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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

From Madrid with Love

- how travel does alter the mind -

As far as I am concerned travel does not so much broaden the mind as alter it - at least for the time being. It consigns the everyday concerns and chores of our normal habitat to an untroubled area at the back of our memory. Pressing issues quite suddenly seem less important.

The simple dislocation to another place gives us a precious insight: perspective.

And maybe because I am a musician I am aware that a new location means a change of rhythm from an allegro frenetico to an andantino tranquilo, at least that is my aim wherever I go whenever possible.

All these thoughts have been racing through my mind this week in one of my favourite places, Madrid, where I am spending a few days with my great friend, the guitar-making innovator Juan Menduiña before continuing to Seville for my recital on Tuesday.

In the local bar café, I watch with delight families gather noisily for Saturday lunch, while in other corners old men play cards and dominoes. In the evening the TV relays live a bull-fight with strutting matadors, furious bulls and death itself reviewed in slow replay. Political correctness has not reached this area - small children look up untroubled at the screen as they run around the tables.

Travel does more than give perspective - it marks time itself. It has encouraged me to observe, savour and appreciate things around me slowly changing in places familiar to me from previous visits.

Take Juan Menduiña's guitars - and you would be fortunate to do so for they are wonderful instruments - where small changes since the last time I was here have led to significant developments. While trying out his latest instruments I practised away at the pieces I am playing on Tuesday. Doing so in the spacious environment of his workshop inspired a different edge and concentration to my playing. Could it be that travel renews the brain's neurone connections too and leads to a new enthusiasm for the familiar?

Travel gives perspective.
Travel alters our rhythm.
Travel renews enthusiasm.
Travel gives us the gift of time itself: time to reflect, time to observe, time to enjoy.

12th May 2013, Madrid

For a complete index to my blogs click here

Guitar Learning in the Dock – Let the Judge Decide!

How outrageous claims for learning to play quickly could end up in court and turn Jailhouse Rock into a reality

Did you know that you could learn to play the guitar in 10 hours and your first solo in 15 minutes? If you can wait long enough you could learn the piano in 30 days, and can do so without music sheets and exercises. What’s more you don’t have to be musical or talented or young to do so. Isn’t that wonderful? All you need is to follow clear simple instructions and will be rocking and rolling or whatever takes your fancy in no time at all. Forget about practise, learning music, and technical development – those are all terms and concepts we can now discard to the dustbin together with old-fashioned methods and stuffy academics. Yes siree, there is a whole new world out there of fast learning waiting for you, and it is found on the internet. Just key in “learn the guitar” or “play the guitar” or “learn the piano” into your search bar and just see what comes up.

The vulgar language of hard sell has caught up with learning a musical instrument. Guitar learning sites are using the same language as those selling vacuum cleaners and other consumer products. Behind all this is the long reach of the commercial approach which understands that the most persuasive and powerful advocacy for learning to play an instrument is that anybody can do it in no time at all. The language of hard-sell is then neatly employed to counter the most off-putting factors which are the difficulty of learning, the dedication required, and the time one must put aside.

Sooner or later some clever wag may decide to test some of the ridiculous claims being made by learning sites. Encouraged by the challenging notion of “learn to play in 15 days or your money back” our wag decides to take one of these organisations to court.

This is how it could go:
Barrister for the plaintiff:
My Lord, it is our contention that my client deserves his money back since in 15 days he has not been able to master the guitar, let alone play a tune all the way through without hesitation, nor string together three chords with any fluency. The claims made by the accused pander to the deep needs of many and profiteer from their wishes to play an instrument, by falsely claiming a methodology which is shallow and misleading. For these reasons the accused should be obliged to return the £130 pounds handed to them on false pretences, since he has misrepresented what is truly involved in learning to play.

Barrister for the accused:
May I start by saying, My Lord, that my learned friend shows an approach to learning rooted in ancient traditions which while quite laudable in certain contexts bears no relation to the modern world in which we live. People wish to learn quickly their favourite tunes. In an age where time is at a premium my client offers a highly specialised service carefully catering for the wishes of enthusiastic learners who do not have the inclination nor energy to go through previously established procedures such as learning music and hours of practise of what are regarded, even by experts in the profession, as boring exercises.

The Judge:
At issue here is what is meant by being able to play the guitar. Could the plaintiff give us an example of what he considers his failed attempts at learning so that the Court may hear and come to its own conclusion? Please pass the plaintiff a foot-stool and chair so he may feel comfortable.

The Plaintiff:
I will play you “Three Blind Mice”. I have followed the instructions for 15 minutes as indicated and this is what I have come up with.

[He proceeds to produce a disjointed barely recognizable set of note with a passing resemblance to the tune in question].

The Plaintiff:
Now I will play you a three chord sequence on which I worked on for 30 minutes as suggested. As you will see I get my fingers tied up in knots and it takes ages to put them on the right frets, and even then the sound is full of buzzes.

