’s derrière centered, being carved or cushioned with that end (so to speak) in mind. We all know how uncomfortable it can be to sit off-center.

 That Aguado had second thoughts about how to hold the guitar is clear from the fact that he published later, around 1835, a Nouvelle méthode de guitare, on whose title page one can see an illustration of the Tripodion – a three-legged clamping device that supports the guitar at roughly 45 degrees, making it possible to stand and perform comfortably on the guitar. A similar tripodion graces the title page of his final method, Nuevo metodo para guitarra (Madrid, 1843), illustrated in the aforementioned online essay by Ophee http://www.guitarandluteissues.com/methods/methods.htm.

 B. Bassoonists may have Something to Teach us

 When guitarists rub shoulders with other musicians, often the interchange is profitable for all concerned. But how many guitarists have ever had much contact with bassoonists? Given the scarcity of repertoire in common, it may come as a surprise to guitarists to learn that bassoonists have problems similar to their own in supporting their instrument. While standing, some guitarists and virtually all bassoonists use a neck strap. But when seated, guitarists in the post-Tárrega / Llobet / Segovia tradition tend to elevate their left foot, lean forward, and cradle the body of their guitar between their legs in an inherently stressful posture. Bassoonists, on the other hand, have learned to relax. They hook a strap (which they call a chair- or seat-strap) to the bottom of their instrument, pass it over the seat of their chair, and simply sit on it to keep the bassoon stable and supported. Simple as it is, the device works like a charm (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 – Bassoonist using seat-strap, courtesy C. Weait,
Student’s Guide to the Bassoon (GLC Publishers, 1979)

 Why haven’t we guitarists thought of something like this until now? Most of our instruments have been basically equipped to do so (end-pegs and shoulder straps) since the time guitars came into their own in the sixteenth century. Nor are players of the lute, banjo and mandolin strangers to straps and ribbons, whether seated or standing. While a few guitarists have adjusted to the use of an over-the-shoulder strap while seated, most (as we know) simply dispense with the strap altogether. It is remarkable that in all these years no guitarists yet (to my knowledge) have thought of putting their straps to use in a way that parallels what seated bassoonists have done and are doing.

 C. Comfort Comes with a Lap-Strap

 But how can we, when seated, comfortably adapt a strap to support a guitar, as bassoonists do? One quickly discovers that it does not work to lead the strap directly from the lower bout of the guitar to the seat of the chair and sit on it, since the guitar ends up being too low and too far to one side. After experimenting a bit, one learns that such a strap needs to pass over one’s lap (Figure 5) to achieve the kind of height and centering of the instrument that proper playing position requires.

Figure 5 – Guitar supported on author’s lap,
hands-free, using a lap strap.

Keeping the Guitar in Balance

 But what about balance—hands-free balance for the guitar? This issue has plagued guitarists for at least two hundred years. Fortunately it is not a problem with a lap-strap, once the strap is properly in place—something easily done by leading it under the guitar’s lower bout, over one’s lap, around one’s left leg and then sitting on it (Figure 6). In other words, one need only tuck the strap under one’s left leg to secure the instrument and prevent its sliding off one’s right leg. Properly tethered in this manner, the typical classic guitar will not be inclined to topple. Rather, it will position itself in front of the player at a comfortable playing angle, needing nothing more than one’s right forearm and a contact point on the player’s chest for stability.

Figure 6 – Feet flat on the ground, and
fingerboard easy to reach, the guitar becomes
a pleasure to hold and play.

 When the strap is adjusted and secured, one discovers something wonderful: with the guitar in balance, one’s body can be in balance too. One can play very comfortably with feet flat on the floor. There is minimal twisting of one’s torso, and the guitar’s neck and fingerboard lie within easy reach. Using a well-positioned lap-strap, one can even sit back in the chair, relax, and enjoy meaningful back support if one wishes—something impossible if one assumes the traditional forward-leaning, spread-legged posture. Interestingly, Paul Galbraith­—the virtuoso who plays an eight-string guitar reoriented like a cello and supported by an end-pin—also sits with a straight spine, his torso comfortably supported against the back of a sturdy, well-padded chair when he performs. His chair is specially sized to span the extra resonating box on the floor between his feet—the box on which the endpin rests. The musical results of this relaxed playing position, one must admit, speak for themselves.

 The Benefits of the Lap-Strap

 Having performed with a lap-strap for two years, I find now that I can play a lot longer than before without getting stiff or sore. Physical stress levels are much reduced. It is also very nice not to have to carry around an accessory like an “A-frame” support (a thoughtful device, but one whose suction cups and/or other fixatives are still problematic for the finish of many guitars) or a foot stool when one performs. A lap strap is nothing more, after all, than a shoulder strap serving a new and different purpose. It still attaches to the strap button or peg that is commonly found on the bottom block of acoustic guitars and many older classic guitars. If your guitar needs one, it can be installed in two minutes at any guitar shop, or you can do it yourself. My own guitar, in fact, has a strap button that also serves as a socket for a B-Band pickup; but any strap button will do. As far as material is concerned, I recommend flexible leather or suede, with no metal buckle. Mine remains attached to my guitar all the time, even when it's in its case. And of course, it continues to serve as a shoulder strap whenever I stand, for example, to lead group singing. All I do is attach the free end to the inconspicuous strap button that I installed at the heel of my guitar (where the neck joins the body). Some standing guitarists prefer to tie their strap's free end to the tuning head, which is also fine.

 In conclusion, there is a historical footnote worth mentioning in this musical exchange. Aguado may unwittingly have done bassoonists a favor, too. Some of the latter seem to be benefiting from his tripodion idea, whether they realize it or not. There is a bassoonists’ Web site that is currently offering a tripod support for bassoons, called “BHEN” (Bassoon Hanger ExtraordiNaire). It sits low and to the right of the bassoonist when seated, supporting the instrument’s weight without the need for a seat strap. See www.quodlibet.com/BCGen.php. But despite the advent of the BHEN, history teaches us that convenience and simplicity usually triumph in the end. Most bassoonists still seem to be happy with their seat-straps. Some day, perhaps, the majority of classic guitarists will be similarly happy sitting back in their chairs, relaxed, spines well aligned, playing their favorite repertoire stress-free, thanks to a simple lap-strap.

End Notes

[1] See the photo of Barney Kessel at Ken Brown’s site, http://www.concordmusicgroup.com/artists/Barney-Kessel/>.

[2] Doug Proper’s Web site, <www.dougproper.com/gigs01.htm>, has numerous photos of him and his friends jamming, seated on stools, with their guitars supported by thick shoulder straps.

[3] The Guitar and its Music from the Renaissance to the Classical Era (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 259-60. The cuts (ellipses …) are mine.

[4] From Article Premier: “Il faut prendre la Guitarre de la main gauche et tenir le manche entre le pouce et le premier doigt, sans cependant que cela empêche de mouvoir ce même premier doigt, vû qu’en le serrant trop fort cela engourdirait les nerfs et empêcherait de s’en servir pour le doigté. Secondement, il faut appuyer la Guitarre sur le genou droit et poser le petit doigt de la main gauche sur la table à côté de la Chanterelle sans cependant la toucher …” Lemoine’s method book is widely distributed as a reprint by Minkoff.

[5] Thanks to Matanya Ophee for permission to reproduce this plate. Aguado’s first method was little known, judging from the few surviving copies. Its title was Collecion de estudios para guitarra (Madrid: La Imprenta que fue de Fuentenebro, 1820).

Copyright © 2004 by Thomas F. Heck. All Rights Reserved.


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Last Modified: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 .