“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein
Mention “classical guitar” to many beginning guitarists and you will get a whole host of reactions, from “what’s that?” to “do you mean classic rock?” to “why would you want to play that on guitar?”.
Despite a brief resurgence in the 1960’s and 70’s, classical guitar remains obscure to most young guitar players. The primary reason for this obscurity is that in today’s pop and rock music, classical guitar is nearly non-existent. There are acoustic guitars galore of course, and plenty of fingerstyle guitar tracks, but the vast majority of these are performed on steel string guitars and are usually based in country or folk styles and rely on Travis picking patterns. Why is the instrument not used more widely? What’s not to love in the rich, warm tone of a well played classical guitar? You could easily replace every fancy piano ballad or intro with a classical guitar and not lose a bit of the warmth, excitement or emotional impact. Nothing against the piano of course…
From Under The Rock
It was a little different for those of us starting to learn guitar in the 1970’s. In those days there were a handful of progressive rock bands that embraced the instrument. Guitarists like Alex Lifeson (Rush), Steve Howe (Yes), and Steve Hackett (Genesis) recorded entire songs, intros, or instrumental passages with classical guitars. Hearing some of their records, I fell in love with the sound and set out to learn many of those pieces. In doing so, I accidentally opened myself up to an entire world of classical music, and I am forever grateful to these artists for their inspiration.
“All life’s pleasure consists of getting a little closer to perfection and expressing life’s mysterious thrill a little better.” Maurice Ravel
I soon discovered where these rock guitarists were getting their inspiration from. In the early 1960’s, there was a growing audience for exciting new guitarists who were expanding on Andre Segovia’s groundbreaking work years earlier. Players such as Christopher Parkening, Julian Bream, and John Williams were releasing great albums and packing concert halls. Digging into these records was a eureka experience and made me realize I was barely scratching the surface when it came to the potential of the instrument.
A short sampling of songs that featured the classical guitar in rock music would include the following:
Alex Lifeson, Rush, “The Trees”, “Broon’s Bane”, ” A Farewell to Kings”, “Rivendell”.
Steve Howe, Yes, “Mood for a Day”, “The Ancient.”
Steve Hacket, Genesis, “Horizons”, “Blood on the Rooftops.”
Mason Williams, “Classical Gas”.
Kerry Livgren, Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”.
Paul McCartney, The Beatles, “Blackbird”.
Eddie Van Halen, “Spanish Fly”.
These pieces opened up a whole new world for guitar players who wanted to move beyond the rock and blues roots that were inherent in the rock music phenomenon. If you are a fan of progressive rock, you could argue that by moving even further back into time, these artists pushed us even further into the future.
“When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” – Alexis de Tocqueville
Another reason for the lack of interest in classical guitar is the term itself: “classical”. The word turns off many students because it is full of connotations like “old, stuffy, difficult, strict, snobby and boring.” This is a larger problem for classical music in general, but when it comes to modern guitar players, the problem is compounded by the fact that the the word guitar usually conjures up ideas like “loud, proud, cool, and exciting.”
Just as classical music would benefit from being called something else, so too would the classical guitar. The term just doesn’t do justice to the vast amount of material and the wide range of styles that we refer to when we call something “classical.” To those who embrace it, the word means much more, ideas like: instrumental, artistic, refined, melodic, introspective, and precise come to mind. I suppose some would consider these words to be snobbish too. Oh well, what can you say, except “to each their own. ”
I once wrote a blog post called “Why Music Needs a Blast from the Past” where I argued that we need new descriptors and that today’s pop and rock music could benefit by taking a look back to a time well before the birth of blues and jazz. Guitarists, and musicians in general can gain so much by exploring these more ancient roots, even if they think they don’t like classical music.
The Treasures that Await
The fact is that there is so much to gain from learning even the simplest classical guitar pieces.
1. You will learn to read music (the tradition is not with tablature here)
2. Explore fingerstyle techniques
3. Add standalone solo pieces to your repertoire
4. Experience the thrill of playing the rhythm, harmony and melody on a single instrument, much like a piano player.
5. Open yourself up new gigging possibilities
You will also begin to understand the rich terminology that is used to describe so many musical forms, tempos, moods and performance concepts (words like “andante, rondo, minuet, allegro, rubato, crescendo, decrecendo” etc…) Beyond the exotic sound of the words themselves, each of these words reveals a little bit more about what music meant to the composers.
