Archive for the ‘classical guitar’ Category

If you’re in the Phoenix area on the evening of June 7th, come out to the City of Gilbert’s Riparian Institute and enjoy a nature walk through the 110-acre preserve and listen to music by several members of the Mesa Symphony and yours truly. I’ll be playing harp and classical guitar near where the walk ends, but close enough to the parking area that you can simply walk over and sit down on one of the provided seats or settle in on the grass and have a listen if you don’t feel like taking the tour.

The nature walk starts at 7:00 p.m. at the east end of the public library. Check the Riparian Institute’s website for more information. There is a suggested donation of two dollars. I will be playing from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. I hope to see you there!
Ariel Laurel Strong With Pedal Harp

Photo by David Weingarten, Goldeneye Photography.


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All of the hours that I’ve spent practicing recently are starting to pay off. I can hear a real difference in the strength and clarity of my playing over just a month or so ago. My tremelo, in particular, has gotten stronger and cleaner. Some of that is due to changes I’ve made in my right hand nails.

I’m still fiddling with my nails to find just the right compromises in length and shape to support both classical guitar tone production and make flamenco rasgueos punchy. It’s a bit tricky, but I’m almost to a solution that minimizes string click in very precise nail/flesh techniques like tremelo (in which I need to have my nails fairly short and place my fingertip with a combination of flesh and nail on the string) and still leaves enough nail length for decent rasgueos. I have not been able to find a way to use longer nails for tremelo – as in a nail only technique – and still maintain the tone quality I want.

One major improvement is that I’ve gotten better at getting the acrylic nails to stay on and minimize the separation between the natural nail and the acrylic overlay. What seems to work best for me is to do the fills on a weekly basis. Over the course of a week, no matter how carefully I prepare my nails, I get some separation between the nail and the acrylic. I now suspect this has more to do with skin oils, showers, and doing dishes, than my previous theories of poorly prepared pytergium and Dremel overuse.

The nail doesn’t grow out all that much in a week, but by carefully grinding back a small amount of acrylic near the base of my nails, I can get beyond the area that has separated. Then, I fill just as I would normally. If I go longer than a week, the separated area gets to be too large and I risk having the nail tear or the acrylic part pop off from additional water getting into the gap.

I did not have good luck with trying to lift the edge of the nail and glue it back down with epoxy. It’s hard to make enough of a gap to get the glue in without further damaging the underlying natural nail, and I’m concerned that it might lead to potential hygiene problems as well. I could never be sure if the gap was adequately dried and disinfected before gluing, and felt it might lead to nail fungus problems.

On the down side of my recent modifications, it is tricky to grind that small of an area back without occasionally nicking your cuticle or nail bed with the Dremel. You need to very careful and really take your time to take it down gradually. Good lighting is a must, and for all of us geezer guitarists, magnifying lenses are quite handy.

One other refinement to my nail routine is that I have changed which grinding bit I use on my nails. I started out using a small, fine-grain tapered bit, but with experience and confidence have gone to a larger, coarser, cylindrical bit. The larger bit lets me take down the acrylic layer faster and cover a larger area when doing the final shaping which leads to a smoother finish over the surface of the nail. When I started out, it would have been too hard for me to control the larger bit, but now it minimizes the time spent and the heat buildup on both the nail (another potential source of separation) and the tool.

After several months of tinkering with my nail routine, I finally have an SOP (standard operating procedure)! Hopefully, this will provide some ideas for those of you who have commented on your own nail trials and tribulations on previous “Guitar Nails” posts.

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I am now a music teacher at Gilbert Music in Gilbert, Arizona.  Talk about timing – they did need another instructor, as their one classical guitar teacher is one slot shy of a full schedule.  In I walk, resume in hand…

I’ve been busy today getting all of my ducks in a row for a major promotional push. I got a local cell phone number this morning, my updated business cards are getting printed this afternoon, and I’m revamping my teaching methods and materials in light of my “Guitar Scale Meltdown” of several months ago. About all that’s left to do is get my flyer together (tonight’s big project) and then it’s pound the streets distributing them.

