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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

The Virtuous Guitarist Beckons Just Round The Corner

But the hermit player is shy and nervous of making a move

Let us suppose for a moment that we lived in a world where guitarists could not turn their hands to a range of musical achievements. Some spring to mind straight away. I am going to rattle through them, describe them briefly, and see what they add up to. I think that by the end we will roll out the carpet and welcome back the Virtuous Guitarist – yes, he who has it all. For those unfamiliar with this recurring figure, hold on to your hats and enjoy the ride. Through the coming rough and tumble remember my only desire is to encourage and foment creativity, but if I have to mock, poke fun, and cajole, I will.

Let’s get started and dispense firstly with a quality that most will reluctantly agree is generally unattainable: virtuosity. Paganini was one such who by virtue of it was believed to be in league with the devil. People would follow him in the street and touch him to make sure he was made of flesh and blood. Clearly here is one attribute which is beyond the reach of all but that tiny minority in contact with a demon, benign or otherwise. Virtuosity of that dimension is one we can cross off the list as one that most players cannot turn their hands to.

Let me come down a peg or two. If virtuosity is beyond most guitar players maybe there is one quality which requires little or no virtuosity: improvisation. Here we touch the very depths of our inner creativity. A flight of fancy delivered off the cuff with aplomb is as wonderful for the players as the listener. Even an idle doodle can become quite absorbing and creative. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, improvisation is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

A player with average technique can be a great sight-reader, simply because so much of that skill is based on faking it
Let’s leave aside virtuosity and improvisation, and turn 180 degrees. Sight-reading makes no special demand of virtuosity, and certainly calls not on improvising. Good sight-readers leave out notes buried menacingly in the labyrinth of a five string chord, fending them off as they rush ever closer, and do so without skipping a beat. Good sight-readers can view a page covered in a mass of dots as dense as the black footsteps of an ant colony going about its business, and having deciphered a harmonic pattern at sight immediately translate it into an impressive cascade of arpeggios. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, sight-reading is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

Let us take stock: neither improvisation nor virtuosity nor sight-reading is within many guitar players’ grasp. How about composing then? Now I am being unfair. Surely I cannot expect guitar players to be composers too? Well not necessarily good composers, but hack composers maybe: to write pastiche, even parody, is entertaining, instructive and well-rewarded in the music market place. Why, if every composer had to be a true original, we would have to write off 90% of them. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, composing of any kind is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

OK, in that case how about playing pieces musically? That is more like it, at last a reasonable demand from high and mighty yours truly. Just a reminder of what musically means: with expression appropriate to the style and period, played rhythmically and fluently, with lashings of personality. A player comfortably at ease with these qualities transmits and communicates something to a captive audience. Even a simple unassuming piece can be transformed into a work of wonder in this way. No? I see you nod slowly. Alas, you say, playing of this order is an activity many guitarists, especially classical guitarists, cannot turn their hands too.

Let us draw up our list at the sad end of this exposition of the non-attributes of our classical guitarist friend: neither virtuosity nor sight-reading nor composing nor musical playing nor communicability is within his remit. So what is? A fumbling, hesitant, shy, I-get-so-nervous-playing-to-other-people player trying to embrace a big musical world barely of his comprehension hiding in his practice room dreaming of a more confident and accomplished future – this may strike a chord or two (pardon the pun) with someone you know. Playing the guitars brings out the hermit in him, for it is his refuge, his solitary refuge for him/her with the guitar. Mind you I do not criticize having a refuge. A refuge brings great peace to all of us. But this musical refuge does not have to be so….small, unassuming, dare I say it, dull.

Take courage, it need not be like this! There is another way. The path of the virtuous guitarist is paved with flowers and glitters with the rewards of all that at present is beyond reach. The virtuous guitarist builds his abilities like a spider spins his web, round and round, until his musical skills are trapped in the “dark tarantula of the sound hole” (Federico Garcia Lorca’s phrase, not mine!). All one needs do, is make a start.

18th April, 2014, Mexico

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