Tips for Better Classical Guitar Playing

Every week I search the internet for material that could instruct, inform or inspire intermediate level classical guitarist like myself.

It is getting harder and harder to find material that I haven’t already included in my site content at some time or another. My main sources have dried up considerably of late, but I guess that folk like Simon Powis and Bradford Werner are so well known that most amateur players subscribe directly to their sites and don’t need me to curate their material.

In my search this week I rediscovered classicalsuitar.org and although it appears to have been dormant since 2018, its content remains useful. In 2009 Christopher Davis wrote a post entitled 21 Tips for Better Guitar Playing. Most, if not all 21 ideas are covered, often in more detail, by other bloggers and teachers, but it is handy to have them all together in one concise form. So, it’s worth reading through his list at https://www.classicalguitar.org/2009/11/21-tips-for-better-guitar-playing/ and then spending some time viewing his other offerings. Thank you Chris.

 

Milos Karadaglic favourite CG pieces

ClassicFM recently interviewed Mios Karadaglic and asked him to speak about his five all-time favourite guitar pieces. They are Astorias, Concerto de Aranjuez, Koyunbaba, Lute Suite No 2 in C min, and Blackbird (not realy a classical guitar piece).

Three of the five are very well known, but Koyunbaba by Domeniconi and Blackbird by the Beatles may be less familiar to many.  Here they are played by Milos himself.

VLOG

 

A Vlog is a fairly recent use of youtube and other video platforms. The word ‘vlog’ is an abbreviation of ‘video blog’ and it is really just the visual equivalent of a normal blog post.

Matthew McAllister  has been vlogging for a while now as part of his youtube channel .

The other day I came across a new classical guitar vlog by Merce Font  that looks promising – have a look and see if its helpful.

 

Allan Mathews and Matthew McAllister on Barre Technique

Allan writes; ‘Bar chords are strenuous.  They take strength and endurance.  They are hard to get right and easy to get wrong. But there are ways to make them more likely to work.  If we use our bodies well, bar chords can be, if not comfortable, at least doable’.

It’s hard to execute Barre technique correctly and I have found them very difficult in certain positions. So, any help with this appreciated… Thanks, Allan and Matthew

 

Alex Tsiboulski plays Vals No 4 Op 8 by Barrios

 

I found this stimulating performance on The GSI site. Alex was born in the Ukranian, but he now lives in Australia. It’s not just his face and body that is expressive because this extends to the way he phrases and performs the music. A truly accomplished classical guitarist.

You can find many of his performances HERE

Some current classical guitar compositions

 

Some time ago, I exchanged emails with Jim Giddings of Denton, Texas. Jim composes music for classical guitar, much of it with a decidedly Latin American flavour. The difficulty level of his pieces is mainly Intermediate with a few more suitable for the advanced beginner.

All his music is available free of charge and HIS SITE  is worth visiting to browse through his collections. To get an idea of what his compositions sound like, go HERE.

A pleasant discovery called ChordU

Thanks to an article in GuitarTalk I became aware of ChordU, a new site developed and managed by Bitan Sardar. In his words, it is a powerful engine that ‘automatically recognizes chords for any song using cutting edge technology.’

More specifically, ChordU ‘uses a complex music analysis algorithm which is mainly based on waveform analysis, beat tracking, spectrogram analysis and machine learning’.

In essence, ChordU consists of a powerful search engine that accesses the YouTube database, fetches the music video in question, and then accurately analyses the chords played. So, all one needs to do is enter the YouTube URL of a particular video, or search criteria such as title, composer, musician, and so on.

At first glance it looks like it is geared to pop or jazz music and the like, but it is just as good at taking classical guitar (CG) performances and analysing them in just a few seconds. Sometimes I need to work out the chords for a piece of CG music either because I don’t have access to the score or to TABS, or because it’s hard to determine what chords the composer has employed in the piece. Once I know what chords are in play then I can develop the melody, harmony and base lines. When I am working with a score, then a knowledge of the chords helps me to decide on fingering and the flow and movement of the piece. ChordU is very helpful in both these applications.

The site layout is simple and clean and the functionality largely intuitive, so the best way to learn about it is just to play with it. However, just as a brief introduction, here are some of the things you can do with ChordU:

Once you enter your search words or URL, the programme immediately presents a list of results. It either displays a line of the chords used, or a button designated ‘Extract Chords’ next to each entry on the list. Simply click on your choice and if the system already knows the chords then a new screen immediately appears . A confirmation popup appears if it needs to analyse the chords used for the first time. Within a few seconds, it’s done the job and the full screen presents.

