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Graham Caldersmith holding treble guitars
The Guitar Family
The idea of a "Guitar Family" was conceived by Graham in 1980, when he initiated the concept by making his first baritone guitar.

In 1986, Graham and Timothy Kain won a grant from the Australia Council to build the first complete family of guitars.
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Families of Instruments

   Musical instruments reflect and galvanise the cultures in which they evolve, and most have diverged into families. The core of the Symphony Orchestra is the violin family: violin, viola, violoncello and bass. The other family of bowed instruments contemporary with the first violins was the viol family, a courtly ensemble now featuring in early music performance. Lutes came in a range of sizes and pitches, and they inspired a colourful array of Renaissance composition.

   Brass instruments range from the cornet, through the flugelhorns, trumpets and trombones to the French Horns, Euphoniums and Tubas. Woodwind instruments appear in the orchestra as a polyglot assembly of clarinets, oboes, cor anglais, and bassoons. Once there was a family of oons, as there were families of trombones (sackbuts), shawns, rackets, crumbhorns, recorders and other wonderful wind instruments. Even flutes range from piccolo to bass, and more recently saxophones and clarinets have grown into families, featuring in jazz performance and modern composition.

   Beyond the orchestra and jazz ensembles, folk instruments appear in families : balalaikas and mandolins with mandolas, tenor mandolins, mandocellos and bass mandolins, even concertinas and dulcimers are available in different ranges.

   The piano does not exist in a family, probably because its keyboard covers the register of a family – likewise for the harpsichords and organs.

   The most popular musical instrument in the world is the guitar. It features in every nation’s folk, jazz, flamenco, blues, rock, pop and classical musical expressions, but it has not existed in a family. Even though the electric bass guitar has become almost universal in all musical forms except classical and traditional jazz, we do not regard the electric bass with other guitars as a family. Some South American ensembles use the ‘requinto’ guitar tuned above the standard, but not as a guitar family member.

The Guitar Family Project

   In 1979, I became a full-time luthier (stringed instrument maker) after an intensive year in Europe studying and researching guitar and violin history, physics, design and tonality, and the response of the ear-brain system to musical sound. I had made experimental violins, violas and cellos in 1977 and was beginning to understand why the traditional violin was probably optimal in its vibrating and sound-generating behaviour as a bowed instrument.

   I envisaged how larger and smaller guitars would respond to the strings and appeal to the human mind. In 1980, I made a low-pitched folk guitar which was not successful, but a subsequent baritone classical guitar, tuned a fifth below the standard, had a genuine classical voice, even with an unconvincing upper range.

   In 1982, I travelled to the United States on a Churchill Fellowship to deliver a paper to the Catgut Acoustical Society entitled "The Guitar Family – Prospectus". In that year, I also showed the baritone to Tim Kain, head of the guitar faculty at Canberra School of Music, and himself a renowned performer. When he established the Canberra Guitar Ensemble in 1984, they incorporated the baritone along with the standard guitar, and when John Williams visited the Canberra School of Music that year, he encouraged them to work towards realising the potential of the guitar family.

   In 1986, the Canberra Guitar ensemble submitted an application to the Australia Council under the "Innovative Projects" category, seeking a grant for me to make a classical bass guitar and a treble (requinto) tuned a fourth above the standard, so to extend the classical guitar into a full tonally integrated family : bass, baritone, standard and treble.

   These Classical Guitar Family prototypes were finished in 1986, and after intensive rehearsals by the Canberra Guitar Ensemble at the Canberra School of Music, the first Guitar Family concert was presented in 1987. It was so popular that a repeat performance was given later in the day, and from the Canberra Guitar Ensemble grew Guitar Trek, now internationally acclaimed as the Guitar Family Ensemble.

   The prototype treble was soon replaced with two ‘new generation’ lattice trebles made by Eugene Philp, and I made a lattice baritone in 1996 and a lattice bass in 2001, both now played by Guitar Trek. A baritone guitar was also purchased by Slava Grigoryan in 2003, with the purpose of enriching the tonality of the popular guitar ensemble, Saffire.

   Guitar orchestras have been gaining momentum in Australia since the year 2000. Christopher Keane, Tommy Anderson and Richard Charlton have all introduced guitar family members into their school ensembles. Joanne McClusky coordinates the Townsville Guitar Orchestra and Anthony Field (a previous Guitar Trek member) is now recording new arrangements and compositions for guitar ensembles with a Caldersmith bass, baritone and two trebles.

   Further afield in the Netherlands, another ex Guitar Trek member, Peter Constant and his partner Marian Schaap, have consolidated and expanded guitar orchestra performance, incorporating bass and two octaves into their ensembles as well as their Zoo Duo repertoire.

   In 2009, ZOO Duo expanded their repertoire with the purchase of a Caldersmith Terz (see You Tube recording below to see the terz used in performance).


Baritone guitar owned by Victorian College of the Arts.


Treble (Requinto) guitars made for Anthony Field at Victorian College of the Arts.

   I continue to upgrade and integrate the sound of guitar family instruments as well as to develop standard ‘new generation guitars’, always reaching for a stronger and richer, sustained classical guitar sound.

