David Russell performs “Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios” (Alms for the love of God). The last piece by Paraguayan classical guitarist and composer, Agustín Pío Barrios a Paraguayan virtuoso and composer, regarded as one of the greatest performers and most prolific composers for the classical guitar. His music remained undiscovered for over three decades after his death.
Stage fright, or performance anxiety as some call it, is sometimes a problem for even professional guitarists. I only play before small groups of people yet I tend to mess up the simplist pieces. As these easy tunes are the first I play in my repertoire, the rest of the performance is an anxious time for me and my audience.
Reading through a post on this subject on the Delcamp guitar forum I picked up this invaluable piece of advice which I paraphrase as, ‘Do not stop or even pause when you make a mistake. Smile and keep on playing even if you have to doddle around just a little before you can pick up the line of music again.” The person giving this advice then went on to point out that few people in the audience are likely to know the piece you are playing, and even fewer will pick up the fact that you made a mistake.
I tried this out the other day when performing for a group of about twenty people in a very casual and supportive environment. Sure enough, I made a major boo-boo in the opening set of three very simple pieces. Instead of pausing I simply added a few bars of improvisation in the same key and then picked the tune up again at the start of the section where I bombed. The result was that my confidence rose immediately and I was able to play even the hardest pieces without major problems. After the performance, I asked someone in the audience if she had noticed anything odd in the piece in question and she said that she had not and had enjoyed it.
Here is a video demonstration by Laura Oltman and Michael Newman on the Strings by Mail’s lessons section that makes the same point.
Most luthiers and experienced players agree that classical guitar tops should be constructed with high-quality solid wood instead of a laminated wood. A solid top generally has superior vibratory qualities to a laminated top and also improves in sound quality as it ages. However, laminated woods are by no means inferior when it comes to back and side construction. Many classical guitar enthusiasts look down their noses at instruments made with laminated wood sides and back, yet such guitars are often more robust and have bigger ‘voices’.
This article compares laminated and solid wood classical guitars.
There are many different brands of guitar cleaning and polishing liquids, creams, and sprays but what the manufacturers do not usually disclose is that:
1. If you keep your guitar in good condition then all you usually have to do is simply wipe it down with a cloth after each practice or performance session.
2. Different types of guitar finish can react to cleaning and polishing formulations and so you need to be know something about this.
3. If you use a furniture polish that contains silicone, you will get a great shine but any future repairs to dents and scratches will be problematic.
A quick wipe down with a micro cloth or soft cleaning cloth is usually enough to keep a well finished guitar looking good. The strings will also need to be wiped down to remove accumulated dirt, oil and skin cells as these will affect both the tone and the life-span of the strings.
It is a good idea to polish your guitar occasionally because the Carnauba wax in the polish will form a thin protective sheen and will usually add to the lustre of the guitar finish. However, take note of the fact that guitars finished with Nitrocellulose can react with some types of polish resulting in a cloudy appearance that is hard to remove. If you are going to use a polish, then ensure that it has been tested on your type of guitar finish. I use Musicnomad Guitar One for polishing and Detailer after practices because my skin is very acidy and my guitar is finished with Nitrocellulose which reacts chemically to acid sweat. Also take note of the fact that if your guitar has a satin (semi-gloss) or matt finish, then regular polishing will eventually change the finish from mat to semi-gloss and from satin to gloss.
The cheapest way to clean and polish your guitar is by using a household spray-on furniture polish. This results in a high gloss effect because of the silicone contained in the product. The drawback is that if you have to repair or refinish the guitar because of dings and scratches and so on, then whoever does the job will have a hard time removing the silicone before he can apply either a lacquer or a varnish finish. The silicone penetrates most finishes and prevents any new application of lacquer or varnish from adhering properly.
Fret board maintenance
There are a number of products on the market for cleaning fret boards. Most, if not all of them contain Lemon Oil, which is really all you need. When you change strings then use a little Lemon Oil on a rag, rub down the spaces between each fret and then dry it off with a clean cloth. This will keep the fretboard clean and sufficiently oiled.
Here again there are products on the market that come in handy applicators but all you really need to do is to wipe the strings down with a damp cloth from time to time. Run the cloth both over and under the strings and then use a clean cloth to repeat the process. The easiest way to do this to use a thin cloth which you slip under the strings and then fold back over them. If you want to make the strings feel more slippery and less squeaky then mix up a 50/50 solution of alcohol and baby oil and use this instead of water.
