Seven Heaven: René Lacôte’s 1850 Seven-String Guitar

April 22nd, 2014

By Alan di Perna | Photo courtesy of Muse de la Musique

A century before George Van Eps, Steve Vai, and Maestro Alex Gregory, French virtuoso guitarist and composer Napoléon Coste was writing music for a seven-string guitar of his own design.

Coste, who lived from 1805 to 1883, was a student of the celebrated Spanish guitarist and composer Fernando Sor and claimed to be the inventor of the seven-string guitar. To build the instrument that he’d envisioned, Coste called upon one of the era’s foremost luthiers, the Parisian guitar maker Pierre René Lacôte. The instrument now resides in the collection of the Musée de la Musique in Paris, which includes over 400 guitars dating back to the 17th century.

“It was part of an ensemble of four guitars that very likely were the property of Coste,” says Musée de la Musique curator Philippe Bruguière. “Among them were two seven-string guitars.”

As a custom instrument, and apart from its obvious extra string, this guitar differs from René Lacôte’s standard output in a number of ways. According to Bruguière, “Coste probably suggested to Lacôte several features of this seven-string guitar, such as its string holder, bridge, finger rest, and 24-fret fingerboard. It is also very likely that Coste asked Lacôte to modify the guitar’s shape, as all of Lacôte’s other models have more curved outlines. This guitar’s body shape is curiously reminiscent of Spanish guitars in this period. There is nearly no ornamentation, but the quality of the build is just perfect.”

The guitar has a spruce top and curly maple back, sides, bridge, tailpiece, finger rest, neck, and headstock.

The fingerboard and headstock veneer are ebony, the latter bearing Lacôte’s trademark. Inside the guitar’s body, in place of Lacôte’s usual printed label, is a handwritten label stating that the instrument was “the favorite guitar of Monsieur Napoléon Coste” and that, upon his death in 1883, he bequeathed the guitar to Eugène Petetin, a naval officer married to Coste’s niece. One of Petetin’s visiting cards was among the artifacts found in the guitar’s original black wood and red textile–lined case.

Flashback 1850

March 16: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s historical romance novel The Scarlet Letter is published.

March 19: Henry Wells and William Fargo form a company called American Express.

June 6: Levi Strauss creates the first pair of blue jeans.

August 28: Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin debuts in Weimar, Germany. Franz Liszt conducts.

September 9: California becomes the 31st state of the U.S.A.

November 14: Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield is published.

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