Robert Johnson — Pavan No. 3 in C Minor (Guitar Transcription)

A few weeks ago I rambled on about the guitar repertoire, suggesting that we focus more on the lute and guitar music from around 1500-1750 and away from the Spanish repertoire. I suggested, among others, more Kapsberger, Zamboni and Bacheler. Now I can add another name.

Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633) — not to be confused with the African-American blues guitarist — was the last great English lutenist. As it happens, he was also the son of the first great lutenist, John Johnson. The two Johnsons essentially bookend at either side the short but fruitful Golden Age of English Lute Music. There are about twenty extant solo lute pieces by Robert Johnson. Most are almains, four are pavans, a few are galliards, and there is only one fantasie. I dare say if more survived he would be a more celebrated composer. 

His Pavan No. 3 isn’t playable on guitar from the original lute tablature, and I don’t believe it has been transcribed for guitar before — so I thought it would be good fun to try. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. (Next several sentences are purely technical, if you want to skip ahead to the video and score.) The pavan was written for 10 courses (paired strings), with the added bass notes extending the range by a fifth. Therefore I transposed the piece from C to D minor and tuned the guitar’s sixth string down to D. This way all the bass notes remain and the piece is transcribed almost note for note. (The only exception I recall is bar 29, where the inner voices of the first chord had to be removed.) Given the reduction from ten to six strings, there are a few big left-hand stretches — the biggest stretch is from the second to seventh fret (bar 12, beat 2) — but it isn’t a fast piece, and most players should have little trouble playing the piece once the fingering has been worked out. 

I like to think I am an able Sibelius user, though I will admit that formatting multiples voices on a single stave was a bit fiddly. If anyone thinks I’ve done something wrong, or scored it weirdly, please tell me and I’ll make any necessary corrections.

Here’s the PDF. Beneath the video are image files. The pavan begins at 2:40, before which is the The Prince’s Almain, also by Johnson.

Johnson Pavan 3-1

Johnson Pavan 3-2


Reforming the Guitar Repertoire

If I say ‘classical guitar repertoire’, what comes to mind? For most people it’ll be the Spanish guitarists from Sor to Villa Lobos. But while the Spanish repertoire is ever popular, it can be rather dull. I notice that the British guitarist Sean Shibe, clearly a rising star, has distanced himself from it:

My gripe with the “Spanishry” associated with the guitar is not that it is associated with the guitar, it’s that often it’s the only thing associated with the guitar – because it can be the most marketable. I always felt pushed to play that repertoire, because promoters always want something fast and flashy.

He instead looks to the 20th century British composers who, thanks to the efforts of Julian Bream, gave us a wealth of guitar music. Shibe’s album, Dreams and Fancies, can boast impressive performances of Walton, Berkeley, Arnold and Britten (alongside a couple of John Dowland fantasies).

Nevertheless, I take the opposite approach to Shibe. Learning the guitar, I’ve found that the best music for the instrument predates the modern classical guitar. The period 1497-1757 contains the most sublime music playable on guitar. (The dating, or at least the starting date, is somewhat arbitrary: from the birth of Francesco da Milano until the death of Domenico Scarlatti. 1500-1750 covers nearly everything.) First, there is the music for Renaissance lute, much of it written for a six-course lute, and pieces written for seven or eight courses are usually easy to adapt for guitar. Secondly, pieces written for the Baroque guitar, which are fewer than those for the Renaissance lute, but contain some marvellous pieces by composers such as Robert de Visée and Gasper Sanz. Thirdly, the Baroque lute repertoire, which is generally less suited to classical guitar than its Renaissance counterpart, but there are many great exceptions. And fourthly, Bach and Scarlatti, many of whose works are not only easily playable on guitar, but arguably sound better on guitar. The supreme example is Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, originally for violin. John Feeley playing:

I’m flicking through the ABRSM guitar grade syllabus considering whether or not to pursue them. In addition to the sight reading, scales and all that, you have to pick three pieces from their list of around 20-30 pieces. The list is divided into three sections, each representing an era, roughly: 1) Renaissance and Baroque 2) Classical and Romantic and 3) modern. You pick one from each list.