2. You will know what it feels like to perform a piece of music in its entirety, not just the guitar part.
3. You will master parts of the fretboard, chords, scales and keys that you are not often exposed to in rock and pop.
4. You will obtain a new sense of discipline. Classical parts, by definition, are written down exactly and explicitly, unlike much of todays guitar tablature, everything you need to know about playing the part is written into the score, most notably the intricacies of rhythm notation.
5. You will begin looking at your guitar in a whole new way and open up limitless possibilities by combining what you already know with this new/old approach to the guitar.
5. Instead a potential repertoire from the 1950’s to the present, You will expand it to include music as far back as the 1500’s! Thanks to the pioneers in transcribing classical music for guitar, transcriptions are available for a great deal of the traditional music for instruments like the lute, piano, violin, and cello.
“Study the past, if you would divine the future.” – Confucius
Many great artists have dedicated their lives to the classical guitar and have believed it to be the most beautiful and expressive instrument ever invented. Some are composers, some are players. There are names like the aforementioned Segovia, Tarregga, Sor, Gulianni, Pujol, Barrios, Williams, Bream, Boyd, Parkening. All these artists in one way or another greatly expanded the reach and enhanced the reputation of the guitar. A good first step of course would be to listen to a few of these artists, tune into what they have done, and see what happens to your concept of what the guitar is capable of.
Then of course, there are the millions of amateur and lesser known professional players like you and I who do it for the sheer joy of learning and playing the instrument. It is there, in those quiet nights of diligent practice and occasional exhilarating moments of accomplishment that the real value of their dedication to the instrument is known. If you play the instrument, you know what I mean. It wont even matter if there is an audience. If you don’t play the instrument yet, I hope that you will take it up soon and discover the feeling for yourself.
I was lucky enough to have studied with Ricardo Iznaola, who was fortunate enough to have studied with Alrio Diaz, who was in turn lucky enough to have studied with Andres Segovia. I don’t hold a candle to any of these great players of course, but one thing is for certain: they were able to pass down to me a sincere appreciation and respect for the instrument. This blog post is one small way I can attempt to pass on some of that enthusiasm and respect.
Here are some pieces I recommend exploring you if you are interested in getting started. They are not all beginner pieces by any means, but one of the things I discovered is that if you love a piece of music enough, just dig right in, you will find a way to get it done. It is the love for a piece that drives you forward and inspires you to keep going, at least it did for me. The other reason I recommend these particular pieces is that I have learned them so, trust me, I know you can too.
A short list of some great, somewhat easy, classical guitar pieces
Fransisco Tarrega- Caprichio Arabe
Fransisco Tarrega- Recuerdos De La Alhambra
J.S Bach – Minuet in G
J.S Bach – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
J.S. Bach – Bouree in E Minor
J.S Bach – Prelude to Lute Suite in D Major
Fernando Sor – Estudio 5 in B Minor
Fernando Sor – Estudio 6 in D Major
Anonymous – Romanze De Espana
Anonymous – Greensleeves
Fernando Carulli – Andante in A Minor
Ludwig Van Beethoven – Fur Elise
Scott Joplin – The Entertainer
Whatever you choose as a repertoire, some you will learn fairly well, others you will learn and forget, and still others you will work on for the rest of your life. That is the thing about this type of music: it challenges you to constantly refine and improve it and to always look for new ways of expressing it.
Of all the reasons to study classical guitar, the best reason is that you will be opening your heart and mind to centuries of amazing music. You will be reaching across time and space and into the mind of musicians who may have lived in a completely different world, but had the same passions, hopes, dreams, desires and fears as we do today.
It is one thing to listen to the music of our ancestors interpreted by other modern musicians on records, and another thing to accept the challenge of reinterpreting it for yourself, physically, on your instrument. The gift of our attention in the interpretation or in deep listening defines the essence of music. Studying music of another time and place completes a circuit of communication across the ages, and obliterates the illusion of time and space between a composer, performer and a listener.
“Music demands… from a listener…some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place… It demands as much effort on the listeners part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.” – Benjamin Britten