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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Alirio Díaz 1923 - 2016

Alirio Díaz and me in his home town of Carora, Venezuela, 2004

Alirio Díaz and me in his home town of Carora, Venezuela, 2004

I am greatly saddened by the passing away of Alirio Díaz. Such was my regard for him that he became the focus of the London International Guitar Festival I directed in 2005. Accompanied by some of the finest Venezuelan musicians including oboist Jaime Martinez and cuatro player Leonardo Lozano he gave his last-ever performance in London at the Royal Academy of Music. Of those present, who could forget his improvised accompaniments to Luzmira Zerpa’s beautiful singing? Ah, but was it improvised? He shared that quality with very few artists: appearing to invent the music as he went along. Alirio Diaz: supreme guitarist, wonderful arranger, and a warm and totally engaging human being. I will miss him hugely. Click here for a link to an article I wrote about my first encounter with him in the year 2000.

10th July 2016

Laura Snowden At The UCL Guitar Students' Concert

Monday 30th November 7.30pm

Laura Snowden

Laura Snowden

Following her stunning Wigmore Hall recital on 21st November here is your chance to catch her again in London playing at the UCL Guitar Students’ Christmas concert when she will present and play a selection of solos. Laura Snowden is one of the outstanding musicians of her generation: guitarist, arranger, composer, and a founding member of the folk ensemble Tir Eolas.

Laura Snowden in pensive mood

Laura Snowden in pensive mood

Preceding her, students from the Performance and Ensemble classes will perform a variety of music including Lalo Schifrin’s Toccata arranged by Rob Beer. One of Schifrin's most recognizable and enduring compositions is the theme music for the long-running TV series Mission: Impossible. UCL guitar classes are open to dedicated amateurs, students and professionals and are directed by Yours Truly. For more info and if you would like to join write to me here at the website.

The UCL Guitar Ensemble in concert at the Gustave Tuck Theatre. UCL, London 11th December 2013

The UCL Guitar Ensemble directed by Joao Loureiro in concert at the Gustave Tuck Theatre. UCL, London 11th December 2013

Venue: Pearson Lecture Theatre
Pearson Building
Gower Street
London WC1H

Free admission!
No advance booking required, just turn up on the night.
Nearest underground: Euston Square and Warren Street.
Free street parking after 6.30pm
For directions: click here

More about Laura Snowden:
A winner of numerous national and international awards, Laura Snowden was selected by Julian Bream to give a recital at Wigmore Hall in November 2015 for the Julian Bream Trust, including the world premiere of Julian Anderson’sCatalan Peasant with Guitar, commissioned by Bream. She is a founding member of folk ensemble Tir Eolas, who were invited in June by guitarist John Williams to perform at his critically acclaimed series in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. Winner of the Ivor Mairants Guitar Award and a Tillett Trust and St John's Smith Square Young Artist, her recent solo recitals include Buxton Festival, Lake District Summer Music Festival and Guildford International Music Festival.

As a composer, Laura’s music has been played on BBC Radio 3 and premiered at Sadlers Wells, Deal Festival and London Guitar Festival; her song Live Free was performed at over three hundred simultaneous concerts in over sixty countries for the charity Voices for Hospices. She has collaborated as a composer with the Royal Ballet School and the London Film School and was a winner of the Alienor International Harspichord Composition Competition 2015.

Laura's folk ensemble Tir Eolas released their debut album Stories Sung, Truths Told earlier this year (‘the band’s accomplishments are legion... sounds like anything but a debut recording’ FATEA May 2015). Recipients of the inaugural City Music Foundation Award, the band have appeared at venues as wide-ranging as Bestival, Royal Albert Hall and Kings Place.

Laura is a passionate advocate for creativity and self-expression through music, particularly in her composer-performer partnership with violinist and composer Joo Yeon Sir, for whom Laura was commissioned to write a piece by the International Guitar Foundation in 2014. The Snowden-Sir duo were invited this year to give a series of workshops at the Royal College of Music’s Junior Department, resulting in twenty eight new pieces being written for the duo.

Laura is currently undertaking a year-long Young Artists Residency at St John’s Smith Square, and appeared on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune earlier this year to perform live and speak about the residency. Presenting an eclectic series of concerts which draws on both classical and folk traditions, she most recently collaborated with percussionist Ruairi Glasheen, in a concert featuring their own improvisations, compositions and arrangements.

Laura began her studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where guitar tuition was made possible by the Rolling Stones. She then went on to study guitar and composition at the Royal College of Music, London, winning the Guitar Prize in her first year. During her time at the RCM, she was selected for the Tillett Trust and International Guitar Foundation Young Artists Platforms, and won First Prize at the Ivor Mairants Guitar Award and the Ligita International Guitar Duo Competition with duo partner Tom Ellis.