Use whatever guitar polish you have to shine up the metal. Use Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline) applied in small quantities to the gears using an ear-bud to keep the mechanism moving freely.
All you need to do to prevent friction from impeding the movement of strings through the nut slots is a graphite pencil. When you change the strings, rub the tip of the pencil into each nut slot to deposit a thin coating of Graphite.
This a beautiful but difficult piece originally written by Stanley Meyers for the piano but transcribed and expanded for guitar at the request of John Williams. Meyers wrote it for the film The Walking Stick in 1970, but it only became well known eight years later when it was used as the theme for The Deer Hunter.
John Williams was the first to perform Cavatina on the classical guitar. He recalls that when Andres Segovia heard him playing it he remarked that it was ‘a very pretty tune’. The word ‘cavatina’ is an Italian musical term meaning ‘a short song of simple character’, but the piece is anything but simple to play.
Here one of my favourite guitarists, Per-Olov Kindgren, plays Cavatina
If you let the clip play on you will discover a beautiful bonus, John Williams playing Julia Florida by Barrios.
I have used and evaluated no less than seventeen Android tuner applications and have found most of them wanting in one or more vital areas like accuracy, ease of use, clarity, and so on. However, there are a few exceptions which are well worth using and passing on. This short article covers my personal top five.
The best of the best tuning apps– Pitchlab Pro
Let me start with my all-time favourite guitar tuning application, PitchLab Pro. I have been using this application for two years and no matter what new apps I try out, I always come back to this one. It shows the name of the nearest note, the Hz reading of the note you are playing, and the difference in cents from perfect pitch. It also has visual cues to show when you are in tune and whether you have to tune up or down. It is very accurate and will also register notes a full octave higher than the open strings allowing you to check intonation at the 12th fret.
I seldom use the other screens available but here they are:
Stage Tuner: A large, clear tuning display, optimised for hands-free operation at a distance incorporating a true radial and waterfall strobe for fine-tuning accuracy and responsiveness.
Chord Matrix: Grid-based estimation display of common chord types (maj/min, maj7/min7, dom7/dim7), ideal for quickly determining chords for a tune.
Pitch Spectrogram: Scrolling display of live sound analysis, showing the perceived pitch of a wide range of sound types.
Tone Generator: An 8-octave, polyphonic keyboard display that enables you to play reference notes in the musical scale. Includes a selection of tone waveform types and the ability to quickly switch between single-note or multi-note mode.
Strobe Tuner: A true 6-band, multi-mode strobe display combined with a chromatic ribbon tuner for rapid and accurate instrument tuning.
Split Screen: Split the screen and use any two tuning views at the same time
The most useful app for tuning up new strings
The other tuner that I use from time to time, particularly when I am changing strings, is GuitarLab Tuner. This is an excellent application that has two unique features. Not only does it allow you to lock onto one particular string (6th String E in the illustration, but it displays arrows indicating how far you are from fine-tuning range. In the illustration, the arrows show that the note being played is way too low. If the note played was far too high then arrows would appear to the right of the display. This is a very useful application when fitting new strings. The other great feature is the ‘Smart’ mode which averages the inputs through the mic and applies an algorithm that displays a stable reading of the note you are playing. The note displayed does not therefore decay or waver as is common when tuning the higher strings. This mode is a little slow because of the computer processing required but it is quite useful.
An oldie but goodie tuning app reborn
A tuner that has been around for a long time is gStrings. It was replaced for a while with Waves tuner but it was then reworked from scratch and is now a very accurate and easy to use application. Two things I particularly like are the big analogue-type display, and the fact that it displays the Hz reading of the note you are playing as well as the frequency of the note you are trying to achieve. In the illustration, the note is D at 146.8 Hz shown just above the needle and the string being plucked is in a little too high at 147.1 Hz. This application also registers notes played at the 12th fret and so allows you to check your intonation.
A quick and easy app for any tuning occasion
Another old favourite among guitarists is Guitar Tuna. This application has a big and clear display and both a visual and an audio signal when you are in tune. It is fast and accurate, and well suited to a quick tune-up on the fly. Like several other applications of this type, it includes a chord library and a metronome.
The display combines some helpful elements that make tuning a breez. However, its developers claim more for it than just simplicity of use. According to them, it contains ‘award winning audio technology:
• Built on the world’s most advanced audio recognition algorithm – the same technology powering Yousician
• Professional accuracy for advanced players
• Auto mode tuner (for super fast tuning, hands-free, string by string)’.