Not all the pieces seem very idiomatic. For the first few grades, instead of going for some of the simpler (but nevertheless beautiful) pieces for lute, we get often unimpressive arrangements of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi et al. for guitar. Things start to improve in later grades when pieces by de Visee, Weiss, Milan et al. appear.

The Classical and Romantic section is the usual stuff: Giuliani, Sor, Tarrega, Aguado and some lesser knowns and transcriptions. All quite pleasant, but not a lot of it is terribly interesting.

The modern section feels a bit desperate. In between the Ponces and Brouwers, there are a lot of mediocre compositions by unfamiliar names that are basically pastiches (not writing them all off, though). There really isn’t much to choose from, as much of the best modern guitar music is too difficult for even Grade 8.

And while I of course see the advantage of such a comprehensive grading system, the eras aren’t anyway near as discrete as the syllabus suggests. Playing de Visee’s guitar suite requires a quite different approach to a da Milano fantasie, though they somewhat misleading come under the same section. One would also hope ghat most students are taught about the different types of ornaments used, the difference between Renaissance and Baroque (in the former you neither slur them nor let the notes ring), though somehow I doubt it. 

So, the grades are problematic and uninspiring — not that that I would expect them to be otherwise. The problem is that many students, at least in the UK, seem to learn their instrument almost solely through grades. They never stray outside this patchy repertoire.

The guitar needs to somehow de-shackle itself from the Spanish masters. No other instrument is so burdened by its national heritage. The Spanish repertoire consists of too much insipid music and makes the guitar seem a less serious instrument. Sor is great for learning, but rather tedious. Giuliani is good fun, but not that enriching. Tarrega wrote some lovely music, but none of it on the level of a Scarlatti sonata or even a Dowland galliard.

Okay, then, what pieces should enter the repertoire? To start with, how about the Kapsberger toccatas. The Toccata Arpeggiata is frequently played, but the others seldom are, yet they work so well on guitar. Here’s his Toccata VI:

And more Zamboni:

And Bacheler. I was trying to find a video of his variations of the popular French song, Une Jeune Fillette, but here’s Monsieur’s Almaine instead:

And you can never, ever have enough Dowland. Should be as much required playing as Bach or Sor for any guitarist. 

More of this and less of the Spanish stuff — yea or nay?

Flesh versus Nails

It has become orthodoxy that you play classical guitar with nails. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century there were two leading guitarists, Fernando Sor (1778-1839) and Dionisio Aguado y García (1784-1849). Among other differences, Sor believed one should use the flesh of the fingertip to pluck the string and Aguado believed one should use the nail. Sor was aware that this had possible disadvantages, especially when it came to speed and projection (Aguado was the more virtuosic player, for sure), but he was confident that the purer and warmer tone of flesh playing was worth it.

Historically many classical guitarists used flesh (e.g. Julián Arcas (1832-1888) and Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), though Tárrega was a convert to flesh in his later years). I recommend visiting Rob MacKillop’s site for comprehensive list of players old and new. MacKillop is undoubtedly the best advocate for flesh playing online.

Come the end of the twentieth century flesh playing had become a rarity. If one were a partisan for flesh playing, it would be easy to see this as an unmusical compromise: speed and loudness in exchange for sound quality. But nails do give you more variety in some regards: you can’t, for example, achieve that same crisp ponticello sound with flesh. However, the consistency possible by using flesh means that volume won’t affect tone as much. With nails, a loud note sounds much brighter and more metallic than a soft one. But with flesh, a loud note retains its warmth (if you want it to).

