On September 2, 2021 Prime Video dropped the first teaser trailer for The Wheel of Time. If you have not seen this, click the link, watch it, and then come back.
While the trailer undoubtedly increased the fan hype levels to unheard of levels, allowing The Wheel of Time to become the #2 trending topic on Twitter and #3 on YouTube, it also left fans with more questions than answers.
One of the most asked was "Wait, where is Thom?" Sadly I don't have the answer to this question but I do have a short teaser of Thom's guitar. So today we are going to break down Thom's guitar and the real world influences on its design. Further we will speculate on why they made certain design decisions to craft this Third Age instrument, instead of pulling out a current age historical instrument.
Let's start by examining the short clip of Thom's guitar:
There are two points of interest here that I want to call out. First is the shape and size of the guitar. We see that Thom's guitar shape is significantly narrower than a modern steel string acoustic or classical guitar.
This follows many real world historical examples such as the Renaissance guitar (C.1500s, Image 1) and the Baroque guitar (c.1600s, Image 2). However the headstock doesn't look like either these. That's because it, and the six single strings and metal frets are taken from the early 19th century guitar (c.1800s, image 3)
Next let's dive into each of these guitars. This isn't going to be comprehensive by any means, but I do want to make some call-outs about what makes each of these guitars different. This will help us breakdown and make sense of the design choices on Thom's guitar.
Image 1: Renasissance Guitar
The Renaissance Guitar first appeared in the 16th century. It features 4 courses of gut strings, 3 sets of doubled stings and a solo high A string, an hour glass shape, friction tuning pegs, and moveable gut frets. The tuning is the same as the modern Ukulele (GCEA). We can also see that this instrument has a flat back and a straight head stock.
Image 2: Barque Guitar
The Baroque Guitar first appeared in the 17th century. Like the Renaissance guitar it features the same shape, gut strings and frets, but it differs in the number of strings and tuning (ADGBE). The Baroque guitar is a 5 course guitar with 9 total strings, 4 doubled sets (courses) and one single high string. It is slightly larger than it's renaissance counterpart. The baroque guitar remained very popular until the very end of the 18th century.
Image 3: Stauffer Guitar - Master to C.F. Martin, who later founded Martin Guitars.
At the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries the more familiar 6 (3 metal wound and 3 gut strings) single stringed guitar emerges. It features a similar but more exaggerated hour glass shape, friction pegs, metal frets, and a pin bridge. The last two items were a response to the invention of metal wound guitar strings. Gut frets would both ruin and be ruined by metal wound strings so they had to be replaced. We also see significant change to the bridge. On our previous models the gut strings were tied to the bridge. With the modern guitar this was no longer viable due to the increased tension that the metal wound strings exert so they drilled holes through the sound board and held the strings in place with pins. This feature is ubiquitous to all modern flat-top steel stringed acoustic guitars.
With the background out of the way lets dive into Thom's guitar.
A few of the details that stand out to me right away are the body shape, head stock, and bridge. The shape combines the elements of both the Baroque guitar and the more modern 19th century guitar. The lower portion of the body is more rounded than the baroque version of the instrument, while the upper portion where the neck meets the body, appears a little square. The soundboard of the guitar (commonly called the "Top") is flat.
Looking at the bridge we see that it doesn't quite look like the others. We can see no visible knots for tying of the strings nor are there any pins. Instead this bridge appears to be a Stop Tailpiece. This is a feature more commonly found on an arch-top guitar, but not unheard of on flat-tops.
Moving on up to the headstock we can clearly see that this is nearly a carbon copy of our example 19th century guitar. We do not get a back view of the instrument but I think it is safe to assume that it utilizes friction pegs as well.
There are some more points of interest as well. I counted the frets of the instrument and it appears to have 15 frets, placing in between the baroque model and the 19th century one.
We also see that it appears to have metal bracing or decoration on a corner and one side. I also think the guitar uses gut strings for the whole set, opposed to the bottom 3 being metal wrapped given the close up we get in the video. Also we can see that this is definitely a render and not a physical prop.
Overall I am very positive on this change. I know it will get a lot of flack from fans claiming to be armchair "historians" and that "guitars weren't courtly or bard worthy instruments," but the fact of the matter is that at various points in history the guitar has been a highly respected and sought after instrument. Much of the perception that it only existed in the lower classes, and thus would never be fit for a court bard, has more to do with popular musicians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries as many tended to be poor.
Further the switch to a guitar makes practical sense for at least two reasons. First is the actor portraying Thom, Alexandre Willaume, already knows how to play the instrument. Second, for the purposes of the story we know that Thom is a traveling gleeman when we meet him. By all accounts a guitar is more practical traveling instrument than a harp or lyre. It has a built in amplification system and is fairly resistant to warping due to the high strength materials required to support the tension of the strings. Third, more fans will already know how to play this instrument and thus be ready with all the YouTube covers you can imagine once the series drops.