Carlos Bonell, 22nd November 2015

For a complete index to my blogs click here


Carlos: portrait photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

Carlos: portrait photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010


THIS MONDAY 7th SEPTEMBER!!! Yes, that means you should enrol now if you are a new student. There will be 12 sessions ending on 30th November with a half term break on 26th October.

I have been running these classes now for more than 20 years and always look forward to them hugely. I have some fantastic teachers who run the classes with me. They have included Gary Ryan, Forbes Henderson, Simon Davies, Joao Loureiro and this year Cassie Mathews.

Cassandra Mathews, the brilliant young guitar player who will be sharing the teaching with me at the UCL

Cassandra Mathews, the brilliant young guitar player who will be sharing the teaching with me at the UCL

We have an excellent learning space at the UCL in Central London with ample room for an Ensemble class of up to 12 players. The standard in that class has gone up and up, so now I suggest a minimum experience of at least Grade 7. If your reading is a bit slow this will certainly get you going. If your reading is good you will love the class.

UCL class directed by Joao Loureiro

The Performance Class has now a proven track record of helping calm down those jittery nerves. I encourage students to play every week, and to repeat the same pieces until they feel confident. This is a sure-fire way of getting over the shaking hands, or butterflies-in-the-stomach syndrome (or wherever they may secretely lurk in your own particular body).

For more information including directions, fees etc click here
For a complete index to my blogs click here

Good-bye Barcelona, Hello Queretaro

I am still alive and well and at the moment in...er, where am I?

Oh yes, just arrived in Mexico - again. Before that I was in and near Barcelona. I visited guitar maker Arcadio Marín's workshop in the depths of the countryside, but actually only a few miles from the big city. I never knew it could be so quiet. I thought I would half continue with my radio silence of the past few weeks by letting these pictures speak for themselves.

17th June - In guitar maker Arcadio Marín's workshop, somewhere near Barcelona, reaching for a piece of wood

17th June - In guitar maker Arcadio Marín's workshop, somewhere near Barcelona, reaching for a piece of wood

Checking the finished article

Well, it's a start

Arcadio checking the neck, me resting my finger

Arcadio checking the neck, me resting my finger

"Yes" said Arcadio, "the neck's fine but my eye hurts from squinting."

The next day I ventured into Barcelona itself for a quite different guitar experience. Amalia Ramirez was bestowing a José Ramirez guitar to the collection at the Museu de la Música. I was lucky enough to have been asked to play a brief concert to an invited audience on the very same instrument. Immediately on termination of my performance the guitar was locked away into its glass case, whence it will venture forth from time to time to be aired and played, I am glad to say. These great photo are by Sara Guasteví:

18th June - Barcelona, Museu de la Música. Trying out the hall before the audience rushes in

18th June - Barcelona, Museu de la Música. Trying out the hall before the audience rushes in

Trying to smile, knowing that the guitar is not mine, but belongs to the museum. At least I spent a day playing with it

Trying to smile, knowing that the guitar is not mine, but belongs to the museum. At least I spent a day playing with it

Next stop: Queretaro, a beautiful city in the depths of Mexico. I am playing there on Sunday. Watch this space for my impressions, with a pic or two thrown in for good measure.

A Curvy Wall Built By French Prisoners In 1815 Is The Backdrop To My Concert

In Lammas with poster for my concert

In Lammas with poster for my concert

Took a train from Liverpool Street Station in London to Norwich on Friday. Nothing special about that, except a station official who saw me struggling with two guitars and a case offered to drive me on his motorised trolley to the platform. While other passengers hurried and fretted about catching their train I swept through the station scattering people asunder! I did get a few stares, and not very pleasant ones at that.

My concert on Saturday was in Lammas near Buxton near Norwich. This is a lovely village mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, where I have played on several occasions - a million miles away from the frenzy of London. It has a beautifully appointed church set back from the road, surrounded by fields. A shallow stream passes by within a few feet of it. The cemetery boasts some tombstones hundreds of years old.

A curvy wall built by French prisoners

A curvy wall built by French prisoners

Finally I got to know a little more about the strange curvy wall at the beginning of the grassed approach to the church of St. Andrew’s. It was built by French prisoners in 1815. Why they were brought all the way here is something no one has been able to tell me. But it did give me an opportunity to play Sor’s Marlborough Variations op. 28, since he was living in England as a political refugee around that time – a connection there of sorts.

I started the programme with some early music by Jean d’Estrée and Gaspar Sanz which seemed appropriate in this ancient church. I also included some of my Beatles’ music arrangements which in this very English setting belonged too.

Photo of St Andrew's Church where I played, courtesy of geograph.org.uk

Photo of St Andrew's Church where I played, courtesy of geograph.org.uk

And thus I enjoyed this recital in my favourite English church, in the company of a hugely enthusiastic audience. It is wonderful to think of all the volunteer staff who make such an event possible – nowhere else in the world have I ever encountered anything like it.

17th May, 2015, london

Guitar Playing Has No Winners And Losers, Unlike General Elections

- Just arrived back in London town. My advice is that learning to pluck would be excellent therapy for the trio of UK leaders who have resigned this week -

Carlos in the London rain, 2010. Photo by Sophie Davidson

Carlos in the London rain.Photo by Sophie Davidson, 2010

The best thing about guitar playing is that it has nothing to do with politics. OK, you may wish to already disagree. After all, politics in a personal form together with self-advancement do come into all our lives, however ordinary (whatever ordinary is). But please note, I was not referring to career or professional life, I only mentioned guitar playing.

Let me rewind to what it is all about. You play the guitar. You make a beautiful sound from the moment you pick it up. You try to figure out how to improve. You set about achieving it. If you achieve even a modest advancement then that is sufficient cause for celebration. If you don’t, you still have the satisfaction of making beautiful sounds and working towards the optimistic goal you have set of self improvement. If you make a breakthrough you are totally delighted. So you see, there are no losers, only winners.

So we could suggest excellent therapy for the recently departed trio of leaders who have thrown in the towel this week after the general election. \Instead of sitting in the house feeling miserable and getting on their wives’ nerves they could take up a new hobby. My suggestion is a pursuit which is guaranteed to be a winner – playing the guitar. They will not be abruptly and humiliatingly ejected from any guitar class, nor will they have to prove anything to themselves or anyone else.

Some of you may once again sigh and say that I am impossibly optimistic. But surely you must be an optimist in learning to play a musical instrument given all its difficulties? Otherwise you would be in a semi permanent state of self doubt and depression about the undeniably small improvements we can accomplish in any one day. I hope you are not part of that brooding minority but instead sit down with joy and hope and a tingling sense of excitement every time you take out the instrument from its case. I know I do.

10th May 2015, London

10 Qualities Required To Create A Perfect Technique

- to achieve it is a circular process, not a straight line

Carlos stress-free in a Guanajuato restaurant, Mexico, 2011

Carlos stress-free in a Guanajuato restaurant, Mexico, 2011

Technique is often discussed as a pre-requirement for mastering a musical instrument. This is true at the early stages, but not so indefinitely. Impovement is a circular activity (and as such never ending) for technique and musicality are joined like Siamese twins and need each other. A musical requirement invites a technical solution, an advance in technical prowess encourages greater confidence with interpretation which in turn makes new and fresh demands upon technique, leading to more daring musical flourishes, and so it goes on.

Here below is a visit to the circular world of guitar playing and improvement:

For your own total satisfaction, a relaxed state of mind is a prerequisite to ensure you...

play slowly and...

repeat phrases the sufficient times to reduce or eliminate the possibility of errors, whether they be...

scale passages played free or rest stroke or ...

arpeggio passages , all of them demanding...

rhythmic precision and articulation with...

good tone subject to a ...

variety of dynamics which will enhance the music, while the technique acquired makes the playing sound...

smooth thus encouraging a...

relaxed state of mind for your enjoyment and total satisfaction.

3rd May, 2015, London

Guitar Playing Should Be A Stress-Free Zone

Carlos stress-free in a Guanajuato restaurant, Mexico, 2011

Carlos stress-free in a Guanajuato restaurant, Mexico, 2011

I write these words from my New York hotel at 5pm. I have just arrived. I'm OK - but only just.

Now I have always been a pretty positive kind of person, not prone to thinking what if we get robbed on arrival and are left naked and starving on the pavement with no money or passports, not even a mobile phone to tell the folks back home we're OK? Or what if we get on the wrong plane and it refuses to turn round once we announce our mistake? What then? No, none of those silly, unlikely, neurotic, crazy, gloomy thoughts ever cross my mind, well not often anyway.

But what did strike me at 35,000 feet up in the air with nothing between me and the earth below but an airline seat nailed to a metal tube, was how much more in control I am when playing the guitar - with no one else around in a position to mess things up. No drivers, check-in officials, pilots or baggage handlers are needed for playing - just me. And what if I do mess up? It's no big deal - just keep playing the phrase again until I get it right. It may take five minutes, it may take longer, so what?