One for the sound engineers among us
One other tuning application that warrants a mention is TE Tuner. Its main screen is different to the usual analogue-type displays but does provide all the information needed to bring each string to pitch. It incorporates a metronome, but its main contribution is the display showing an analysis of frequency and harmonic energy, along with a scrolling waveform display. This is why TE in its name stands for ‘tonal energy’. I don’t find much use for this but it is available for those who want to take tuning to a more technical and detailed level.
The two I use over and over again
Every time I put new strings on a guitar, or retune after maintenance I use GuitarLab Tuner and almost every time I sit down to practice I use PitchLab Pro. I have always found these two apps to be accurate, easy to use, and very helpful… and no, I am not sponsored by the developers.
In 1826 Shubert wrote this song as part of the Schwanengesang collection. These tunes turned out to be his last works and that is why the publisher called them ‘Swan song’ (Schwanengesang). J.K Mertz (1806 – 1856) transposed the Serenade for the guitar and ever since then it has been a favourite among guitar virtuosos. Here is Marcin Dylla’s beautiful rendition:
From time to time I will be posting video clips of great classical guitar pieces.
This is the Russian virtuoso Alexey Zimakov playing the intimidatingly difficult Troika Variations. Don’t you just love his footstool?!
In December 2012 Alexey fell asleep outside his apartment block in Tomsk, Siberia in -44C weather conditions. His fur-lined coat kept him warm but when he awoke in the morning all his fingers had severe frostbite. The surgeon there had to remove all eight fingers! What a tragedy! What a player!
When Luthiers or players talk about ‘intonation’, they mean the elusive art of getting the notes on all six strings and at all fret positions to be at perfect pitch.
This is a near impossible feat and so for practical purposes intonation is usually only tested at the 12th fret where the fretted string is exactly half the length of the unfretted string. A luthier has to ensure that he has placed each fret exactly where it should be to produce the required note or intonation will be off right from the start. Players, on the other hand, can only really address any intonation problems by adjusting the point on the saddle, or sometimes the nut, where the string makes contact. This short article is strictly from a player’s perspective.
To check intonation properly, first tune each string to pitch. The strings must not be new and need to be past the point where they constantly stretch and require retuning. Then, fret each string at the 12th fret and compare the sound to a harmonic produced over the same fret. An audible difference in sound means that you have an intonation problem on that string. However, make sure that you press exactly behind the fret and that your finger is pressing down exactly 90 degrees to the fret i.e. straight down. If you do not have a well-trained ear, then you might like to use a digital tuner to check the exact deviation from perfect pitch.
This is where I made my first mistake. I seldom play with other musicians, let alone those who have pitch-perfect hearing, and using a digital tuner sent be off on an unnecessary and painstaking process of minutely adjusting the saddle under each string to eliminate the intonation problems. I have since realised that this was misguided because perfect intonation at the 12th fret does not guarantee that notes played anywhere else on the guitar will be true. I also realised that if the guitar sounded in tune to me then that was all I needed.
If the note at the 12th fret is sharp, you need to adjust the saddle to increase the string length. You do this by carefully filing matter off the front of the saddle edge facing the keyboard so that the point of contact with the string moves backwards and thus minutely increases the string length between saddle and nut. You do the opposite if the note is sounding flat. You have to file the saddle very carefully, with several checks against the up-to-pitch note at the 12th to ensure that you do not overcompensate.
When I built my classical guitar, I spent time adjusting the saddle for each string only to find that when I changed strings the intonation was suddenly a problem again. String type and tension play a major role and, in my case, I changed from Augustine hard tension to D’Addario medium tension. So, I made adjustments to the saddle again only to find out that relative humidity also plays a role, and by then my saddle was looking very wavy. Eventually, I had to replace it, sand it down, and use it on another guitar.
I learned later that intonation problems can also be caused by poor or worn strings as well as alterations to saddle height. So, if your strings are getting old then the intonation will go out a little and if you change your guitar’s action by lowering or raising the saddle then the intonation will also go out. Neck relief can also affect intonation, and intonation down the length of the keyboard can also be addressed by compensating at the nut, but this is of little practical value to a player who is not also a luthier of sorts.
Here is what I eventually decided is the way to do it:
Settle on action, the make of string and tension, and only then check intonation. Then, make minimal adjustments to the saddle. I only adjust the saddle under the G-string, as this is usually the most problematic.
The result for me is a guitar that sounds very good to my ear wherever I play it… but I do not have perfect pitch and my ears are nearly 70 years old. But, I believe that all that really matters, for a non-professional, is that the guitar sounds in tune to the player.