The origins of the guitar are much-discussed and much-disputed, and some pretty wild and unsubstantiated claims are made for its heritage, based on vaguely guitary-looking instruments in mediaeval and even pre-mediaeval iconography, about which we often know little or nothing beyond an unreliable drawing, painting or carving; or based on instruments which have vaguely guitary-sounding names (see below for more on confusion over names).
If we are to state only what can be asserted with clear evidence, we must start no further back than the renaissance guitar itself, the first evidence of which is circa 1500. It had 4 courses – a course being a pair of strings, though the top string was single – tuned single a’, double e’, double c, then the 4th course was a split octave with a lower g and an upper g’. In other words, it was tuned in the same way as a modern guitar if you only play the top 4 strings and capo it at the 5th fret, and without the upper octave on the 4th course. Or, put another way, it was tuned the same as a modern ukulele, except that the ukulele has all single strings and only the upper octave of the 4th course. Both are clearly descendants of the renaissance guitar. So the 4 course guitar was essentially a smallish treble instrument with a short pitch range and no bass response. The French drawing from 1570 at the top of this article gives an idea of its size.
Names of instruments in early music can give rise to much confusion and it pays to be careful. For example, in the 16th century the 4 course renaissance guitar was also known as the gittern in England and France, and so it must not be confused with the unrelated mediaeval gittern, nor indeed with the baroque gittern, which was a type of very small cittern. Confused? Many reference books, musical dictionaries and websites are!
Most of the surviving music for the renaissance guitar comes from Spain and France, where it therefore seems to have been most popular. There are contemporaneous English references to the instrument, but little surviving English music. The first known publication is Tres Libros de Musica en Cifras para Vihuela (Three books of music in figures – i.e. numbers = tablature – for vihuela) by Alonso Mudarra, 1546. This is a trio of books for the vihuela, a Spanish instrument shaped like a large guitar (compared to the 4 course guitar) but tuned identically to the lute in a country where the lute didn’t catch on; and among the vihuela pieces in the first book are a few compositions for 4 course “guitarra”. We have to thank French musician Adrian le Roy for the majority of renaissance guitar music: in 1551-1555 he published nine books of guitar tablature. Another French composer, Guillaume de Morlaye, published three books of guitar compositions in 1552–53. But that’s much more than the sum total of all renaissance guitar music we have now, since not all of these books – nor some others we have only the titles of – have survived. What we have is perfectly lovely but, just as Mudarra’s Spanish guitar pieces are stylistically indistinct from vihuela music, French guitar pieces are stylistically indistinct from lute music. It would take the changes present in the baroque guitar to give the instrument a distinctive voice of its own.
4 course renaissance guitar playing Almande. La mon amy la from Premiere livre de tabulature de guiterre, Adrien le Roy, 1551