The Dresden: A 13-String Guitar

As all luthiers (or woodworkers of any type) know well, maintaining right hand nails, working with sharp objects and sandpaper don’t go well together. I became frustrated a number of years ago with working up guitar pieces, only to end up sanding all my nails off on the bench sander. I realized I needed an instrument I could play that didn’t require nails.

Since most of the guitar music I was attracted to was originally written for the lute, I decided to take up the lute again. After I built a number of lutes, I found myself completely seduced by the Baroque lute, in particular by the music of Weiss. As there were no Baroque lute addiction treatment centers in my area, I decided to give in to the compulsion. After proclaiming my new found obsession, my guitar friendsquickly lost patience with me; a few thought I had lost my mind. I sank further into the abyss. Many guitar friends suspected the worst, and indeed their worst fear was confirmed: I had begun making 19th century guitars as well!

A number of years ago, I visited a well-known guitarist living in New York City. Looking around his apartment, I noticed Weiss facsimiles spread over just about every square inch of living space. I asked him about it and he said he was transcribing the entire work of Weiss for the guitar — all 60 sonatas! I thought this was cool; it would be a welcome introduction for guitarists to Weiss and his music. However, “the problem with Weiss is some pieces within a sonata work very well, and some don’t”, Manuel Barrueco related to him after complimenting him on a great performance of Sonata 11 in D minor by Weiss at the GFA convention.

After making and playing baroque lutes now for a number of years, I had a new thought. Why not simply make a guitar tuned in D minor so one could play directly from the original tablature. In addition to 6, 8 and 11 course lutes, lutenists have 13 course lutes specifically to play the music of Weiss and his contemporaries. Why not guitarists too?

Introducing the Dresden: A 13-String Guitar

Dresden 13 String Classical Guitar

The Dresden was conceived for the guitarists, who while wanting to play baroque lute repertoire, finds he/she faces too many hurdles when actually attempting the Baroque lute.

Recognizing the failure of much of this unique literature when transcribed for the conventional guitar, many guitarists have forsaken the repertoire altogether. The Dresden was designed to fill this gap. It is important to note that the Dresden is in no way intended to replace the lute or to imply that the lute is an obsolete instrument. There is really no exception to the beauty and delicacy of the true Baroque lute. I, myself, am a dedicated life-long lutenist. The Dresden instead is an extraordinary enabler for guitarists with a love of Baroque music: this instrument makes it available like it has never been before.

When confronted with the Baroque lute, the guitarist faces a range of issues. Among them are the following:

  1. Unfamiliar tuning
  2. Unfamiliar notation
  3. Numerous additional basses
  4. Double courses – unfamiliar feel in the right hand
  5. Gut strings — unfamiliar to handle
  6. The need to play without nails
  7. Friction peg style tuners
  8. Movable frets (sliding out of tune)
  9. Unfamiliar body shape, different to hold

All this before addressing interpretation and style! The Dresden solves concerns 4 through 9, allowing the guitarist to tackle issues 1 through 3 without additional distraction. However, I’d like to point out experienced lutenists find all of the above an asset.

The first thing a guitarist realizes when playing Weiss on the lute is how good it all feels under the fingers, things that were monstrously difficul on guitar suddenly become effortless on the lute. In Weiss, one doesn’t pluck a single course more than twice, the music moves more across the strings rather than up and down the neck, the way it must be played on guitar. Bar chords are almost nonexistent, as the thumb takes full advantage of the open bass courses tuned diatonically (from A on the lowest course to A on the sixth course — a full octave) to the given key of the piece. This greatly frees up the left hand. The highest fret used in Weiss is the tenth, and so far I’ve only come across this once or twice, usually he only goes to the 9th. (Bach arrangements need 14 frets).

Build It And They Will Come

Over the past couple of years, I’ve casually mentioned my idea to a number of guitarists only to hear them say, “Yeah! that sounds cool” or “you’re crazy!” However, one guitarist stood out from the crowd.

As I spoke with him over the past couple of years about this idea, I could sense a very clear and rational approach and openness to this idea, a new direction, something different. His name is Stephen Aron. Steve has ordered The Dresden for the University of Akron, as he wanted his students to be able to read Baroque lute tablature as part of their formal musical training, without having to adapt and change their technique for the lute. He also ordered one for himself.

To Discover Something New, Unveil The Past

Dresden 13 String Guitar Tornovoz

Since the idea occurred to me, I’ve made many Dresdens. The most recent one has features that were not incorporated into the 1st design:

  • Scale length 640 mm
  • The head and neck design is more streamlined and is stained black which has a tendency to de-emphasize the size. Swan Neck lute extensions were always stained black. The tuners are Sloane’s with black rollers which compliment the overall astetic of the head design.
  • The neck is joined at the body at the 10th fret as were all Baroque lutes.  This has the advantage of positioning the Bridge further toward the end of the guitar closer in line with a lute bridge and 19th Century guitars.  This, I feel gives the instrument a more lute-like sound.
  • The sound hole is fitted with a parchment rose which further enhances the lute-like qualities. It de-emphasizes the percussive, airy quality of a typical guitar sound and imparts a more nasal quality and has an amazing ability to enhance the higher frequencies and sustain. The lute rose was an experiment and I must say it was very successful.

The Dresden has many features that are a direct result of my experience not only building Baroque lutes, but playing them as well.

The first thing one will notice is a distinctive visual departure from the design of 10 and 11 string guitars. The Dresden’s neck is tilted to the bass side allowing the bridge to be perfectly centered on the top. Most importantly, however, this tilting of the neck allows the player’s left hand to be in a higher position (higher from the floor), or in the exact same position as on the 6 string guitar. Guitarists picking up a multi-string guitar for the first time have enough obstacles to overcome.  This feature also allows the guitarist to move back and forth between a 6 and 13 string guitar without having to adjust. The standard 10 or 11 string guitar is more uncomfortable, not to mention a significant strain on the player’s shoulder, as one must hold one’s left hand lower and in a more extended position.

If we look back in time to the great lute makers of the past, we discover they developed instruments with this particular physical characteristic. As more courses were added to lutes over time, the necks were more and more tilted to the bass side, even though they could have avoided this and simply built them with centered necks. They must have recognized this important idea, missing in modern guitars; it is not only visually important but acoustically critical as well.

The Extension & Swan Neck

Dresden 13 String Guitar Headstock

The Dresden also has what is called a “Swan Neck”. The first appearance of a Swan Neck lute was in Germany made by Hoffman in 1723 and was an innovation Weiss had made for the 13 course lute which first appeared in 1718. Evidence has also surfaced recently crediting Weiss for adding two more bass strings to the standard 11 course lute of the day to total 13 in all.

After seeing numerous multi-string guitars with the heads jam packed in every conceivable way to fit as many strings as possible into a limited space, abandoning any sense of proportional beauty, using unsightly banjo tuners, combined with traditional tuners, I thought why not go back to the past! The Swan Neck lute has a timeless appeal and a wonderful sense of proportion as well as a very well thought out element of practicality. So, I simply incorporated this idea into the Dresden.

Through my research, I put forth a controversial theory that Swan Neck lutes were a direct result of new string technology. This theory now seems to be the accepted norm among scholars in the lute world. This same string technology many scholars also feel gave birth to the modern six string guitar as we know it today.

The neck extension allows one to use strings that are thinner in diameter than if one simply stopped all the diapasons at the same place on the first nut. I’m sure many of you have at one time picked up a 10 string guitar and noticed how large the last few bass strings were, not to mention how dull and lifeless they sounded. Again, the masters of the past figured this out and were keenly aware that a bass string that was too thick sounded dead and lifeless. Baroque lute bridges never feature string holes larger than 1.8mm; this fact sets the limit on string diameters on lutes.

It works the same way on The Dresden. The neck extension allows the use of bass strings with a diameter that is thinner and therefore produces a bass register that is more responsive, hence, imparting both a much improved fundamental tone quality as well as a perception of brighter octaves.

10 and 11 string makers today (myself included at one point), have simply thought to just add more to the string diameter as you go down the basses. It has been well-established that this is not an ideal solution. The design of The Dresden eliminates this problem.

D Minor Tuning

The Dresden was originally conceived as a guitar tuned in the standard baroque lute tuning commonly referred to as D minor. This tuning allows the guitarist the unheard of opportunity to read scores directly from original lute tablature, with original fingerings, and ornamentation impossible to realize on the 6 or 10 string guitar. While many guitarists play modern and romantic music on the 10 string, it seems by far the most popular reason to play a 10 string is the baroque repertoire.

The traditional 10 string, however, becomes an instrument not much different than the 6 string when it comes to arrangements. Bach himself set the precedent for arranging for the unique tuning represented by the Baroque lute and the Dresden guitar. Bach would have heard an instrument tuned in thirds with diatonic basses, producing an entirely different effect than a modern 10 string guitar.

The exquisite compositions of Weiss are an entirely different matter. Weiss wrote only lute music. Weiss’ music is idiomatic to the lute. While the left hand fingerings are more or less the same as guitar, however, the right hand is quite different.