Guitar playing has no pact with deadlines, it levies no penalties. It soothes the savage breast from the moment those simple arpeggios ripple forth. A vibrato sets the mood, a glissando seals it. But if the frenzied activity of precision travel against the clock is allowed to exert its demonic influence then our hands turn to steel and our minds churn like demented washing machines. So too is the effect of metropolitan living when allowed to roam out of control.

So I thought to myself - up above while starting a descent into NY - it's best to seal a deal with the old magic box: cradle it in my arms when I am most at peace, for only then will it reciprocate and vibrate as I hope for. It may take a while to achieve that state of calm, but unlike much other activity there's no mad rush in guitar playing. The reward is a stress-free zone of pure pleasure. And there aren't nearly enough of those moments in our time-packaged lives.

25th April 2015, New York

Dad, Why Do You Play The Guitar?

Luis Milan Seminario, Xativa, Spain, 2006

Luis Milan Seminario, Xativa, Spain, 2006

10 questions a 6 year old might spring on you when you least expect them - and what to do about it

Bearing in mind Einstein's wise words "if you can't explain it to a six year old, then you don't understand it yourself" (see my blog last week) here are 10 questions you would be well advised to be ready to answer, especially if you spend any time with 6 year olds. If you don't, applying your mind to them should help hone your thoughts and sharpen your mental reflexes for the day you are cornered by a curious infant. There are few things more embarrassing in my experience than to be wrong-footed in the brain department by a child who at full stretch just reaches above your knee.

Q: Why do you play the guitar?
A: Because it makes me feel really good. And I am so happy I feel transported to another world somewhere near heaven.

Q: Then why do you pull funny faces?
A: Because I get all wrapped up in what I am doing. I shouldn't be pulling faces, it doesn't look good.

Q: Sometimes I hear you talk to yourself and use naughty words. Is that what you do when you get somewhere near heaven?
A: No, it's just me being silly. The thing is when you are trying to become a really good guitar player you don't realise you are doing those things.

Q: What is a really good guitar player?
A: Someone who doesn't make mistakes and has a really good technique and makes music sound beautiful.

Q: What is technique?
A: Technique is the way you use and place your fingers and hands to try to make sure you don't make mistakes, and so you can play anything you want however hard. It takes a lot of effort.

Q: Do you play really hard pieces?
A: No, I can't play really hard pieces yet.

Q: Is that because you haven't got technique?
A: I do have a technique, it's just not good enough.

Q: Why isn't it good enough?
A: Well it's OK. But I am still working on it. One of the hardest things you can do is learn to play a musical instrument.

Q: Then why not do something easier which you are good at, like riding a bike?
A: That is a very good idea. Let's do that together and go cycling tomorrow.

Q: OK, but you mustn't pull funny faces. And afterwards will you teach me to play the guitar so I make it sound beautiful with no mistakes ever?
A: Yes, yes. Anything you say. Now can I carry on doing some practice?

18th April 2015, Mexico

Einstein's Theory Of Learning Applies Relatively To The Guitar Too

Albert Einstein at the beach, 1945

Albert Einstein at the beach, 1945

An old friend of mine once said that if you can’t explain something to me so that I can understand it then it’s your fault for not explaining it properly. Albert Einstein took it a stage further. He said “if you can’t explain it to a 6 year old it’s because you don’t understand it yourself.” In addition to being quite a clever scientist he was also a keen violinist, so his pronouncement surely extends to violin and guitar playing too.

The phrase applies very well to learning a musical instrument because I have noted a tendency to devise convoluted theories in connection with playing the guitar. Explanations of musical aspects such as form, style and phrasing are also processed by the explainer through a cerebral meat-grinder leaving the learner dazed and quite likely with sudden loss of musical appetite.

Learned anally-retentive writers may feel the need to scrutinize every detail and list them all needlessly in dull prose. But they leave the reader none the wiser as to the inner meaning of the matter in hand. This type of explainer/writer/teacher when asked for an explanation is likely to reply:
“Now, that is a difficult question to answer just like that. How long have we got?”

Such replies reflect a brain full of the mince meat morsels of diverse information which have not yet been assembled into a dish of wholesome unified nourishment. Let us therefore enjoy getting to the heart of the matter, musical or otherwise, and do so in short phrases which a six year old could understand. If we struggle to do so, all the better, for in so doing we are searching to sum up the essence - firstly for our own satisfaction, and secondly so that we can communicate it the more easily.

That is why Einstein was right: “if you can’t explain it to a 6 year old it’s because you don’t understand it yourself.”

11th April 2015, Mexico