The State of the Contemporary Guitar – 2/4

PART 2 OF 4    (Part 1Part 3Part 4)

by Ervin Somogyi

It has been pointed out that the classical guitar was established as a serious instrument within the timeline starting with Antonio Torres and ending with Andres Segovia. And one could equally maintain that this — now — is the golden age of the steel string guitar. Within the past forty years it has gone from being the virtually unknown backwater to the point that it has worked itself into all music, especially ethnic music, worldwide, and is now being used to play music that is serious, complex and challenging. The steel string guitar is experiencing an explosion of design, shape, dazzling and original ornamentation, technique, music, and, not least of all, seriously talented makers and players. From this, all kinds of glowing predictions have been made, and are continually made, about the nature and course of the guitar’s future. The logic seems to be that if there’s growth, things will grow in good directions, right? Well, yes, of course, you bet; just like the stock market. But if we want to project the direction of small-scale and commercial-level guitarmaking and design into the future, it will be a big help to understand what factors have driven change until now, and why.

We should start with the recognition that steel string and classical guitars are supposed to accomplish distinct musical tasks. This sounds obvious but, in fact, specific and different things are required and expected of these instruments by their players, their listeners, and even by the makers. Exactly what these guitars are expected to do, and how the luthier’s or factory’s work relates to producing these results, are the main subject of this article.

A very important difference between classical and steel string guitars is that classicals are typically not miked or amplified in performance, while steel strings are. Another is that the classical guitar is very largely a solo instrument, while in general only the fingerpicking steel string guitar is. The flatpicked steel string guitar is almost always a group instrument and often accompanies singing; being a group or accompanying instrument corresponds to the classical guitar’s secondary use. A third difference is that while classical guitars are, with few exceptions, played in standard tuning, the steel string guitar (particularly the fingerpicked one) is often played in quite a number of open tunings. This has great implications for both tone and musicality. A fourth is that steel string guitars’ internal construction is so different from classicals’ (for reasons of their needing to withstand greater string tensions as well as their different tone-producing dynamics) that they can be considered to be different instruments — to the point that steel string luthiers usually cannot make a good classical guitar, and vice versa. Some years ago Spanish luthiers started to make steel string guitars: they failed, stopped it, and haven’t tried again. This subject is highly interesting and so complex that I can only mention it in passing. It really needs its own article.

Let’s take a close look at the classical guitar first. On the level of serious performing, the challenge in building a good classical guitar is to produce the volume and projection necessary for a large hall. On the level of serious chamber (small setting) playing, the challenge is that it have all the voicings, dynamics and subtle tonal qualities which the repertoire and the player’s technique require. Let’s hear what some classical guitar authorities have to say on the subject:

Noted French classical luthier Daniel Friedrich speaks at length in Roy Courtnall’s book Making Master Guitars: “My early guitars were relatively simple; pleasant to play, and the sound was quite ‘explosive’. Since about l973 I have increased the weight and the guitars have more sustain, and a richer, sweeter sound, but they are still easy to play. . . Over the years I have tried to master the various qualities that different guitarists look for. Some players attack the strings heavily and they want a long sustain. This contrasts with the Latin-Americans like Alvaro Pierri, Roberto Aussel and Eduardo Fernandez, who want a sound that is more explosive, full-bodied, higher in contrast and very coloured, because they play with a lighter style. The pupils of Lagoya are looking for a sound that is powerful and sustained with a very even response. My personal taste, along with my style of playing tends towards a sound that is full-bodied, full of charm and depth, and more like a piano than a harpsichord. . . [For a period] I used East Indian rosewood which is often lighter in weight than Brazilian. This allowed me to make lighter instruments which are more sensitive to vibrato and tonal contrasts.”

Tom Humphrey, maker of the ‘Millenium’ model classical guitar, is quoted in the February l996 issue of Acoustic Guitar: “[My basic philosophy of guitar making is] simply that great guitars are conceived and constructed exclusively for the purpose of playing music. Yet to date no existing classical guitar has fulfilled all the musical requirements: dynamic range, sustain, voice balance and clarity, articulation, voice separation, volume and projection, color, and quality of sound. These elements are all part of the music being written for classical guitar.”

