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.
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’.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
I stopped playing the guitar for many years because of arthritis in my left-hand fingers. I started to take daily vitamin and mineral supplements and about 3 years ago I was able to return to playing.
I don’t overdo it and usually play for only 30 minutes or less each day, but of late the pain has returned with a vengeance. Only my 1st and 4th fingers (left-hand index and pinkie) are affected. Both sometimes lock-up when I am playing and the pinkie is always swollen and stiff. I am treating the condition as best I can and I thought it might be helpful to share some of the ‘remedies’ I have read of or personally applied.
People on the various classical guitar fora recommend two external interventions:
Consult a medical specialist so that she can diagnose the condition and prescribe appropriately. I have not done this myself yet because of the high costs involved in specialist consultations and prescription medication, but I may well do so if I can’t alleviate the condition in other ways. I am taking an alkalising agent (base powder) regularly to get my body acid level down. I am hoping that this will ease the inflammation in the joints.
Consult an experienced guitar teacher to check your technique and the pressure you apply when playing. Again, I have not followed this advice because of the paucity of good classical guitar teachers in my area.
Every so often, I take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, but I don’t want to do this too often because of the risk of damaging the stomach lining. I have found that externally applied anti-inflammatory gel is next to useless for joint pain.
Some folk recommend Curcumin (Tumeric) with Piperine (Black Pepper) as a herbal anti-inflammatory and I am currently experimenting with this.
A common piece of advice I have read is to practice for short periods but very regularly. I practice for only 30 minutes every day and so can’t cut down on this and still hope to make progress as a player.
Warming up the hands before playing is also something others recommend and I have found it very beneficial to soak my hands in very warm water for a couple of minutes just before I play.
Warm-up hand and finger exercises also help. If I attempt to play complex pieces before warming up with simple exercises (scales etc.) then I invariably pay the price within minutes.
One blogger I read suggested changing the guitar configuration – lower tension strings and lower action, or even using a guitar with a shorter string scale length.
There doesn’t seem to be any greater wisdom out there on offer for classical guitar-playing arthritis sufferers like me, so I hope that this little list of possibilities may help those who also find arthritis a pain.
I found this article on the Delcamp Classical Guitar Forum. The late John Gilbert was a well-known builder of classical guitars who then devoted his time to the production of his line of tuners, while his son William continued the Gilbert tradition of high quality concert guitars. Gilbert guitars have been used by David Russel, David Leisner, George Sakellariou, David Tanenbaum, Frederic Hand, Earl Klugh, Raphaella Smits, and many others.
I have edited out some of the more technical details to make it more suitable for beginner to intermediate level guitarists.
“How do I choose a good guitar?” After years of hearing this query I decided,
several years ago, to write a brief outline of those things that are pertinent to the question. At the same time I decided that this guide could serve as a format for the lectures I give on this subject. I would like to share that outline with you now and then proceed to a more detailed discussion of some of the points it raises.
How to Select a Guitar
The four areas to look into are:
2. Action and feel
3. Condition and construction
The most important of these is Sound: That’s what the guitar is all about
…sound. There are several ways to check for sound:
a. Bring a good sounding guitar for comparison.
b. Bring along a friend with a good ear who can also play.
c. When testing guitars do it outdoors or if that isn’t possible, do it in the largest room you can find.
The important facets of overall sound quality are:
1. Timbre. (Quality of the individual tones.)
2. Balance. (Trebles must match bass.)
3. Separation. (The clarity with which individual tones can be distinguished in a
4. Sustain. (The rate of decay of a tone after it is struck.)
Always remember that sound can rarely be greatly improved in a guitar without tremendous expense.
Action and Feel.
Action is the height of the strings above the fret and fingerboard. Feel pertains to those features that comprise the playability of a guitar other than the action, such as: neck size and shape; string length; string spacing and location from the edges of the fingerboard; body shape. Actions can usually be corrected at moderate expense. Other than reducing fingerboard width and neck size, little else can sensibly be done to change the feel.
Condition and Construction.
If the guitar is new, then examine it for clean construction inside the body and
carefully tap around the face and back to check for broken struts. Check for depressed or swollen face. See if the bridge is on tightly. Check the condition of the neck and frets. If the guitar is old, examine it for the above conditions plus cracks in the face, back, sides, neck-to-body joint, head-to-neck joint, purfling and centerjoint of the back. Also examine the tuning machines for worn gears or sloppy installation.
Let the buyer beware! Know the seller! Ask about a guarantee. Shopmaround. Remember the most costly guitar isn’t always the best. Think about re-sale.
Loudness. If you intend to give recitals and concerts in large halls, you had better be sure that the guitar you choose projects well. The best place to test for this is outdoors. If weather deters you, the second best method is to use an auditorium, gymnasium, or a church. Lacking all of the above, use the largest room you can find. When making this test and, for that matter, all test pertaining to sound, it helps to have a proven guitar along (or several) to use as a basis for comparison and, naturally, someone to play for you and to listen while you play. If you do not plan on concertizing or if you intend to amplify electronically, loudness is not the most important factor of sound to you, but all other sound qualities will be. So at this time, with guitar in hand, let us test for them.
Timbre is purely subjective, so that what sounds great to me may not impress you at all. However, the instrument must have a tone quality that truly satisfies you, or you will not enjoy playing it no matter what other attributes it may have.
Balance. This I prefer to think of as mostly an objective test because if either the treble or bass end is weak, it will be very noticeable heard at a distance. Be sure to test for this by barring each fret from the first to the twelfth because some guitars have weaknesses more pronounced in certain areas of the fingerboard than others.
Separation (or clarity) is, to a great degree, a quality that goes untested by most players because it is such a difficult and elusive feature to listen for. When a guitar has loudness, good timbre and balance, it is hard to remind yourself to really listen to chords to see if you can hear individual tones (like a good barbershop quartet) or only a glob of sound.
Sustain. Some guitars have an even output of sound and will appear to have good sustain, whereas a guitar with a robust or popping initial output of sound will seem to have less sustain. Therefore, when comparing guitars set a metronome at some fast tempo and count the beats from pluck (or pick) to silence. Some interesting facts will emerge by trying this with different guitars. As to the amount of sustain, all tones on the guitar should have some, with the lowest tones having more than the higher tones.
Wake Up the Soundbox
One word of advice about testing guitars: be sure to play the instrument for at least ten minutes or more before testing in order to “wake up” the soundbox. This is particularly true for spruce-faced guitars. Cedar faces are less likely to require this.
Intonation is included as a branch of sound quality because if the guitar doesn’t play in tune it sounds bad. Fortunately, you can check for fretting accuracy and saddle and nut placement. If errors are found, they can be easily corrected by any competent repair person.
There are several ways to test for tonal accuracy. Let us start with one that many of you are familiar with. Play each string at the 12th fret. Then strike the 12th fret harmonic. These should be identical in pitch. If they are, it tells us only that the maker placed the saddle correctly. If all six strings play sharp, it tells us that the saddle wasn’t set back far enough. If all strings play flat, it tells us that the saddle is set too far back. The cure for either of these conditions is to have the saddle or nut reshaped or repositioned. Again, a repair person should be consulted. Keep in mind that faulty strings can also sound either sharp or flat, but never all six in the same direction. So you should be able to rule out the occasional bad string.
Another important topic for discussion is the action of the guitars. It is possible to mechanically check to see if yours has a good one. Here is a simple and effective test.Depress the strings one at a time at the 1st fret without sounding the note. Measure the height from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of each string, using a steel ruler with .010” graduations.
The readings should be:
1st string, .100” to .115”
2nd string, .110” to .120”
3rd string, .120” to .130”
4th string, .125” to .135”
5th string, .130” to .140”
6th string, .135” to .145”
These readings are for classical guitars. The lower readings constitute a low action and the higher readings, a normal action. Anything higher would indicate a high action. Keep in mind that the required action height will vary for different players due to two things: one, the player’s attack style and two, how hard he /she plays the strings. Also, these readings do not take into account the fret condition or the straightness of the fingerboard.
Arranged by Miguel Llobet (1878–1938), from Canciones populares Catalanas.
Miguel Llobet Solés (18 October 1878 – 22 February 1938) was born in Barcelona, Spain and was a renowned virtuoso. He made arrangements of Catalan folk songs for the solo guitar, as well as arrangements for the guitar of the piano compositions of Isaac Albéniz.
Performed by David Russell
HERE is the music for this Intermediate/Advanced piece:
And HERE is a lesson by Bradford Werner on how to play it
What follows is an extract from an article by Renato Bellucci on his mangore.com website. Renato is both an accomplished classical guitarist and a luthier. Over the years, he has come in for some severe criticism regarding the quality and value of his guitars, but there is no doubt that he has a deep understanding of both the instrument and performing on it.
Here is his advice concerning performing before an audience.
‘Advice I have and a lot has been written about the practical things we can do in order to give a good recital. These are some of the things I learned and apply to me.
DO NOT PLAY A PIECE OF MUSIC IN PUBLIC UNTIL YOU LIKE IT IN PRIVATE. Do not think for a second that the mistake/s we make while practising won’t appear on stage. They will FOR SURE.
PLAY MUSIC YOU REALLY LIKE and avoid competitions unless this point and the previous one are ok and make sure you go there to win and not to learn. Everyone knows who the winner is after the first round is over… the rest is meeting the scheduled dates. Learning should be left for practice time, not for competitions and as Berlioz once said: “Competitions are for horses, not for musicians”.
REMEMBER THAT ONLY 0.5% of the public will notice a mistake unless you put a TAG on it (like saying I am sorry).
99.9% of the people attending are there to cheer you up, make sure you are one of them.
If a PRO is there, you are lucky.
START THE PROGRAM WITH THE PIECE OR PIECES YOU ARE TOTALLY FAMILIAR WITH. In other words, start-off with the right foot, unless you are in for the thrill of your life.
IF FOR ANY REASON YOU DECIDE THE CONDITIONS ARE NOT RIGHT FOR A GIVEN PIECE, SKIP THE PIECE. Trust your feelings, nobody gets a receipt on the way in or out of a concert hall.
CHANGE THE STRINGS AT LEAST 3 DAYS BEFORE A CONCERT.
IT’S PERFECTLY OKTO HAVE YOUR SCORES ON STAGE.
YOU ARE NOT THERE TO IMPRESS ANYBODY.
REST ON THE DAY OF THE CONCERT, even better, have a great time, laugh a lot!
ENJOY THE MOMENT and make your own personal list.
LOOK FORWARD TO A BAD REVIEW, It’s better than no review at all and you were at least worth the ink’.
I thought I would include you in a part of my musical journey. One of the pieces I love to play is Nocturne No 2 Op 4 by the 19th-century composer, teacher, and virtuoso J.K Mertz.
The piece is written for lower intermediate players (what I have classified as Advanced Transitional) and is usually deemed too simple for concert performers to include in their programmes. However, it may be simple to read and to play badly, but it is far from simple to play cleanly and melodically.
Here is a recording I downloaded from the internet by a Cristobal Selame that sounds more or less how I play it.
Born in 1975 (Belgium), Jan Depreter is considered as one of the most remarkable guitar players of our time. Discovering music at the age of 5, he had to wait 3 more years for Santa Claus to introduce him to his first guitar; an encounter which would result in a lifelong passion for the instrument. Three times Jan graduated Summa Cum Laude for guitar, from the Lemmens Instituut of Leuven and the Royal Conservatories of Antwerp (BE) and The Hague (NL), where he studied with Zoran Dukic. He perfected his art with David Russell and Manuel Barrueco. (Taken from his website http://jandepreter.com)