An innovative yet controversial instrument design

One of the newest instruments added to MIM’s collection is a rare 10-string classical guitar played for decades by renowned Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes. Considered one of the top concert classical guitarists of the twentieth century, Yepes famously introduced a 10-string extended-range guitar to the world in the 1960s and performed with it until his death in 1997.

Born in Lorca, Spain, in 1927, Yepes began playing the guitar when he was 4. At age 13, he was accepted into the Valencia Conservatory and found a musical mentor in Spanish composer and pianist Vicente Asencio. In the late 1940s, Yepes made his concert debut and went on to perform around the world. During his career, the Spanish classical guitar scene reached a high point, with many new compositions for the instrument and exceptional artists like Yepes and Andrés Segovia.

In the early 1960s, Yepes began to consider the limitations of the 6-string guitar. He felt that even with exceptional technique or a guitar built by the best maker, an artist couldn’t overcome acoustical limitations such as uneven resonance and a relatively compact range. Motivated to create a 10-string guitar, Yepes collaborated with leading Spanish luthier José Ramírez III and his top guitar builder Paulino Bernabé to complete a prototype by 1964.

Yepes had a passion for Baroque lute music and arranged Bach and other composers’ lute pieces for classical guitar. With an extended-range 10-string guitar, he could more fully and accurately perform the lute music.

If the guitar is to the lute what the piano is to the harpsichord—that is, a new expression of an old instrument—then, I should be able to take a piece of music composed for the lute and play it directly on the guitar.

—Narciso Yepes, New York Times

Yepes began playing the guitar in performances, which was met with controversy—while some found the new design to be incredible, others, including Segovia, found it unnecessary.

While working on the 10-string guitar, Yepes welcomed friends, top musicians, and composers to his home to listen to the instrument. Yepes played the 10-string guitar behind a curtain followed by another fine guitar and asked which they preferred. After voting in secret, they unanimously selected the 10-string guitar.

Yepes and Bernabé, who opened his own shop, continued experimenting and created a perfected model by 1972. This model is currently on display at the Spain exhibit in MIM’s Europe Gallery and was Yepes’s signature instrument throughout his career.

Daniel Piper, PhD, MIM’s curator for Latin America and the Caribbean, acquired Yepes’s 10-string guitar directly from his widow, Marysia Szumlakowska Yepes. Piper traveled to Madrid to meet with Marysia and Paulino Bernabé Jr., son of the guitar’s maker. Along with the 10-string guitar, MIM acquired from Yepes’s personal collection a nineteenth-century guitar made by Antonio de Torres Jurado, the Spanish luthier credited with defining the modern classical guitar. While there have been other musicians who have tried playing the 10-string guitar, no one has mastered or promoted the instrument on the same level as Yepes.

“Among the master artists of classical guitar, Yepes was one of the world’s greatest,” says Piper. “In our galleries, his innovative guitar will speak to the inseparable link between instrument makers and their greatest players, artists like Yepes who push limits, imagining new possibilities that forever change both the instrument and music itself.”

Song Recommendations
“Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Narciso Yepes