Sharon Isbin speaks on this subject in the August, l990, Acoustic Guitar: “The instrument I select must be able to respond to a wide variety of musical demands, from the contrapuntal complexities of a Bach fugue, to exotic tone contrasts in contemporary music, to the sensuality of Spanish music. [I test play . . . for] the following categories: sustain . . . beauty of tone . . . dynamic and timbral contasts . . . clarity and speed of response . . . balance . . . resonance . . . intonation . . . [absence of problematic] condition . . . and comfort.”

It’s not hard to find similar quotes from Narciso Yepes, Julian Bream and other classical guitar luminaries, but three are enough to illuminate a very impressive spectrum of goals for the luthier to aim towards. These statements, moreover, speak loudly to the fundamental consideration of classical guitar design — that the guitar is designed to be played by a musician with a trained musicality and technique, for people who are listening without distractions. Every serious classical guitarist’s main fantasy is to play in a concert hall, on a guitar that will be equal to the task.

In contrast, there is no such acoustic musical tradition, requirement of, or format for the steel string guitar or player. To begin with, technique and sensibility are still being developed: look at the relatively recent contributions of people like Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, Michael Hedges, Martin Simpson and Peppino D’Agostino. Second, the guitarist almost invariably plays into a microphone or amplification system which, unless it’s a very good quality system, renders the natural sound and power of the instrument secondary. The challenge for the steel string guitar luthier is threefold: first, to produce an instrument which requires the least electronic equalization in studio or stage conditions — in other words, a microphone-friendly guitar. This is important because microphones “hear” sound differently than the ear does: a guitar which sounds fine unamplified can easily sound dull, boomy or uneven when played into a microphone, and a guitar which records well does not necessarily sound good to the ear. The second challenge is to produce an instrument which, if it is not going to be electronically boosted out of all proportion to how it actually functions, can hold its own and be heard in a group musical setting. If accompanying voice, the guitar can’t be so loud that it drowns out the singer: its task in this setting is to accompany and be heard clearly, but not dominate. The third, and most acoustically important, challenge is to build a guitar which is actually and noticeably (that is, to those players who are sensitive to coloration and quality of tone, even if they do not yet have the language to articulate this to the layman) more responsive, sensitive, loud, even, musical, has superior dynamics and is easy to play.

Another important factor to be taken into account is that the repertoire for the serious steel string guitar, comparable to that which the classical guitar player has had available for over a century, is only beginning to exist. Much of what is available are arrangements, adaptations and transcriptions of earlier folk, traditional and fiddle tunes. Flatpickers such as Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Dan Crary have done seminal pioneering work in this area. But steel string guitar music which is to be taken seriously — that is, music which is well composed, which can be savored as it is listened to, and within which the dynamic possibilities of the guitar are explored and expanded — is only now being written, transcribed, arranged and played for the first time, most actively by fingerpickers, transcribers and arrangers such as Steve Hancoff, Ed Gerhard, Pat Donohue, Peppino d’Agostino, Peter Finger, Chris Proctor, Martin Simpson and a growing host of talented others. Likewise, the audience for a steel string guitar sound which can be appreciated on its own merits and which operates on a level of sophistication beyond the basic ability to discriminate bass from midrange from treble, is only beginning to emerge — as is also a common language for the qualities of steel string guitar sound. Tim Sparks (in the May-June 2000 issue of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine) is the first steel string guitarist I know of to articulate a need for qualities of voicing, coloration and response as specific as those which individuals in the classical guitar network [re-read to the quotes above] have been using and thinking in terms of for a long time. This is an important step forward.

For all the reasons outlined above, innovations and evolution in the classical guitar have generally been internally driven — by the needs of the music and by the sound-making and projective capacity of the soundbox — and the success of the design is judged by how well the soundbox can generate tone in response to the player’s skill. Such innovations normally have to do with bracing, wood thickness and mass, bridge design and stringing: the exterior aspect of the guitar is hardly affected. Currently, the luthiers best known for radical innovations in classical guitar design are Richard Schneider and Tom Humphrey — whose guitars do look different externally — and Greg Smallman, whose guitars don’t. The bulk of successful, world class classic luthiers — people like Friedrich, Romanillos, Brune, Velazquez, Ruck, Gilbert, Oribe, Elliott, Fleta, Ramirez, Hauser, Contreras, Kohno, Hopf, Bernabe, etc, etc, etc. — are known for refining the traditional design and producing a superior variation of it. But not for radically redesigning anything.