These days I’m practicing Christmas songs, my flamenco lesson materials, and some tunes for a new recording.  I’m back in contact with the sound engineer I worked with on the “Romanza” CD and ready to take a tour of his new studio (to me, anyway – he’s been there for several years) in another week in preparation to doing some recording in January.

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Where’s the Fire?

Don’t Dazzle Me With Brilliance…

Make me feel something. That’s what came to mind as I was listening to a classical guitar CD today.

Not to be overly hard on classical guitar – I’ve heard some truly wonderful performances in my time, most notably a concert by Angel Romero with the Flagstaff Symphony which included one of my all-time favorite compositions, the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. But, I have also heard a lot of note-perfect playing substituted for depth and soul, and by some very highly regarded players. It’s the easy way out, in a sense. I’ve done it myself and I don’t want to do it anymore.

Today, I realized that this is what I have been groping my way towards with my guitar playing deconstruction project. I want to play well enough that I don’t get in the way of the music, but not so “well” that the message gets lost in the technical flash. (Not that I have the technical flash any more, either!)

So, it’s back to the guitar corner and continuing to carve out my technical program. I’ve been doing about ten minutes a day of actual scale playing and another 20 to 30 minutes of paring down the rest of my old technique notebook to achieve my 30 minute technique goal.

What I have ended up doing with the scales is pretty representative, I think, of where the arpeggios and the slur/reach/strengthening/”gymnastic” exercises are headed – a condensed program that I will rotate through, and complete a full set of exercises in about every one to two weeks. I take one focal point for that day’s practice and work it intensely for ten minutes. Then I stop, take a break, do something else for awhile.

I’m rotating through all the major and minor scales and trying out various patterns and fingerings both across the strings and up and down the neck. Once I’ve gone through a cycle or two of that, I plan to add the whole tone, augmented, and diminished scales. When I go back to the majors and minors again, I’ll start working from the different steps of the majors to get to all the traditional modes.

I don’t seem to be suffering in the least from not running through every single scale every day. In fact, the increase in my focus and attention seems to be allowing me to get much more out of each repetition and is keeping me fresh and looking forward to the work. The movement patterns are so similar anyway, that I do believe that the way I used to practice was a form of “over-training” much like what many athletes end up doing. The result was also the same – burnout and injury.

There may be a time in someone’s development as a musician where it is beneficial to play scales the way I used to. I can see where going through each key over and over ingrains it in one’s mind and fingers, but I wonder how much is actually enough. Why keep doing it once you have the fretboard memorized and you know the theory? At that point, repetition beyond that which is needed to maintain the knowledge and technique is simply overkill and leads to a deadening of the mental faculties and the spirit.

Certainly, one can learn to play to “perfection,” but mere perfection devoid of content and feeling has little to recommend it. Computers and robots can play note-perfect, too. What I want to know is, “Where’s the soul? Where’s the fire?”

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Guitar Wench

The idea of the guitar’s “wenchy” origins as per my last post has been giving me a lot of amusement today. I will admit that this may have more to do with the proportion of my time that is spent in Elmo’s and my computer’s company, however, than with any actual wit.

It has given me some food for thought, though. I’m starting to see that some of the attitudes I ran into in my early twenties towards guitar playing, flamenco in particular, may have had much more to do with certain individuals’ emotional investments (and financial interests?), in some perceived need to “elevate” the instrument, than with any real hierarchy of styles.

Granted, I am quite happy to have had the technical training and theory background that I received back then, but some of the methods and attitudes have not been very productive, at least for me. I guess I’m just tired of carrying around someone else’s desire to have the guitar be taken seriously as a classical instrument. I don’t feel the need to make the guitar over, to try and create a “My Fair Lady” out of an Eliza Doolittle.

In fact, in the spirit of yesterday’s post and as an act of defiance in the face of every internal and external obstacle that has held me back as a flamenco guitarist, I’m considering officially declaring myself a “guitar wench,” despite the fact that the Merriam Webster’s online dictionary specifies that a wench is a young woman. Can’t have everything.

