1770s Preston English Guittar

I was taken aback when I popped the lid on this instrument's case -- which happens to be a Gold Tone tenor banjo case -- and found this inside. Fretted instruments of this age just aren't all that common over here, even though this was a "small-shop-factory" instrument at the time.

Preston was a premier builder of "English guittars" (yes, two Ts) in his day and this is a good example of one of his "mid-grade" offerings. A surprising number of these instruments seem to be unplayable examples rotting in museums, unfortunately. It's a shame because, now that it's done-up, it sounds glorious -- sparkly and chimey with innate "reverb" and sustain.

These are qualities shared by its direct modern-day descendants -- the Portuguese guitar and German waldzither. The waldzithers mostly retain this instrument's tuning (CGCEG for waldzithers) and flat top and back while the Portuguese guitars retain more of the tone and lightness and the extremely-radiused fretboard.

English guittars evolved from the cittern family and have curious adaptations. Most were played in open C tuning (CEGCEG low to high -- heck, in the case of this one that's stamped on the tuner plates...) and had either 12-string (all doubled) or 10-string (1-1-2-2-2-2) formats. Almost all have holes drilled through the fretboard and back of the neck as a means to attach bolt-on capos to get into different keys. Fortunately, modern guitarists can slightly restring and retune to a "guitar on 5th fret" ADGCEA tuning and still have the instrument sound lovely. Alternately, lutenists might prefer an all-4ths tuning like ADGCFBb or similar.

It's my understanding that these instruments fell out of fashion as modern guitars became more popular. I don't see any reason why one might not have heard tavern players tickling the strings on these back in Colonial Boston, though!

An interesting note about this instrument is that it has brass mounts/blocks set into the body near the tailpiece. These have threaded holes in them to accept bolts. I've attached a tailpiece cover/wrist-rest to make it more comfortable to play, but originally the instrument probably featured a keyed playing mechanism that hung over the body to allow striking the strings in piano-fashion. This site (click for link) has information on that gizmo.

I had some dilemmas to address when the instrument came in, though. It was in roughly good shape for its age, but it does show tons of old crack repairs on the top and sides and a little compression fatigue just in front of the tailpiece area. That's been stable, thankfully.

The most touchy bit was dealing with the frets. The original bar frets could only laughably be described as such. They were quite thin and were essentially flush with the fretboard. I was intending to attempt to pull them out, shim them up, and set them back in the board in preparation for a level/dress job, but I found that almost all of them had hairline splits and were thus unusable.

That left me with the decision to modernize or search for suitable bar stock. As the bar stock's width was undersized even compared to the tang of a modern fret, I decided to just bite the bullet and install modern wire that won't need to be fussed-with for a very long time and will add compression value against tension and also give it better sound. I went for a medium-wide stainless wire as stainless tends to pop into a fretboard and stay put and it will also need to be changed far less often. That's a plus because the fretboard itself is a slab of ebonized maple with a veneer of ebony on it as far as I can tell.

Other work was straightforward -- much cleaning (there was weird black grime smeared throughout and especially on the rose), tuner lube, new parts -- but the end result is an extremely-playable instrument that plays with modern Portuguese guitar-style specs -- a fast 1/16" action at the 12th fret and a quick neck.

The owner is receiving a full assortment of goodies, too -- shims for the bridge feet in case the action drops from dryness or settling, a custom capo fit to the radius and modded from one of my workshop units, a set of extra strings (believe me, that's more than it seems because these are frustrating to restring), and whatnot.

Repairs included: refret, new compensated ebony bridge, new tailpiece cover/wrist-rest, minor seam and hairline crack re-repairs/repairs, cleaning, setup, etc...

Made by: Preston

Made in: London, England, UK

Top wood: solid spruce

Back & sides wood: solid flamed maple

Bracing type: semi-x

Bridge: ebony, compensated

Fretboard: ebonized maple with ebony veneer

Neck wood: flamed maple

Action height at 12th fret: 1/16" overall
String gauges: 42w, 30w, 20w/20w, 16/16, 12/12, 8/8 for ADGCEA or CEGCEG

Neck shape: slim-med C/D

Board radius: steep -- a little shy of 6"

Neck relief: straight

Fret style: medium

Scale length: 16 3/4"

Nut width: 1 3/4"

Body length: 13 1/2"

Body width: 11 3/8"

Body depth: 2 3/4"

Weight: 1 lb 5 oz

Condition notes: it's mostly original but has a replacement bridge and frets. There are small hairline cracks throughout but most are non-serious and shorter. All have been repaired in the past. The top is a little distorted below the tailpiece but stable. There's a lot of wear and tear on the body but the finish still looks great on the back and sides. I've added a removable tailpiece cover/wrist-rest.

As a side-note, it's shocking how well the clock-key-wrench tuner mechanism works. It's much better than later Portuguese guitar or waldzither units and is not fussy at all.

Below are some "working" pictures showing the fret issue...


Rob Gardner said…
What a great little instrument. Tuned with a key. Sounds fabulous.
Unknown said…
Please let me know if this is available! Dtzyto@aol.cop 973-590-0989

Thanks !!
shecky said…
Thanks for the link on the string plucking(?) mechanism. About 30 years ago, I saw a busker in Dublin playing an otherwise modern guitar with a strange piano-like device with 6 keys that plucked or hammered each individual string. Seemed to work pretty well. However the workings of the device were completely obscured underneath it. I don't know if it had been a commercially available device, or been crafted by a reasonably competent individual. Over the decades, I've searched for info, and came up empty handed. A somewhat similar device was marketed in the 90s, but definitely not the same. That link might have some clues.
Nick R said…
I have been told by someone far more knowledgeable than I am, that these instruments were very popular in the American Colonies, so there may be more tucked away!
Unknown said…
Just stumbled across this site. That's an attractive guittar!
Google "The Guittar in the British Isles, 1750-1810", a PhD thesis by Panagiotis Poulopolous. It has everything about this instrument.
I'm a lute maker near Albany NY, and I've restored a bunch of these instruments.
Andy Rutherford