For contemporary steel string and electric guitars, on the other hand, multiplicity of shape, features and sound are hugely driven by external factors — that is, by the commercial producers, the marketers and the market. Steel string and the electric guitars are mostly mass market instruments: look at the advertising. The commercial music industry makes great efforts to introduce different and new brand- and feature-identifiable guitar models and to make them as attractive and saleable as possible through ad campaigns. Purchases are driven by endorsements and advertising at least as much as by personal or musical need, and success for commercially produced models is measured by viability in the marketplace as opposed to [re-read the quotes above] how well it plays music. Again, look at the advertising in any guitar/music publication during the past ten years. I’m not trying to insult the many talented individual luthiers who are producing wonderfully crafted steel string or electric guitars, nor the manufacturers who are trying to make a living by the rules of doing business. I am pointing out, though, that steel string and electric guitars pretty much have existed as commercially produced merchandise which has no unity of musical purpose outside of (1) accompanying singing and/or other instruments, generally in an amplified way, and (2) capturing a market niche for the producer. This is unfortunate, because most people don’t know what utterly beautiful sounds a well made steel string guitar is capable of making, nor what a revelation its lyricism and expressiveness can be. For an example, listen to anything recorded by Ed Gerhard. He produces a sound that can be savored and which is set off by the intelligent and sensitive use of something not much in evidence in a lot of steel string guitar music, although it is a normal element of much classical music: pauses.

Most musicians or would-be musicians are (and I think will always be) happy to get and play any number of comercially made guitars, and will be perfectly satisfied with their performance. However, those players who desire something unusual or unique, or want specific qualities of sound and response because their music is better for it, or simply want the personal touch, are more likely to find these in the instruments of any of the better hand makers. I see this as a trend which, while not exactly new, has only relatively recently become viable.

Part of the growth of steel string guitarists’ capacities to seek and find better guitars is the gradual emergence of a common vocabulary toward the discussion of steel string guitar sound. This vocabulary includes qualities like (l) loudness, (2) clarity, (3) evenness, and (4) sustain, which are self-explanatory. It also includes (5) dynamic range: the ability of an instrument to play quietly as well as loudly, to sound differently whether played near the bridge or near the soundhole, and in response to different attacks or picking strokes; (6) coloration: the mix of fundamental to overtone content in combination with sustain, which gives sound its richness, texture and “flavor” so a guitar can sound sweet, dry, evocative, romantic, sad, etc.; (7) projection: having to do with whether a guitar throws its sound out far from the player and whether it does so in a focused and directional way or radiates it in a multidirectional manner, or whether it primarily creates a cloud of sound which stays near the player; (8) voicing: related to dynamic range, and having to do with the rise-peak-decay envelope of the notes as controlled by the player: better guitars can make sharp, choppy or sweetly weeping sounds as well as smooth pear-shaped ones, depending on technique; (9) articulation: the quality of clarity, flow and connectedness in the music as a function of how even the same note sounds when played on different strings, as well as the player’s ability to get crisp, sharply defined notes or more fluid and rounder-edged ones from the same instrument; (10) separation: the ability of an instrument to make chordal music in which each string can be heard distinctly, as opposed to getting a cloud of undifferentiated sound; and, not least, (11) intonation: getting a steel string guitar to play perfectly in tune is more difficult than for a classical one, for reasons that are interesting and complicated and which deserve an article of their own. Because until recently an awful lot of steel string guitar playing consisted of strumming on first, second and third position chords, this has been a non-issue. But it’s changing.

Given this change in the musical environment and the types of expansion and growth we can now see in it, what changes could we expect, in response, for how future guitars are to be made and sound? I’ll address this topic in the next two installments of this series. In the meantime, check out some of Ed Gerhard’s music on a good sound system and see how many of the above described qualities of sound you can hear.

(reprinted from Fingerstyle Guitar, #41, 2000)