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by Ervin Somogyi

I was recently asked the following question about classical guitars:

How is it that some of these guitars are very solidly made (they feel like they have a lot of wood in them, and their tap tones suggest a sturdy construction), while other guitars are quite evidently more lightly constructed and give off much more open tap tones? I know that some of these will have five fan braces, and some have seven, and some have nine, and so on . . . but outside of that shouldn't these guitars all more or less be the same, as far as the basic structure of the soundbox goes?

This is not a bad question: having a multiplicity of fundamental constructions is confusing.

I have several answers. The first one is that the question itself comes out of an idea that "the classical guitar" is one kind of thing and one kind of thing only . . . more or less like the suggestion that "chocolate cake" is one thing only. There are in fact many recipes for, and versions of, a good chocolate cake, just as there are for classical guitars; the fact that one maker (or cook) is well known for producing one version of this or that does not mean that others cannot make perfectly good versions of their own.

People seem to have the idea that classical guitar music is . . . well . . . always pretty much the same classical guitar music. Well, no; let me offer a perspective on flamenco music by way of illustration of how every music changes. There is now "authentic" flamenco and "modern" flamenco, and "flamenco jazz", and "fusion" flamenco, etc. But even in earlier and simpler days, when there was only "authentic" flamenco (that was more simply structured than the zippy and jazzed up modern versions, in which playing techniques were rudimentary, and in which the spellbinding riffs and fingerings that are taught today didn't exist), it was not the monolithic thing that such a label suggests. For one thing, one couldn't really make a living at it; most of the players had day jobs and they couldn't practice eight hours a day. And they consequently stayed put wherever they lived and worked. And for that compelling reason, even at its earliest and simplest, flamenco was considerably varied in its local musical sensibility, emphasis, and detail. There was Jerez-flavored flamenco, Sevilla-flavored flamenco, Moron-flavored flamenco, Cordoba-flavored flamenco, Huelva-flavored flamenco, Malaga-flavored flamenco, Cadiz-flavored flamenco, etc., as well as the more rudimentary flamenco played in the smaller towns and villages. Remember: this was at a time when one's life was town, family, and neighborhood based; electricity and entertainments that you didn't produce for yourself were scarce, and travel and communication outside most communities were limited. Those who did travel and were more widely familiar with the music could distinguish one "version" from another. Finally, those performers who toured, and/or were more talented, and/or were in the right place at the right time, and who consequently became better known to the public, became de facto representatives of "real" flamenco. In reality, however, regardless of whether it was well known, or slightly known, or obscure, it was actually all perfectly good flamenco.

One could undoubtedly say the same things about jazz – as one also could about chocolate cake, onion soup, and classical guitars. There is no way for any of these to have ever been of one type only. As far as consistency of form goes, consider that the only music that is known to always be homogeneous and consistent, from place to place and time to time, is army marching band music; and we all know how wonderful that is.

Getting back to the classical guitar: it is a creature of its time, just like anything else is, and one can gain a better understanding of it by paying attention to the relationship between this instrument, the music of its time, and the musical uses and repertoire that it has been expected to direct itself to. The modern guitar itself was first invented as an accompanying instrument for the human voice. As such, its sonorities, volume, and registers worked best when they were well adapted that most elemental of musical instruments, the human voice. For this reason the first Spanish guitar was (mostly) the folk guitar: the instrument used by ordinary people who sang everyday songs at weekend events, and which eventually evolved into the modern flamenco guitar as the accompanying instrument of choice for that music.

Of course, the same Spanish guitar* was soon put to use in "serious" musical performances that showed off the musical voice of the guitar itself. For such musical entertainments the best guitars were those with the greatest tone coloration and dynamic range (rather than any primary quality of just being bright and loud enough to be heard alongside and above the singing). And of course guitars would have been built with these "more serious" tonal qualities in mind.

[* NOTE: this was before the musical musical categories of flamenco, folk, or classical existed. Spanish guitar makers themselves, as late as the 1950s, didn't make a distinction between "classical" or "flamenco" guitars. They made "guitars" – at different price levels, using more or less expensive woods and features, etc. But the uses these instruments were put to were the owner's affair. It should surprise no one that the middle class customers, who liked more formal music, could afford the more expensive rosewood instruments. After a critical mass was reached these dark wood guitars became associated with "serious" music, and came to be regarded as the "classical" guitar. The everyday folk, who were going to use their guitars to entertain themselves with, bought the cheaper guitars made with the local and light-colored Spanish cypress: these eventually became the flamenco guitar, by default. But even as late as the 1950s, a hundred years after the modern guitar's size and shape were formalized, Spanish luthiers made only "white" and "black" guitars (guitarras blancas y negras), referring to the respective colors of the most common woods of choice for the backs and sides and not the musical use to which the guitar was going to be put.]

Once guitars with "more serious" tonal qualities appeared, and the Western musical repertoire became further enriched, there came further forks in the road for the guitar to negotiate. The music of the Romantic period needed to have a "romantic" voice that was rich in overtones, warmth, and nuance. Music of the Baroque repertoire is more lush and requires rich sustain and musical coloration. Music of the classical repertoire requires good separation of tone, evenness of response on all strings as well as all the way up and down the fingerboard, and also brilliant trebles. Players of the more modern atonal repertoire are happiest with guitars that have sharpness/crispness of tone, less sustain, fewer overtones, and better definition of notes. Now, the modern guitar was invented after some of these musical periods, so it could not have participated directly in those musics in their time: other musical instruments would have been in use. But, in due time, these qualities of tone were increasingly in evidence as the guitar emerged as a solo instrument and was adapted to play transcriptions of music with these varied and particular sensibilities.

On a more contemporary timeline, concert performers require projection, even if it obtainable at the cost of musical beauty; they need to be heard in the back row. For such uses, one needs a "far field" guitar -- such as the Smallman lattice-braced guitars and the Dammann and Wagner double-top guitars. In these instruments and others like them, the quest for sheer volume at the expense of other qualities has come center-stage.

On the other hand chamber performers require much less projection and instead need guitars with close-up tonal warmth, interest, and complexity; the back row isn't all that far away. For such uses one needs a "near field" guitar. Neither "far field" or "near field" guitars are better; they are simply different. One can get a sense of their musical personalities by simply listening to the quality of the notes one hears in guitar recordings; the notes played by contemporary players will have a spare sound compared to the lush warmth heard in Segovia's older recordings.

For the player as well as the maker, today's guitar is rather like standing in a buffet line: you can have some of this and some of that, but you can't have some of everything. At least, not in one guitar. On the other hand you can go through the buffet line again and have more than one guitar. That's perfectly o.k.

©2010, Ervin Somogyi, all rights reserved.
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