The Guitars

Classical Bass
   As with the orchestral or electric bass, the classical bass is tuned an octave below the normal guitar’s four lower strings – EADG. The string length is 88cm and the strings are overspun nylon core manufactured by Hannabach. It can be played upright on its endpin or in classical guitar position, supported by the endpin. The sound is strong, sustained and rich, providing a unique bass voice to any mixed ensemble.

Graham and Bass.

Graham and Bass.

The following picture links to a YouTube video that shows Peter Constant (Netherlands) playing Bourées 1&2 from Bach's cello suite BWV 1010 on a classical bass guitar.

Link to YouTube Video.

Peter Constant playing Bass.

Peter Constant playing Bass.

   Between the bass and standard guitar, the baritone is tuned a fifth below a standard guitar. Its bottom string is therefore an octave below the A string on a standard guitar. It is played the same as a standard, but the 71cm string length (65cm on a standard) requires a bit more stretch! The baritone has a particularly attractive sound for playing slower pieces such as Bach’s suites for lute and cello.

Baritone and Octave. Baritone and Octave.

   Bometimes known by the South American name, requinto, as it’s tuned five semitones (quint) above a normal guitar. However, the acoustics of the treble are different in that the treble has a big, sweet sound and the requinto has a short, sharp, ‘mandolin-like’ sound. String length is 52cm, enabling the treble to be strung with normal strings. The body is significantly smaller, as is the scale.

Trebles. Twin treble (requinto) guitars made for Ascham School, Sydney.

More Guitar Family

Here are the latest You Tubes from Holland. The first shows the power and beauty of the little Caldersmith octave guitar providing a harpsichord like tinkle-tinkle amidst 108 standard guitars. The second shows a lovely duet with treble and standard guitars with the performance augmented by a dancer.


   Tuned an octave above a standard, this guitar provides a clear, sweet descant sound (‘a lake of small crystals’ according to Eric Cathan!) Octave string sets can be purchased on the net. The short scale of 43.5cm is of course close, but longer than a mandolin.

Graham Playing Octave.   Graham Playing Octave.

A Rather Large Guitar Family!


This picture shows the 'Duelling Guitars' extravaganza in May 2008 in Almere, The Netherlands. The Caldersmith bass guitar looks almost luminous but our two octaves are a little harder to spot up the front left. The concert combined over 100 players from 3 guitar orchestras: The Netherlands Youth Guitar Orchestra, Guitarrísimo and Ponticello plus pluckers from the community. Conductors: Peter Constant from the Z.o.o. guitar duo and Erik Westerhof from the Groningen Guitar Duo. Some of the performance can be seen on You Tube:

Bass and Octaves on YouTube!

Bass and Octaves.

Nederlands Jeugd Gitaarorkest live in Almere 17th May 2009.
Arrangement by Jurg Kindle for guitar ensemble including 4 solo octave guitars & bass guitar soloists: Rosa van Ginneke, Jaap Gelderblom, Tijn Sanden, Rolf Fokker.
Conductor: Peter Constant

The bass and two of the octaves are Caldersmiths.

The following images are linked to the YouTube videos of 'Z.o.o.' guitar duo (Peter Constant & Marion Schaap) playing octave guitar and bass guitar.

Peter Constant & Marion Schaap.

Peter Constant & Marion Schaap.

Peter Constant & Marion Schaap.


Terz on You Tube!

Terz on YouTube.

The terz is so named because it is tuned three semitones higher than the modern classical guitar, tuned to G rather than E. This guitar type was favoured by composers of the 19th century and is valuable for music such as this You Tube video of Z.O.O Guitar Duo playing Mertz's Peter Constant's Caldersmith terz is quite a different instrument from the original terzes - it is designed in the Grange style using a western red cedar lattice under the top and has a 55cm string length.

The following YouTube clip shows Peter Constant and Marion Schaap playing Mertz on a Caldersmith 'terz' guitar (tuned up one three semitones G to G) and Sheridan standard.

And now for something completely different....

  Peter Constantly experimenting with his Caldersmith bass guitar ...... spot the clothes pegs!

Peter Constantly experimenting.

Play/Download Music (3.27 MegaBytes)
From Melbourne Guitar Quintet CD (Toccata) Track 8 - 'Allegro' from Concerto No. 8 for 2 violins in A minor by Antonio Vivaldi (arr. Benjamin Dix).. From Melbourne Guitar Quintet CD (Toccata) Track 8 - 'Allegro' from Concerto No. 8 for 2 violins in A minor by Antonio Vivaldi (arr. Benjamin Dix)..
From Melbourne Guitar Quintet CD (Toccata) Track 8 - 'Allegro' from Concerto No. 8 for 2 violins in A minor by Antonio Vivaldi (arr. Benjamin Dix).. To download this audio file....
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Relevant articles and papers are available from the following publications:

The Guitar Family - Prospectus
Catgut Acoustical Society Journal #38, 1982

Towards a Classic Guitar Family
American Lutherie #18, 1989

The Guitar Family, continued
American Lutherie #41, 1995

*Background Music: 'Allegro' from Concerto No. 8 for 2 violins in A minor by Antonio Vivaldi (arr. Benjamin Dix).


Graphics, layout and design by  Krewe 42.  Updated by Allen Bruce.  Copyright ©2004. All Rights Reserved. Graham Caldersmith.