The most significant aspect of Baroque lute technique is the use of the thumb. Weiss and all other baroque lute composers used the open basses constantly; you might say the thumb “lives” in the basses. Each time one plucks a bass string, your thumb rests on the next string to be plucked; it is in constant motion using the basses to the fullest extent possible, unlike 10 and 11 string arrangements of baroque music that only occasionally use the lower notes.

Weiss’ pieces require the player to move more across the strings utilizing as many open strings as possible, creating a lush, sustaining resonance, with an ease of phrasing impossible to obtain in any other tuning. Weiss sounds clipped and strained on the normal guitar, as the guitarists must constantly cut notes short that normally would sustain.

I know many guitarists are hesitant to tackle more than six strings. There is no need to be as long as one is committed and invests some time in getting acquainted with it. Multi-string guitar players will find it very easy to adjust.

The Dresden with the D minor tuning opens up a wealth of music from the baroque era by composers such as Bach, Weiss, Reusner, Hagen, Baron, Falkenhagen, Bittner, Conradi, as well as the earlier French composers Gaultier, Mouton, etc. not to mention the countless manuscripts with anon. pieces, and new music being discovered every year.

Sylvius Leopold Weiss wrote his music in the French baroque tablature system.

French tablature indicates frets with lower-case Roman letters and the top six fingerboard courses with six lines. Bass courses below the sixth course are indicated by letters and diagonal slashes or numbers under the sixth line. Staffs above the lines indicate rhythm.

Weiss wrote for a baroque lute tuned: f’ d’ a f d A G F E D C B A. The first two strings were single, a, f, d, courses were doubled in unison, and the remaining bass were pairs with a fundamental and an octave.

The Dresden Bridge And Fretboard

Dresden 13 String Guitar

One will also notice the asymmetrical shape of the bridge. At first glance this might look like the Kasha-designed bridge. Although similar, it is actually based on the lute bridges. Most lute bridges are wider on the bass side and thinner on the treble. According to Dr. Kasha and many others, the bass needs dampening, (dampening = mass) and the treble needs to be stiff and light. It is interesting to note that the early lute makers had come to this conclusion 500 years ago. Another distinctive feature of Baroque lutes is the crown of the fingerboard. Baroque lutes had anywhere from 3mm to 5mm crowns. This crowning of the fingerboard greatly facilitates this style of playing. So I incorporated this feature into The Dresden.

The crown, however, reaches it’s height under the 3rd string and flattens out toward the bass side. As one is more occupied with the first 6 strings, this gives it a better overall feel. On the curve of the back of the neck,I do the same. The crest of the curve of the neck falls more under the 3rd string and flattens out toward the bass side. No reason to have this crown crest in the middle of the neck as one doesn’t generally play across all 8 strings. One generally plays the first 6 strings. This has a feel more in line with a 6 string guitar.

What Guitar Strings to Use

Long ago I’d given up the practice of predicting what strings my customers preferred. What I think is a good string and what you might think is a good string are two different things. So, generally, on my 6 string guitars I use D’Addario EJ46 as these are very consistent and neutral strings. On the Dresden, however, it’s a different matter. The option of tuning it to A 440 or A 415 or A 390 throws more into the pot! I would recommend contacting me personally about the different diameter strings one can use. I will say, however, that once you purchase a set of strings only the 1st 6 strings wear out at the normal pace as if it were an equivalent of a 6 string guitar. The remaining 7th and 8th strings wear out at less of a rate and the remaining diapasons will need to be changed maybe every 5 years as the only wear is your finger in stricking them — there’s no wear from the frets. Strings are quite easy to obtain for The Dresden. So this is not a problem.

Woods, Tuners, Specs & Price

The Dresden features an Italian Spruce soundboard with prominent “hazelfechte” or commonly known as “bear claw”. Back and sides are East Indian Rosewood. The string length for the 1st 8 strings is 650mm and the remaining diapasons are 900mm. The neck is Spanish Cedar and the head is enclosed on the back side by Rosewood veneer adding strength to the head design.

This particular guitar has Schaller tuners, however, the possibilities for custom made tuners are limitless and the price is too! So, if interested in custom tuners, please contact me to discuss this option. The case, obviously, needs to be a custom design and is not included in the price of the guitar. Again, please call me to discuss case options either from Carlton or Kingham.  Strings on this instrument are made in Italy by Aquila . The 1st 3 strings are nylgut and the remaining strings are nylgut core with copper winding; however, one can use the clear carbon nylon string as well for the trebles.

Price: $8,500.00 USD (includes Kingham case).