On this main screen, you see the video playing, the chord chart diagrams (synced to the music), and a whole bunch of options. These options enable you to change the tempo, the key, the screen layout, whether you want to display simple or advanced chords, and a download facility (and other features to save, share, and so on).

I enjoy playing ‘Evocation’ so I typed ‘Jose Luis Merlin’ into the search box. Here are the first five results displayed.

I then clicked on the performance by Soren Madsen (5th on the list), clicked ‘Okay’ on the popup, and the main screen displayed. I selected the option (middle right) to change the layout and here is what I got:

I will leave the rest for you to discover, but I am delighted with it. Have fun!

Silent Night, Holy Night

 

Played by Rafael Scarfullery

Here is one version of the story of the birth of this famous Christmas carol, taken from allaboutromance.com

‘On Christmas Eve of 1818 the young priest of St. Nicholas parish church in Obendorf faced disaster. The organ had been incapacitated by mice. The chance of fixing the instrument before the evening service was nil. Father Joseph Mohr was not a man to just give up however. He pulled out a poem he had written several years before called “Stille Nacht”. Mohr took his poem to the schoolmaster and organist of a nearby town, Franz Xaver Gruber. He asked that Gruber write a melody to accompany the poem on guitar. In several hours, Gruber had the music done and the carol was played for the first time that night at the Christmas Eve service.

The song was not translated into English for another 50 years. Episcopalian bishop John Freeman Young published the English translation that is most frequently sung today in 1859. The writing of the song is unique enough but one other interesting factoid makes this carol special. In 1914, during the Christmas truce, the song was sung in French, English and German simultaneously. It was apparently the one song that all the soldiers on both sides knew’.

And HERE is Douglas Niedt’s arrangement and rendition of this historic piece of music. Douglas has also made other Christmas music available free on his site www.douglasniedt.com.

Be blessed this Christmas season

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Free Classical Guitar Music Scores – Update

In March 2018 I gave a short list of six sites that I have used to access music for the classical guitar. Here are a further two sites plus an additional Delcamp page.

Mutopia Project

393 free to download, modify, print, copy, distribute, perform, and record – all in the Public Domain or under Creative Commons licenses, in PDF, MIDI, and editable LilyPond file formats.

delcamp.net

Another page in the delcamp offering of free CG music in .pdf format. It also has an extensive list of works arranged in alphabetical order by composer.

Museopen.org

596 pieces of music, collections, primers, and books. By clicking on one of the five column headings you can sort by either Title, Composer, Form, Period, or Rating.

For those who missed the first list and want everything in one place, here I the sites previously provided:

www.classclef.com

This site lists over 4,600 pieces in .pdf format. There is no real difficulty grading system but it does list 1,173 pieces as ‘easy’. Some of the pieces have a difficulty indicator when you click on the actual selection; for instance, Tarrega’s Lagrima is marked ‘Grade 4 Late Intermediate’.

www.thisisclassicalguitar.com

Bradford Werner has provided a nice, but by no means comprehensive, selection of graded pieces. The added value of this site is that he provides video lessons for most of the pieces listed.

www.imslp.org

The Petrucci Music Library contains a huge database of public domain music for all instruments. It is not easy to browse this collection, but the search facilities are adequate if you are looking for a composer or a particular piece. For instance, a search for ‘Tarrega’ yields 51 pieces and a search for ‘Largrima’ yields no less than 7 available transcriptions. Unfortunately, there are no indications of playing difficulty. However, you could use www.guitarburst.com in conjunction with this site for most free guitar scores.

www.8notes.com

This site has over 600 scores, with basic difficulty level indicators, and an online synthesised audio/visual playback facility. However, it only allows a few views/downloads per every 24 hours unless you take out a paid subscription to the site

www.classical-guitar-school.com

A reasonably good range of free music scores as well as methods and collections, but this is the site of the Guitar School of Iceland and so the commercial sections contain a lot more material for which you will have to pay if you want to download them.

www.delcamp.net

This site is more than just a forum and contains sections of graded classical guitar music. The drawback is that you have to become an active member of the forum in order to access most of these collections. In addition, the choice of music tends more towards the Baroque than anything else.

The tone of a classical guitar

By Christopher Peppler

“The concept of tonewood is a hoax. Of the few things that we can do to a guitar and still call it a guitar, changing the wood it is made of will have the least impact upon the quality of the sound that it produces.”

Those are not my words, they were written by John Calkin in American Lutherie #69.  John built musical instruments professionally for nearly 40 years. From what I can gather, John has made mainly steel string guitars and classical guitars do have their own particular sound profiles, but his opinion should never the less be taken seriously.

