Updated: Aug 26, 2019
Q: I may be wrong, but it seems to me that guitar is an instrument one chooses to learn to play as opposed to a parent deciding for you. Was it your choice to learn guitar? And, at what age did you start?
I grew up with two brothers, and the rule in our family was that you had to choose an instrument when you turned seven. My brother chose piano, and although my parents did not push guitar on me, they did encourage me to choose something other than piano (I think to avoid the possible sibling rivalry that could ensue). I chose guitar because hey, guitars are cool!
I mostly played campfire music until my teacher at the time, a flamenco guitarist named Peter Baime, suggested that I switch over to studying classical guitar. He showed me one simple piece that used finger picking and from then on I was hooked!
I think you’re generally right, or at least in most places. In some places in Europe I get the impression that kids are pushed into classical guitar by their parents, but generally guitar is an instrument a kid chooses because their parents insist they pick one and they think it’s the coolest one, or “easiest” one, which they quickly learn isn’t true in either case ;). I definitely chose to play the guitar myself, I actually had an extremely late start and started playing guitar at the age of 19 and classical guitar at 20.
Q: Do you play other instruments as well?
The cool thing about guitar is that the physical aspect of playing is transferable to a number of instruments; once you get the basics of playing a fretted instrument down it is easy to pick up another! I played tenor banjo and mandolin in a celtic band when I was in high school, which wasn’t too bad once you figured out the tunings. My little brother played fiddle so I mostly worked on figuring out the tunes he played. I had a crazy year in high school where I bought a sitar online, but there were just too many strings! These days I mostly stick to classical guitar, although I like to kick back and pluck a few tunes on my banjo every now and again.
I played some drums and piano when I was younger, but neither very well or very seriously, or for very long. I took some voice lessons as a teenager and really enjoyed singing, but I don’t do any of that actively anymore.
Over the past few decades, the guitar has become ubiquitous in popular music. Have
you ever been tempted to go to the “dark side”, strap on an electric guitar and go all Eric
If you ask most classical guitarists my age how they got into the instrument, you will probably get some variation on the same story: “I started off playing rock and heavy metal, and then one day I heard a classical guitar record and I just knew that I had to learn how to play like that!” I am probably an anomaly in that I started on acoustic and transferred to classical pretty early. I don’t think I owned an electric guitar until I was well into high school! The interesting thing is that although I never took an electric guitar lesson, once I had the proper classical technique it was relatively easy to figure out any rock songs I wanted to learn by ear. Have I been tempted to turn to the “dark side” though? I don’t think so. Much as my interest in banjo or mandolin have coexisted with my main instrument, so too has my dabbling in electric guitar.
I actually started playing guitar because I wanted to be able to shred, I was also into a lot of progressive rock and metal, and more alternative styles of music in general. Once I started becoming interested in studying music more seriously to serve my purposes of being more successful as a prog rocker I realized that classical guitar was cooler and more interesting anyways since I had a huge range of interesting repertoire at my disposal. On top of that I just fell in love with how special the sound and possibilities with tone and colour on the classical guitar. So I was really led into being a classical guitarist
by more popular styles of music. It’s not a coincidence that I gravitate more towards contemporary music, although I also have grown to love romantic, classical, and especially baroque music as well.
Classical guitar is a relatively newer instrument, and as such does not have the
extensive depth of repertoire of say, piano or violin, but a lot of music has been transcribed for guitar. Personally, I find that the guitar transcriptions provide a fresh new perspective of keyboard music in particular. Is there a difference to playing a transcription as opposed to something written specifically for guitar?
I spend a good deal of time transcribing and arranging music for solo guitar, or for my ensemble, The Ottawa Guitar Trio. I’d say that a transcription presents its own challenges, even outside of the technical demands of playing. I believe it was the late French guitarist Roland Dyens who said that a good transcription will sound like the piece was originally written for the guitar. This means that you have to find ways to make the music sound idiomatic to the instrument--if you have an arrangement that keeps every single note but sounds awkward and labored to play then you are not doing the piece justice. Usually there is an amount of recomposing that the arranger must do in order to make the piece sound natural on guitar. This could mean removing notes, changing keys, or altering the texture (the way that the harmony, melody, and rhythm are put together). The results are twofold: you get a piece that sounds natural on guitar, and you also get YOUR version of the piece, which will be different from any other person’s version.
Yes, there’s a huge difference. What you say about our repertoire is both true and not true, in the sense that although we have nothing from the baroque period (although there’s a rich amount of music to be transcribed), starting in the classical period there is a lot of music written by relatively unknown guitar composers such as Aguado, Giuliani, and onwards into the romantic period with Regondi, Tarrega, Coste, and others. However it’s definitely true that the classical guitar wasn’t taken seriously in the world of classical music as a whole until the 20th century, where we started to see non-guitarist composers writing works for the instrument, and it began to appear on world concert stages. This is when our repertoire really came into its own in my opinion, with the likes of Rodrigo, Britten, Villa-Lobos, Manuel de Falla, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and others writing for guitar. The other reality is that even though we have lots of guitar music from the 18th and 19th centuries, the guitar itself was smaller, so some of that music is not even fully playable on a modern sized guitar, or it’s much more difficult for the left hand. Many of the guitar composers from those periods were great composers in their own right, but for me, I’m always fascinated by music written by composers who were not guitarists such as Rodrigo, Ponce, or Castelnuovo-Tedesco because they are primarily concerned with musical architecture and may write things that would not occur intuitively to a guitarist. Of course it can also mean their music needs heavy editing in order to be playable. All that being said there are guitar composers from the last century such as Dusan Bogdanovic and Leo Brouwer which write in a manner where they aren’t working to be idiomatic on the instrument, but rather to communicate the music architecture they are after on the guitar, which I prefer to music written to be idiomatic. Transcriptions are a whole other issue, and I think it’s worth pointing out that playability on the guitar and whether the piece being transcribed fits the sonority of the guitar are sometimes two independent factors. Of course there is a point where a piece has too much counterpoint and the texture is too thick for the guitar, but a lot can be done by altering keys, and sometimes even pieces which need to be thinned out a lot somehow fit the guitar better. Then there are the special cases like Albeniz, where we have stolen pieces which the public now thinks of as guitar music, even though they were written for piano, such as ‘Asturias’. In some cases like that it’s clear the texture of the guitar was being evoked already, so it makes sense that even with the texture thinned out the piece comes alive on guitar.
.....to be continued.....