This is, at least, my experience thus far. I recently cut off my nails. It was all rather traumatic: late at night, whisky bottle half empty, sweat drenching my clothes, the nail clippers poised an inch from my fingertips, as if a metaphysical wall were in the way. The clippers felt like twelve stone; my hands were shaking unrelentingly.

Okay, okay — not quite that bad! But I did oo and uh over it for some weeks. I am probably historically-minded, generally more interested in what is old than what is new. And when I found out there was a common practise (flesh playing) with many weighty advocates, but that has since become very unorthodox, I naturally wanted to try it. It also fits nicely with my desire to eventually play the lute, which is generally played without nails. (Though perhaps the same contrarian spirit will inspire me to take up the cause of those minority lutenists, past and present, who have advocated nails…)

In case you are unaware of the stigma against flesh playing, the guitarist Phillip de Fremery has an excellent post about it on his site. In it he notes that

There is reliable record of players whose applications and subsequent auditions to long-established Masters programs were summarily rejected, with the proviso that if they grew their nails back they would be considered for admission. Another case surfaced more recently, when a casual exploratory interview was met with the same quick closing of the door without a note being heard.

Pedagogy gone mad, I say. Flesh playing has many advantages that any musician with an ounce of imagination and historical knowledge would realise. Among the advantages I can think of: a more tactile way of playing, a more consistent tone, more angles of attack available, in some instances more ‘authentic’, if you go for that. Fremery notes another rather interesting possibility:

those who find themselves interested in the physics of all this will observe that when one plays without nails the string can be pulled much farther back – and further back at many different angles – before it is released, and that when one thinks of this from the point of view of archery, for instance, the implications are interesting to say the least

I recorded myself playing Tarrega’s Lagrima, a rather easy piece. I tried to give it as much dynamic and textural variations as I could, which might be why every recording I made had one or two mistakes (but recording oneself is generally an infuriating experience). This one, despite two very slight hesitations, best demonstrates the possibilities. Apologies for the quality — it was recorded on my phone:

[ETA: Fellow guitarists might like to know what I’m using. It’s an old Kimbara guitar (a low-end guitar from late 60s/early 70s) with D’addario Pro-Arte normal tension strings. Nothing special or historical.]

I cut my nails Thursday, and at first the sound was much worse than this. One has to learn to pluck the string in a completely different way: pushing down and then pulling under and across. Watch this video for the technique in slow motion. It also helps to tune the strings down about a semitone, to help lower the tension so the string is easier to pluck at first. I saw a suggestion in a forum to sandpaper (very fine sandpaper, I must add!) the part of the strings where one plays. I used P1200 sandpaper for this and it worked very well. Nylon strings are usually too smooth, it seems. The fingertips need to grip onto the string a bit. It is often recommended that you use gut or nylgut (nylon-gut hybrid), which I will do in due course.

Now, in case my meagre little recording was unconvincing, here’s a nail-less virtuoso, Virginia Luque. If anything, her left hand is the most impressive — those chord changes, my God!

Guitar Transcription of Ligeti’s Cello Sonata

I transcribed this a couple of months ago as it seemed a slow, manageable and beautiful piece for someone new to classical guitar such as myself. And indeed it largely is, though it takes a careful, sensitive guitarist to make it sing. Note that I haven’t scored the second movement because it seemed beyond my ability to play.

I haven’t included fingering as I personally like to do that myself as I learn a piece, and hate when a score comes cluttered with annotations. Musically, the guitar score is essentially the same, but one tone higher, and with the sixth string tuned to D. I removed the glissandi on the pizzicato chords as that seemed impractical on the guitar. This is the most substantial difference between the original version and the transcription.

I was slightly irritated to find that some other guitarist had gotten there first in playing Ligeti’s Cello Sonata on guitar. However, he’s not giving out a free score, so this should post should be of use to someone.

Here’s the link to the PDF

And if you’d rather just look at it on this page, here’s the score in image format:Ligeti Cello Sonata_0001.png

Ligeti Cello Sonata_0002

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: