Reflections on Learning Classical Guitar

Why the guitar? It’s a quiet, harmonically-limited, high-maintenance instrument compared to the piano, its chief polyphonic rival. The guitar has to be retuned daily, if not hourly, and restrung every month or two. It can play only four or, at a push, five notes simultaneously, whereas the piano can play up to ten. However, the guitar is by far my preferred instrument to play and to listen to.

In my more cynical moments, the piano seems a poor emotionless substitute for a full orchestra. It is far too mechanised. Most of the time, a guitarist needs two fingers to play one note, and the sound produced will be almost totally dependent on how the guitarist does this. The guitar therefore has a much greater variety of sounds, even if it lacks the orchestral scope of the piano. The piano, on the other hand, has just one attack, the hammer, variable only very slightly, and is incapable of glissandi, most harmonics, vibrato, and so on.

There is in fact a rich history of piano-bashing, particularly back when the modern piano was perceived as a great vulgariser. One shouldn’t take this too seriously, but Berlioz, a guitarist himself, in his excellent Memoirs goes on an enjoyable little rant about the great corrupting effect the piano was having on orchestral writing. Concluding, he writes that ‘the piano, for the orchestral writer, is a guillotine that severs the head of noble and of churl with the same impartial indifference’!

Perhaps it is a blessing of sorts, then, that the guitar isn’t quite manipulable enough to emulate full orchestral scores. It makes it a humbler and more intimate instrument, and one which the player has to exercise a much greater degree of control over. This is why it takes more learning than the piano to play tolerably.

The lute was once preferred over the keyboard, until at some point in the Baroque period. The instrument perhaps reached its peak in the first half of the seventeenth century, or there about — certainly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were when it was most prominent — and then its use rapidly declined. It was possibly its own doing, becoming an impossibly high maintenance instrument, with over a dozen courses (double strings) becoming commonplace. It faced extinction in the Classical era, but thankfully it was revived as part of the 20th century Early Music revival, and now you may well have better chance finding a lute recital in London than a guitar recital.

It’s a common mistake, however, to think the guitar is a child of the lute. The guitar is more a descendant of the vihuela, a Spanish instrument contemporary to the lute. It died out quicker than the lute but was superseded by the Baroque guitar, though it was more of a continuo instrument than a solo polyphonic instrument. Here are two Fantasias by Mudarra played on a Vihuela.

The guitar today owes a lot to Fernando Sor’s innovations during the Classical era. His compositions are not especially interesting musically but their pedagogical use has survived centuries. (His contemporary, Mauro Giuliani, is also worth exploring. I find his work more fun too, particularly his guitar concertos.) Julian Arcas, Francisco Tarrega and then Heitor Villa Lobos kept it alive during the Romantic era and into the 20th century. The guitar became a more common instrument, however, when gut strings were — forgive me for this — gutted, and the instrument actually held its tuning thanks to nylon strings. Segovia had popularised the guitar before then and continued to after, but in many ways his death liberated players from his dictatorial and sometimes incorrect pedagogy. The other twentieth century guitarist probably most worth mentioning, especially from a British perspective, is Julian Bream, for whom much of modern guitar music was written. Probably the most famous of which (and justly so) is the Nocturnal after John Dowland by Benjamin Britten, which is based on a song by English lutenist John Dowland, Come Heavy Sleep. The song melody emerges sublimely at the end. Here’s Bream playing the second half of the work:

I imagine a lot of this is as new to many readers as it was to me. From about 10-18 years old (that is, a few years ago) I was an electric guitarist. In that time I did Grade 8 electric guitar and much more importantly Grade 8 theory. Following a few years of not playing, having become terrifically unsatisfied and upset about music, I picked up the classical guitar after having almost miraculously discovered classical music. There were many factors influencing this, but having developed a love for classical music on my own, the internet was my primary means of discovery, and I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the importance of one blog, The Music Salon, whose author’s biography I found very encouraging. He made the transition from electric guitar to classical guitar at around 20, a similar age to me, albeit some decades ago, and became a very accomplished professional guitarist. I’m not sure I aspire for, or am capable of, the latter, but when considering whether to take up the classical guitar I had many doubts, as ridiculous as they may sound, about being too old to be any good at it.

Anyway, what I wanted to note is that the electric guitar does not in fact share the traditions of the classical guitar. You may be able to trace it back to the vihuela, but the electric guitar’s more obvious predecessors are the 19th century steel-string folk guitar and the banjo. It is something of a historical coincidence that the electric guitar seemed to be developed and popularised at the same time as the modern classical guitar, during the early-mid twentieth century.

So transitioning from electric to classical not only presents technical difficulties but also even greater cultural difficulties. You are inheriting a different tradition, such that the feel of the music, the performance practises, the nature of the score and improvisation, and the role of the guitar (the electric guitar is always part of a band, for instance) differ profoundly. Nevertheless, going from electric guitar or acoustic guitar to classical, despite the necessity of much unlearning, is still beneficial. You already have an interest in playing music in an era where that urge has withered. Why bother learning to play music when a five-inch slab of plastic can play all the music you’d ever want for you? In some ways, I’m grateful to have begun learning before the birth of Spotify, when music was not as omnipresent and music libraries not nearly as voluminous.

The thing about the electric guitar, also, is that it tends to attract talent, as its repertoire and style is often much more challenging and accomplished than other popular instruments. A metal guitarist in particular will know their phrygian mode from their lydian, can play scales and arpeggios with rapid precision, have a grasp of some degree of rhythmic complexity, and will be very capable improvisers. (With the popularity of this instrument and considering the sizeable minority of its players who are genuinely skilled and disciplined, a mass exodus to classical guitar is not an altogether impossible dream…)

All that said, the chasm between electric and classical is still great. Just to begin with, the classical guitar neck is like grabbing an elephant’s leg — so different to the narrow, slender neck of an electric. Your fingers don’t know quite where to go. All those habits from electric guitar playing — the left thumb hooked around the neck, the long left-hand stretches, the flexible postures, the devious ability to cloak mistakes with distortion — just get in the way. This is not even to mention the disconcerting switch from plectrum to fingers and the switch from single-voice to multiple-voice playing.

This is all such that, though I was a quite good electric guitar player, I’m a more clumsy, amateur classical one. Several wrong notes on electric guitar and it can still be a great performance. Several wrong notes while playing a Scarlatti sonata, say, and you’ve buggered up bigly. Classical instruments are naked things whose colour and dignity and beauty depend on who dresses them. With an electric guitar, the amplifier does most of that for you, and can easily cover up the blemishes. Though to my ear now, the lack of a human touch is painfully obvious.

The most useful classical guitar exercises I’ve found are those that deal with tone and balance. Scales and arpeggios are absolutely essential to make one an accurate player, but accuracy cannot make dull playing enchanting. For one exercise I just sit and play a B minor chord, for instance — B F# B D — and each time I try to accent a different note. This is much harder than you would think. But particular stuff like this is vital to learning the guitar: we may not have the sheer number of notes available and complexity that a piano has, but ours is by far a more expressive instrument.

The other problem is reading scores. Pieces for electric guitar grades will generally have two staves: the top one in musical notation, the bottom one in tablature. For me, this meant I read the tabs for the notes and the score for the rhythm. As anyone switching from rock to classical guitar will likely find that their playing will be much faster than their ability to read scores. Nevertheless, it’s worth the struggle. That sense of accomplishment when you learn a great piece is unlike any other. And in an era of low-attention spans, one where I included struggle to read books without very quickly and regularly distracting myself, it is strange and marvellous that I’m able to spend hours with the guitar without even the fear of distraction.


The final thing I want to do is recommend some resources and works for newcomers to the guitar, particularly those migrating from another instrument. The stuff that comes to mind:

  • The two books most helpful to me were Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon and Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing. Study those and you’ll have a solid foundation of guitar technique. (If anyone has other recommendations, please do say.)
  • Concerning repertoire, Fernando Sor’s studies are excellent, as everyone will tell you. Starting out, something like Luys Milan’s Pavanas are quite good. (However, the tempos are much faster than one initially thinks. In mensural notation the lowest value was the semifusa, the semiquaver or sixteenth note. So although a pavana is not a fast dance, I play the pieces as if the notes were half the value, otherwise it’s like a bloody dirge.) A lot of John Dowland’s work is manageable for someone of modest ability (though, of course, some of it really isn’t). One of the first pieces I learnt was Flow My Tears, which is the song version of his famous Lachrimae.
  • Some general tips are to explore the entire guitar, play ponticello (at the bridge) not just under or around the soundhole, play with a footstall or leg rest as much as possible and resist the temptation to slouch on the sofa with the guitar in hand, keep a contained and controlled right-hand and left-hand position (unlike the wild leaps of electric guitar), practise loads of finger-independence exercises, and don’t abandon your ‘a’ (ring) finger.
  • Read about music as much as possible. Even if it doesn’t seem relevant, reading people like Charles Rosen, say, will make one a better musician.
  • Also eat loads of jelly cubes and for goodness sake don’t use emery boards for filing your nails! (I use a glass file and P1200 sandpaper).

The last piece I learnt was John Dowland’s Frog Galliard, quite a popular piece for guitar. It’s probably of about intermediate skill. The fast runs are easier than they might initially seem (though that doesn’t mean I don’t frequently muck them up). The story goes that there was a ugly and petite dancer in Elizabeth I’s court with a face ruined by pox and an oversized nose. But boy was he a good dancer, favoured by Elizabeth for a time, and she referred to him as her ‘frog’. A galliard, by the way, was a dance in six beats popular in the Renaissance, appropriately characterised by a lot of leaping and jumping. Here’s a video:

Buffy, 20 Years On

(Beware, some spoilers follow.)

Well, fewer than 10 years on for some of us. Having first been introduced to it by Dad when I was a mere whipper-snapper, I fell utterly in love the show. (This isn’t, by the way, the reason for the blog name.) Like so many, I’ve watched it several times since, and God willing, I’ll watch it several times more. Yes, there is a tendency to have a rose-tinted view of the show. The first season is good, but not great, and suffered especially for its tedious synthesised background music (though I’m unusually sensitive to this). It also had no profound or dazzling episodes, and that sarcastic, clever banter wasn’t quite fully developed. There are also many very weak story arcs throughout its seven seasons: the Buffy-Riley romance, the creation of the cyborg Adam, and to be quite honest, the whole battle against the First thing never did it for me.

But what made Buffy so remarkable was that it gave us some of the most exceptional single episodes ever to flicker to before our eyes, and characters whose rise and fall, whose wealth of idiosyncrasies, were magnetic to watch.

The moment the show got really good was when Spike came on. His character was the most transformative and the most transformed — but most all, he epitomised cool. Here’s the moment:

But that kind of theatrical fun is not the main reason Buffy is loved. Death, for instance, was handled masterly on the show — and main characters, characters you came to love, were far from unkillable. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes was when Buffy found her mother, sprawled out on the sofa, dead. The clip below doesn’t quite give you the full impact. There are some wonderful moments cut, such as when Buffy opens the backdoor and hears the birds and wind and the sounds of life going on — of normality — and that moment lingers for so long, and so painfully. You realise that, yes, this is a fantasy world of vampires and demons, but it’s still authentically our world, one where death still happens for no reason, honour or purpose.

An episode everyone remembers is Hush. The Gentlemen — hideously frightening levitating demons in immaculate suits — have come to Sunnyville and removed everyone’s ability to speak. The episode proceeds, essentially, in silence. It doesn’t get more stylish (not to mention scary) than this:

Ah, but the Buffy episode that might one up this is the opposite of silence — it’s the musical episode. A demon — this time a red one, though still with an immaculate suit — comes to Sunnyville and makes it so that everyone bursts into song. There is, of course, a catch: eventually one sings too much and bursts into flames. But before then, how marvellous it is! I’m not partial to this style of music — the over-the-top show-stopping power-pop kind — but some of the songs are really quite intelligent, and all enjoyable to hear and watch.

This song has everything: ridiculous monsters, odd musical transitions, amusing choreography, the best pun ever by Giles (‘she needs backup!), and a devastatingly sad ending. Beware, a pretty big spoiler contained in the lyrics — actually, two of them. To avoid them, stop watching before 2:20:

One invariably reads in retrospectives on Buffy discussions of its feminism. I think that’s probably fair (and I feel obliged to add that I say this even as a self-styled well-tempered reactionary). Okay, Sarah Michelle Geller as Buffy made for an extremely attractive blonde female lead, and I’d argue she wasn’t the most interesting character in the show. But none of the women are mere love interests, and all are deep complicated characters whose importance to the show is equal to any of the men, to the extent one can (or needs to) measure such things. This is to say, none are victims to be rescued — that role is reserved for the hapless yet lovable Xander, whose lack of usefulness to the gang becomes the subject of yet another of the show’s best episodes, The Zeppo.

I’m not sure how to wind this up — fans of anything are well-known for being interminable on the subject. But I do know where I wanted to end, with the theme tune, and it’s by a punk band who’s name is even more ridiculous than Buffy: Nerf Herder. Enjoy…

Sofia Gubaidulina Premiere and Scary Music

You know those times when you are made viscerally scared by a piece of music? I remember back when I was a big black metal fan, in my teenage years, I found the scariness of the music intoxicating. I’m not sure if the music is intrinsically scary. Certainly, if you listen to it very impassively, the music can sound silly — indeed, the line between what’s scary and what’s silly can be a faint one. But if you listen to black metal conscious of the dozens of church burnings, the numerous murders, the pseudo-ritualistic violent imagery, you’re likely to find the music at least a bit scary.

There is a Norweigan black metal ‘singer’, Gaahl, who infamously tortured a man in apparent ‘self-defence’ by first beating him, then collecting his blood in a cup. He did this while wearing a satanic garb and threatening to sacrifice him. The lenient Norwegian system gave him only a year in jail and a fine. This was far from the only offence he or his fellow band-members committed. In a 2004 show in Krakow a band Gaahl fronted, Gorgoroth, used nude models on crucifixes, some eighty litres of sheep blood, and sheep’s heads on stakes. These violated Polish laws against animal cruelty and religious offence. I’ll let you make your mind up whether it’s scary or silly, or both:

(He’s still a popular black metal figure today, and there’s an interesting, though somewhat over-the-top, half-four Vice documentary on him.)

Now, years later, that music has no hold on me, thank goodness. I have different values and different ears. What frightens me now is Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, whose work, for all the magnificence in it, has a sense of creeping darkness, and of constant battle. Her music is sublime, in the most religious sense — it’s scary because of the mystery in what it represents, and the intimidating musical language she uses to represent it. She is among the great twentieth-century Christian composers from the Soviet Union, from Arvo Part to Schnittke to Penderecki, whose faith was a profound and brave contrast to the totalitarian society in which they lived. Gubaidulina faced opposition from Tikhon Khrennikov, First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, who labelled her an ‘undesirible’ composer for her aesthetic and religious qualities. Offertorium, the 1980 violin concerto which gave her worldwide recognition, had to be smuggled into the West for violinist Gidon Kremer to perform, himself unpopular with the regime for his refusal to return to the Soviet Union.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the news that a new work by Gubaidulina, her Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Bayan and Orchestra, was premiered by the Boston Symphony. One of the odd things about Gubaidulina’s music is how can be borderline atonal in a way that sounds tonal. In this work, the opening notes on the cello are from the minor pentatonic scale. When she break with the scale, it’s by using a major third in a way that sounds faintly bluesy. After that you hear the signature chromatic ascents and descents of Gubaidulina’s music and the long glissandi — attempts to climb towards divinity, perhaps. There’s a terribly exciting bit at 18:19 (video below) on the bayan, a Russian accordion, that sounds like panicked breath exploding into a chromatic scream, with a long but frantic glissando descent. The main chromatic theme, heard frequently, is particularly memorable, perhaps owing to its easy symmetry — 1,2,3 ¦ 3,2,1 — although inverted and ornamented and contorted throughout. And with familiar arpeggios hovering above the dissonance, and familiar melodic leaps of tritones and fifths, the piece is much less incomprehensible than it ought to be. Perhaps this is the benefit of modernist music rooted in something more than abstraction. (Gubaidulina, however, identifies her music as ‘archaic’ not modernist.)

Anyway, those are my meagre thoughts on the piece. Well worth a listen: