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Be Still My Beating Guitar: La Chitarra Battente

If you’ve ever seen the elements of a Tarantella band, you will have likely noted a unique guitar as period in Italy. Battente which comes from battere translates to “beat” referring to the rhythmic way in which the guitar is played; the musician beating on the top of the guitar and playing the strings in a percussive way. For a traditional performer like myself, it could however, easily translate to the very heartbeat of the music that I play.

The chitarra battente is often referred to as the “Italian Guitar” having been in use in central and southern Italy since the 15thcentury; prior to the introduction of the “classical” guitar from France in the mid-nineteenth century. It differs from its French or Spanish counterpart (the classic guitar is also known as the Spanish or flamenco guitar) in both shape and construction. This guitar is fitted with five pairs of brass or steel strings that emit a shriller voice and project more volume, thus making it an ideal instrument for outdoor performances and festivals. The strings are also tuned in what is known as a re-entrant system (where single strings are not tuned in order from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch) which means that unlike the classical guitar, the lower strings on this one, can be tuned to higher pitches. As well, a chitarra battente is played without a plectrum or pick allowing the player to achieve a wide range of effects with the fingers, from plucking and strumming to beating the strings or the sound board.

In true Italian style, the battente likes to flaunt her fashionable curves. The hourglass shape of this guitar is more pronounced and extends to the back which is convex and formed of splints. In addition, the chitarra battente has the distinct feature of intricate decoration on the soundboard. While it is unclear as to whether this was done with the intention of influencing acoustic function, it does serve the purpose of hiding the interior of the instrument which typically has joints reinforced with paper or rags.

The chitarra battente is typically used together with the tamburello (tambourine) to keep the beat of the tarantella and replicate its many rhythmic movements. It is highly revered in the history of southern Italian folk music and will soon hold a place in my own musical repertoire as I learn its time honoured technique. My hope is that the beat of this beautiful instrument will make your hearts skip a beat as well.

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