Decacorde – 10-string guitar

Kauko Liikanen, decacorde 2001

Decacorde, or the 10-string guitar, is a rare variation of the classical guitar, relatively unknown even to many professional guitarists. Nevertheless, the extra strings added to the usual 6-string instrument are no novelty, but has a long history in many cultures. Thus, the evolution of this variation of the guitar shows influence from a number of different string instruments, the strongest coming from the lute family. The oldest 10-string guitars were actually instruments resembling a hybrid of a lute and a guitar.

Caron, guitare decacorde 1785
Caron, guitare decacorde 1785

In the late 18th century, court musicians in Paris and Versailles used to play on this kind of ”lute-guitars”. It has been told that one of the most extraordinary variations of these string instruments was called ”bissex”, made by Naderman. A great number of experimental instruments appeared at that time, and most bizarre string instruments did see the light of day. Louis-Gabriel Besson, one of these court musicians, called one of these instruments a decacorde, referring thus to its ten strings.

The decacorde made by René Lacote and designed by him in collaboration with the guitarist Ferdinando Carulli in the early 19th century, comes closest to the modern decacorde. Ferdinando Carulli himself played on this kind of guitar.

Lacote made very different kind of decacorde models and one of the most interesting was that made for Carulli, which had a special tuning machine. Carulli also wrote a study book for this instrument, “Méthode compléte pour le décacorde”, opus 293. Tuning for his decacorde was e1, b, g, d, A, G, F, E, D, C

At the Music Museum of the Cité de la Musique in Paris there are two of Lacote’s decacordes on display, made in 1826 and 1830.

Ferdinando Carulli, together with the luthier Lacote, did valuable developing work with the 10-string guitar.

René Lacote, decacorde
René Lacote, decacorde 1828

Decacorde Much later, in 1963, the Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes, together with the luthier José Ramirez, created the modern variant of this instrument. Indeed, the standard guitar itself had gone through a significant evolution from the early 19th century to the latter half of the 20th century, and the idea of Yepes and Ramirez was to make an updated version of the 10-string guitar. It looks like a standard modern guitar but has a broader fingerboard and larger tuning apparatus. Unlike Carulli’s guitar, the modern 10-string guitar has frets under all of the strings. He also used a tuning of his own in his guitar: Gflat – Aflat – Bflat – C-E-A-d-g-b-e1 . With the four extra strings, Yepes wanted to create so-called resonance strings for those tones which, in the standard 6-string guitar, are left without resonance.

What is the charm of this guitar and what makes it so special? The power of this guitar, for one thing, lies in its resonance qualities, which both strengthen the sound of the guitar and lengthen the resounding time of each tone. The extra bass strings also give the instrument a slightly darker timbre than the 6-string guitar. Lute music, nowadays played generally on the guitar, comes into its own when played on the 10-string guitar, as the bass strings allow the playing of low octave tones in the original pitch. As a chamber music instrument, this guitar gives sturdier support to the ensemble than the 6-string guitar and it gives a wider range of expression to the chords. Modern composers are inspired by this rare form of the modern guitar which, with its rich sound and harmonies, as well as new possibilities of musical texture, opens new expressive horizons for the guitar.

The tuning of the bass strings of the 10-string guitar varies according to the needs of the music played. I myself use the following tuning, which I may change according to my needs: A1, B1, C, D, E, A, d, g, b, e1. I have found this method of tuning to be the most practical one, as the low basses add their special timbre to the harmonies.

Photo #1:
Photo #2: Multi-Bass 7-string, 8-string, 10-string and 19th Century Harp Guitars