It’s my birthday today and, though I’m only a year away from an AARP invitation to join their illustrious band of aging boomers, I feel pretty dang young at the moment. There’s a lot of age that is a state of mind, an attitude. And attitude, I’ve got that aplenty! :-)

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The guitar playing deconstruction process continues…

I’ve spent a couple of hours each of the last three days on boiling down scales to their simplest elements. There’s probably some scholarly soul somewhere who has written a brilliant thesis on this and reduced the following meanderings into a few pithy sentences, but keep in mind that I’m a dumb old firefighter and that I am as interested in the process here as much as I am the results. Use my ideas and explorations to go off in your own direction…

Scale Processes
After going over linear major scales (up and down a single string) and thinking in terms of whole step and half step relationships, I went a step further. I started placing the major scale tetrachords on the fretboard, and crossing from string to string. I would start at a random note, then build a major scale from the ground up, trying every possible path from the root, using every fingering I could think of. In other words if I took an A at the fifth fret of the sixth string, I’d work my way through starting with each successive left hand finger – 1, 2, 3, 4 – and figure out all the shifts and crossings I could from each. This worked both up and down the neck and across. (A comment from Miguel de Maria on my “Guitar Scale Meltdown” post pointed out that Dante Rosati has already done this. The link will take you to the diagrams.)

That wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be, as my basic fretboard knowledge is pretty good. My goal is not to learn the fingerboard; my process would be different if that were the case. I want to understand scale layout on the guitar for improvisation and to use scales more efficiently for technical development.

Mr. Spock Looks at Scales
What was bedeviling me was that I felt like there should be more logic and pattern to what I was doing. I thought about the harp. There isn’t an easier instrument for scales than the harp. Set your pedals, then pick your tonic and the six adjacent strings. Cs are red, Fs are blue. Pedal up, flat; middle, natural; down, sharp. Not much to it.

How about the keyboard? That gets a bit more interesting. Once you leave the key of C, you have to know how to progress through the black keys. It’s still very easy to see, though, and each tetrachord leads either ahead through the circle of fifths or back through the circle of fourths. Hmmmm. That got me thinking.

Violin. Tuning. On the violin, since it is tuned in fifths, I can use exactly the same finger pattern from string to string. Start on the G – open, 1, 2, 3 and open, 1, 2, 3 – and you’ve got G major. Start on the D, you’ve got D major, etc. It is extremely easy to transpose in that way, as well. I thought about it some more. I looked at my guitar in it’s stand. “Why aren’t you tuned in fifths?”

Guitar Logic
Silly guitar. Perfect fourths from the low E to the G, then that anomalous major third, then another perfect fourth. What logic was there in that? It does reduce the stretches and shifts that would be necessary, given the size difference between the guitar and the violin, but why not perfect fourths all the way across, a nice, logical symmetry that would make this oh so much simpler? Each pattern would be the same, only moved down one whole step as you went across the fret board string by string. It would be an easy, predictable sweep across and down the neck with straightforward left hand shifts.

Standardized Tuning
I thought back to music history class from decades ago. Lutes had lots of different tunings, and were often retuned for a particular song. Besides, the lute isn’t even really a true ancestor to the guitar. Classical guitarists just repurposed the literature for respectability!

Guitar as we know it is still a fairly young instrument. It wasn’t until the Classical era that the guitar reached its present tuning, and even then changes continued to the standard fretboard length, body size, and internal bracing up until the end of the nineteenth century. Sor, Guiliani and Paganini played with the same standard tuning as you, me, or Andres Segovia. Luis Milan did not.

I really wasn’t in the mood for an exhaustive study of the tunings of the Baroque guitar, however. I was more into imitating Charles Darwin observing Galapagos finches. If I could reason my way back from the adaptation to the reason for it, I could avoid all that nasty digging around in the dusty archives of music pedagogy and pretense.

What If?
Staring at my guitar again, I thought about what fingering diagrams of the scales would look like if I tuned it to E-A-D-G-C-F; I thought about how few guitar players I know use open or alternate tunings and the probable reasons why. (Beyond the fact that it screws up every fingering you’ve already learned, it’s a pain in the neck to keep retuning as the strings try to go back to their old pitches.) Then it hit me. Once again, I was coming at this from the classical tradition. John Dowland’s courtly, virtuosic polyphonic lute compositions were not what the rogues and wenches were dancing to down at the roadside inn in 1602; just as Sor and Guiliani’s masterpieces were not Top 40 hits of 1827.

