Melophonic Guitar!

This page is devoted to my D. & A. Roudhloff Melophonic Guitar from circa 1845:

Although this video might look blank, just click on it and it will play. It’s an overview of the instrument, with a couple of performances at the end.

Dominic and Arnaud Roudhloff learned their trade at Mirecourt in France, a well-known centre for musical-instrument manufacture. They move to London when it was the centre of guitar playing during the 1840s, where they set up shop at 81 Charlotte Street, not far from the British Museum. In 1848 they moved further up the road to number 87. As my guitar is number 112, it was made at the earlier address.

Thanks to the pioneering research of the inestimable James Westbrook of The Guitar Museum in Brighton, I can tell you that the Roudhloff’s met one Henry Barelli, himself a guitar innovator, who might possibly have shared his ideas with the Roudhloffs. We are unsure who to assign the innovations found in this guitar to: Barelli, the Roudhloffs, or all three.

They called it a Melophonic Guitar, for which the Roudhloff’s became sole sellers. But what made it different from other guitars at the time?

Well, the body is bigger – not as big as most modern classical guitar – but big for the time, but most surprising of all is the X-bracing under the hood. 

Guitars had been mostly ladder braced, and some Spanish guitars were fan braced (as most of them are today), but the X-brace was something new, it’s chief asset being that it allows the soundboard to vibrate more – so there is less damping. 

However, at almost exactly the same time, one C. F. Martin in America came out with the same design. Martin guitars are one of the world’s biggest guitar-making companies today, mainly for steel-string acoustic guitars, all made with the X brace. Most Americans claim Martin to be the inventor of the X brace. 

I just want to put on record that I don’t give two hoots who invented it! I’ll leave it to others to debate that one. I’m just happy that I have one, and that it is a really excellent specimen, one of the best mid-19th-century guitars that were made, and only 14 of them survive today. 

James Westbrook has a new 400-page book on guitar makers based in London being published in December 2022, and promised me new info on the Roudhloffs. Christmas present sorted! Try to get hold of the article James wrote for American Lutherie, #121, Spring 2005: The Creation of the American X-Braces Guitar – A British Perspective, from his 2014 GAL Convention lecture. The paper details his early research into the x-bracing system.

The BIG-NAME artist at the time who played Roudhloff guitars was Giulio Regondi, an incredible virtuoso performer and composer. He had an 8-string guitar made in Vienna by Stauffer, once Martin’s boss. Regondi brought the 8-string to London, and the Roudhloff’s changed the barring to the X-brace system. I believe they made many 8-string guitars, not all with x bracing.

Other performers include the Ciebra brothers. I’ve done a little research on them, the details of which are below.

Rohan Lowe in England is a modern maker who makes classical guitars with the x-braced system – one of three systems he favours. His guitars are stunning, and his website is very informative, so take a look. And if you all “buy me a coffee” I’ll be able to one day play one of his beautiful guitars for you 🙂 

Newspaper clippings pertaining to the Ciebra brothers, Jose and Raphael :

There has been some debate over whether both brothers came to London, but the clippings make it quite clear that they did, the earliest date being 1815, according to the ERB, June 22 1815. The reporters do not always get the first and middle-name initials correct, unless there was another Ciebra (father) that we did not know was in London at the same time:

The Morning Post of July 25 1838 has a wonderful account of a concert ny Huerta, with the brothers and others joining in at the end:

Those two early citings were probably from before they acquired their Melophonic guitars, but the following clippings from 1844 and 45 are likely to have included their Roudhloff guitars:

Concert with flute and violin, Morning Post 1844:

…with castagnettes at the Theatre Royal – Morning Post 1844:

In 1845 there was an Early Music concert – an extraordinary event, with lutes and theorbos! Morning Post. It’s a long article, but well worth reading:

Finally, in 1850, the Morning Chronicle, London, has a report of the brothers playing duets at the Royal Gardens, Vauxhall:

Judging by the concert reviews, I feel we are being cheated these days with boring concerts of guitars solos, when we could also have night ballon assents, fireworks, equestrian performances, illuminations and pyrotechnical displays!

Rob MacKillop, 29 September, 2022