• OVERVIEW •
The small, cute ‘Terz guitar’ – around 20% shorter than a modern acoustic, and tuned a minor 3rd higher – enjoyed wild popularity in 19th-century Europe. In the words of modern Terzmaster Dr. James Buckland, audiences of the era hailed the tiny axe for its “brilliant tone, fast response, and ability to project through orchestral accompaniment“.
While the full expanses of the Terz tradition have been lost to the mists of the pre-recording era, Buckland and others continue to reanimate its vast historical repertoire with persuasive force. Similarly-tuned mini-guitars have also been adopted as easy-to-carry touring companions by artists including Johnny Cash and Sting – while Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins fame) has even released his own signature electric Terz.
Harmony: Gm7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Named for its minor-3rd-higher tuning (‘terz’, from the Italian ‘terzo’, shares roots with English terms such as ‘tertiary/third’), the instrument once took the salons of European high-society by storm. From Buckland’s thesis (one of only a few genuinely in-depth sources here): “The Terz guitar enjoyed a brief period of popularity during the first half of the 19th century…[it] produces a louder and higher-pitched sound [vs. ‘normal’ guitar]…the earliest Terz work was by [Leonhard] Von Call in 1807″.
The Terz’ predominant role was in ensemble settings, “where its treble range and brightness resulted in superior projection. It is often found in guitar duos, piano & guitar duos – and [even] with full orchestra [e.g. Mauro Giuliani’s Third Concerto]”. However, Buckland adds that: “Today, it is all but forgotten, and a vast body of repertoire is left unplayed…Period Terz guitars are extremely difficult to locate; this can be a long, frustrating, fruitless experience. Some of them are misclassified as ‘child guitars’ because of the much smaller body…Since [they] fell out of favor for over 100 years, many were…thrown away, and very few survive“.
- Paganini’s Gmaj Sonata (improv) – James Buckland (2015):
“A true Terz guitar has a brilliant attack, but at the same time a singing quality. They are very responsive, and one learns quickly to vary articulation to mix these two seemingly incongruous qualities…” (James Buckland)
Recently, the Terz has experienced something of a revival – largely spearheaded through Buckland’s restorative energies. Watch his self-built Terz in action above (Paganini Sonata #5), and also check out other global exponents such as David Jacques (Ständchen) and Radivoj Petrovic (Terz Demo). [n.b. For a trio of prominent ‘EADGBE capo 3′ songs, which take the same open tones: James Taylor‘s Fire & Rain, Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, and Ian Anderson’s acoustic part on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung.]
Despite its reputation for volume, Buckland considers this to be largely just an effect of our own auditory biases: “The Fletcher-Munson theory of correlation between frequency and amplitude shows that higher-pitched sounds take less absolute sound intensity to have the same perceived [intensity], up to ~4000-5000Hz” (i.e. it just ‘seems’ louder). Luthier Clive Titmuss adds: “Loudness is a very subjective phenomenon…Terz guitars tend to have no middle, and be very strong on top”.
The excellent Terz overview from Early Romantic Guitar also cites other similarly high-tuned designs: including the rare Viennese ‘Quint-guitar’, tuned a 5th higher than Standard (BEADGbB = Baritone + 1 octave), and the Spanish/Latin American ‘Requinto’ (see a highlight reel below) – typically tuned like the Terz, but sometimes set slightly higher (e.g. ADGCEA = EADGBE cp.5…or an un-shuffled Gambale layout).
- Requinto Highlights – Mexico & Paraguay (2011):
“The requinto in ‘classic’ Mariachi reflects the synthesis of regional styles that took place in the first half of the 20th century, as performers from various regions…moved to Mexico City and began performing…” (Janet Sturman)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Charango: a small, cute lute from South America
- Lute (‘Vihuela’): more ancestral string instruments
- Ali Farka Touré: G-rooted, but the rest as Standard
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Oldskool Terzology: read more from Terz revivalist Dr. James Buckland via the Guild of American Luthiers – and also see Early Romantic Guitar‘s illustrated overview, stringing advice, and recordings list (“Terz tuning was found to be beneficial in ensemble settings, where enhanced presence and projection are needed…In addition to acoustic considerations, [they] have a shorter string length, that enhances playability…”)
- Billy Corgan’s electric: check out his signature Terz design, built by Reverend Guitars (“after years of capoing at the 3rd fret, Billy Corgan suggested that we make an electric Terz…a punchy, shimmering guitar that is rich in overtones, perfect for adding color accents or driving rhythm parts that spice up a tune…”)
Header image: surviving Terz of uncertain origin
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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