The rogues and wenches down at the Boar’s Head were probably dancing reels to fiddles and mandolins, while the guitar was just entering puberty in Spain. Mandolin, once you get away from the four or five easiest chords, uses all four left hand fingers across four courses of strings. You couldn’t chord very well on more.

The guitar, however, has lots of open strings in a variety of keys, with fairly easy fingerings – a two finger E minor chord, three finger E major chord. Use those as key centers and branch back to A, D, and G major, and so on. More open strings; more easy fingerings. Duh! Use a capo and you can accompany any singer of a folk song just by knowing a half-dozen chords…

“Classical” Pedigrees
I remembered all the high-falutin’ verbiage I heard over the years about how the guitar was “raised” to the status of a “classical” instrument, the duty for serious players to expand the repertoire and increase the respect for the instrument in the concert halls of the world (Oh, puhleeze! Don’t believe me? Read some of Segovia’s early record jackets…), the prejudices of my teacher and my compatriots about me playing flamenco and folk, the work to get classical guitar programs established and recognized in college music departments, “classical guitar societies,” etc.

Common Folk
All that never phased the hillbillies and highwaymen, gypsies and grunge rockers… You can bang out chords on a guitar and, with a little application, play some pretty mean scale passages, too, whether you’re John Williams or Angel Romero, Al DiMeola, Paco de Lucia, or Eddie Van Halen. And it’s all because of a simple compromise in tuning, an adaptation away from strict regularity or a graphic representation of the scale (like the harp or keyboard) that allows scale, chords, or both, to be played far more easily than if you had a six course mandolin, for instance.

The Red Headed Step Child
I looked at my guitar and laughed. “Well, aren’t you just the red-headed stepchild of the snooty classical world? Even your tuning points to your common, wenchy origins!” I thought about it a bit more. “But, damn, you get the job done!”

The guitar is one of the most popular musical instruments in the world with millions players around the globe, rivalling and even surpassing the traditionally more “respectable” piano and violin. It’s portable and adaptable to just about any style of music; it can scream and wail, or croon a lullaby. And it’s pretty, too. Not bad for a little girl from Andalusia…

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“If you follow the classical pattern, you’re understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow – you are not understanding yourself.” ~ Bruce Lee

I am stripping away everything I thought I knew about playing guitar, using everything I know from every other thing I’ve done in my life, in an effort to pare down to just the essentials. Basics. Fundamentals. The three R’s – Relax, Release, Repeat.

In the midst of this process, I ran across the following quote by Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist.  Lee, in his own way stripped down everything he knew from his years of training in the classic Chinese martial art of Wing Chun, by listening to his own inner knowing and through tireless experiment.

I wish neither to possess nor to be possessed.
I no longer covet paradise.
More important, I no longer fear hell…
The medicine for my suffering
I had within me from the very beginning,
But I did not take it.
My ailment came from within myself,
But I did not observe it.
Until this moment.
Now I see that I will never find the light
Unless, like the candle, I am my own fuel,
Consuming myself.

~ Bruce Lee

For years, I tried to possess the secret of fine playing, pursuing some idea that the answer was outside myself, in teachers, exercises, practice, performance. For many years more, I gave up the pursuit.  When I returned to playing seriously, I started to repeat the same old errors.

In the last few days, I have been discovering something wonderful. I haven’t been doing anything on my lesson materials, none of the pieces, or even working on compás. But in my staying away from the specifics, and dwelling on the fundamentals, I’ve finally understood the spirit of the last few lessons.

“Duende,” “aire,” the soul, the angel of the music – those things cannot be grasped. They arise like a phoenix out of the ashes, as one consumes one’s own preconceived notions, burns away the fears, the worries, and the doubts, and ignites the inner passion that lies at the heart of creativity.

Like so much else on this blog over the past nine months, one thing turns around and mirrors and symbolizes another. My old post on “It’s Not the Flames That Kill You” takes on new meaning.  One more pass through the fire…

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