Almost everything I have read elsewhere contradicts what John believes. Conventional wisdom holds that the wood chosen for the top is the ‘single overriding variable that determines the quality of tone of a finished instrument’.   Bradford Werner, a guitar player and teacher I respect, makes the following generalisations concerning Spruce versus Cedar guitar tops :

‘I find that spruce has a very direct sound with a golden bell-like sound. It is maybe a bit more clear, balanced, and sometimes has more sustain’ and ‘I find cedar guitars to be warmer, darker, and fuller sounding than spruce guitars’. Others describe the sound produced by spruce tops as pure and bold, while cedar tops produce harmonic and ringing tones’.

And of course, different guitarists and luthiers have opinions on the tonal qualities of the wood selected for back and sides. Rosewood is said to have a good bass response, maple has a clear treble response, and walnut produces a textured, earthy sound… and so on.

However, in the same article, Bradford quotes Marcus Dominelli posting on Delcamp Guitar forum that puts the matter into proper perspective. He writes;

 ‘It’s possible to generalize between spruce and cedar if you’re comparing them built in the same style, for example, fan braced cedar to fan braced spruce. But just don’t start comparing a spruce fan braced to cedar lattice, or a cedar double top!! I think it’s pretty well agreed upon that spruce tends to sound a bit crisper, with better separation and definition. Cedar tends to be warmer and darker in sound quality. But I’m continually told that in blind tests most people cannot tell them apart!! So I think we sometimes hear what we expect hear. In the end a good guitar is a good guitar, regardless of the woods used.’

So, if not just the wood, then what are the main contributors to classical guitar tone?

Obviously, the strings are the prime source of the sound that the instrument will ultimately produce. The quality and tension of the strings make a huge difference to tone; just change an old set for a quality new set to hear this. However, put that same set of new strings on a solid body guitar without amplification and the sound they make is pathetic.

A year ago, I undertook what I called my Beater Project. I bought a new $50 (RSA R700) classical guitar off the internet and then set about trying to make it sound like a $500 guitar. The idea was to modify but not remake. The top, back and sides were 3mm Basswood 3-ply; the saddle and nut were plastic, the soundboard was finished with a thick mixture of varnish and wood stain, and the strings were possibly the most inferior I had ever encountered.

I started by taking off the strings and then scrapping all the gunky varnish off the top and sanding it down. Then I applied a coat of polyurethane clear varnish and levelled all the frets. Next, I replaced the cheap plastic nut and saddle with bone, restrung with good medium tension strings and adjusted the action. A rosette I made from exotic wood veneers, a strip to decorate the bridge, and the job was done. The difference in tone? Huge! The point of this blow-by-blow account is to demonstrate the few things the average guitar owner can easily do to improve tone.

The folk at Graphtech obviously focus on the importance of strings in combination with nut and saddle. They write ‘The saddle allows appropriate frequencies to go from the string to the soundboard (to make tone) and stops others from going through easily (to make sustain). It’s the perfect mix of these two elements that create the sound we look for.’ However, they go on to point out that the soundboard has a lot to do with how the guitar sounds; ‘The soundboard’s ability and efficiency depend on its shape, thickness, mass distribution, and grain pattern – as well as the characteristics of the bridge and how the bracing on the underside is glued.’ They also acknowledge that the air in the body of the guitar is excited by the string vibrations transmitted through the top and influence both the volume and tone of the sound produced.

Now we are in the domain of guitar design and the skill of the luthier. Here are a few of the many considerations that a skilled guitar builder takes into account:

Choice of top wood – wood type and stiffness, evenness of grain, age, bracing, and finish (varnish, polyurethane, or French polish).

String scale length –  the length of string between nut and saddle has an influence on volume and tone.

Bridge and Saddle – the size of the bridge has a small influence on the tone and the nut material has a big influence.

Neck – the density of the neck wood and even the size and weight of the headstock can make a small difference to the tone.

Body – wood selection and thickness for back and sides makes a difference, as does solid wood versus laminates. In addition, the volume of air contained in the body (size of the soundbox) influences the volume and sometimes even tone. Even the inner surfaces of the body can affect sound production (shape, smoothness, glue residue).

So, in reality, it is the intricate construction and interaction of the various components that produce the tonal qualities of the instrument. Then add to that the way the guitar is played, the room in which it is played, plus the hearing imperfections of the player and audience and we have the final tone of the guitar. Oh, and then there is the matter of changing humidity, ageing wood, string fatigue and so on.

Bottom line: Good guitar makers produce guitars with good tone, sustain, and volume. Great luthiers produce guitars with exceptional sound qualities. But, I have only built one guitar from scratch and I am not even a particularly good player. However, like every classical guitar enthusiast I have encountered, I know what I like and I have a favourite guitar among several. Mine happens to be the one I made, and that probably says volumes about the subjectivity of it all.