Barrister for the accused:
Objection, My Lord. The plaintiff seems to expect to be able to play three chords in succession quickly and neatly, but at no time did my client suggest that this would be the case. The fact is that the plaintiff has been able to play the three chords sequentially in the space of about two and a half minutes and thus in accordance with my client's brief for learning. My client says quite clearly: as he progresses through the course of 50 lessons he will improve and so may I take the liberty of suggesting that by the end of the course he will be able to play them in 10 seconds. As for Three Blind Mice it may very well be that the plaintiff's fingers are too short or too long or disproportioned to effectively manage the task of playing it. This itself should be a matter for expert witnesses to determine since my client's method is aimed at the average hand and finger lengths.

The Judge:
Please pass me the guitar.

The judge now tries to hold down a few notes and strums quietly across all the strings. Gradually he plays louder and his breathing becomes louder and more shallow. His tongue protrudes out of the corner of his mouth. He leans over the guitar till all we can see is the back of his wig. Suddenly he looks up and says firmly:

The court is adjourned until 2pm. Plaintiff, may I borrow your guitar till then? Thank you so much. In preparation for this trial I watched a video by a singer called Elvis Presley in prison. It was called Jailhouse Rock. Very interesting indeed....now, how did it go?

To be continued....

5th May 2013, London

Memory’s Mysterious Moods: What Slimy Snails Remember and Why We Should Eat More Chocolate

- how the latest scientific discoveries can help musicians recall the dots –

This week my attention has been caught, and my imagination fired by some startling articles in the UK press. I am not one to fall easily for the latest crackpot theories about the creation of the universe or the meaning of life, nor even about how to play the guitar in two weeks, and as you know we are blasted from all sides by just such propositions. But when hair-raising ideas come from serious sources such as University research teams, then I can only conclude that either they have just joined an academic club of nutty brethren or that scientific enquiry is on the threshold of amazing discoveries. I am pleased to announce that it is this last possibility which I prefer to embrace with wonder and enthusiasm.

This week is the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. That amazing breakthrough afforded us a peep into how we are made, and not just us, but all living matter. I have devised a Hollywood style celebration. Although not as grand as the Oscar awards I hope you can throw yourselves into the imagined proceedings with a similar commitment. And so, enter stage left, a snail. He is pushing a diminutive trolley stuffed full – please take him seriously, you will soon discover why. Enter stage right, a human creature, in other words one of us.

Now it may have escaped your attention that snails have large neurons in their brains thus facilitating our examination of how their memory works, so are ideal subjects for observation and kind experimentation. All that was needed in a recent experiment was a poking stick with no sharp end and some epl. What’s that, I hear you ask. Epl (epicatechin) is a particular type of flavonoid which is a chemical compound “that give plants their colours, flavours and scents, and have been linked to many health benefits in humans” according to The Scientific American including, crucially, improved memory. The good news for us humans is that epl is found in cocoa, green tea, red wine and blueberries, all of which I am very fond. I hope you are still with me: our snail has entered pushing a trolley of epl, aided and abetted by a team of scientists from the beautifully named Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Now let’s go back to stage right, from which has entered a mighty human being, well mighty only in comparison to the snail, but actually an ordinary human being - stressed out, overworked, and underwhelmed by life’s lot, just your ordinary typical person-off-the-street, who sometimes can’t remember why he got up to go into the other room, nor the day of the week, nor a host of other mundane and not so mundane things. Stand still, say the researchers from the Department of Psychology, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey, USA who have produced a learned paper on the subject. Clench your right fist for 90 seconds and think of something – anything - you wish to remember.

Meanwhile, dear spectator, our snail is leaving a trail of slime, intelligent slime, as he proceeds towards centre stage just where our fellow creature is standing. He has been fed an increased dose of epl (do you still remember what that is?) and is helping himself to more from the trolley too. By doing so it has increased his memory span from a meagre two minutes to several hours, simply by eating epl full of really tasty food. Forgetting things within two minutes or less is of course a human speciality, and if you doubt such a tendency, ask yourself the following question: what are the three qualities flavonoids give plants? You just read the answer in the second paragraph above less that 60 seconds ago!

But I digress from the show: there is our human who some while ago had been asked to clench his right fist for 90 seconds. He has waited patiently for the approach of the snail, who not surprisingly is taking his time (that’s why he is what he is), not least because he is gorging himself on the blueberries and red wine so that he can hardly slime in a straight line. Finally the snail is upon him and astonishingly is able to say “ah yes, sir, I met you back stage an hour ago”, whereas pre-meal time he would have forgotten the encounter within two minutes.

Our human volunteer is now prompted by the research team to clench his left fist for 90 seconds, after which, to his delight and our bemusement, he can recall not only a previous encounter with the very same snail but his name too! Just imagine the hugging and embracing that is going on now between man and snail, but best not to think of kissing.

It’s all about neurones again, this time human ones. It turns out that clenching your right fist triggers the storing of memory, and clenching the left fist its retrieval. Quite why this should be is the subject of continuing enquiry.

So there you have it, dear reader, guitarist, or muso: to help you memorise eat loads of blueberries and chocolate washed down with red wine, and follow that with clenching your right fist for 90 seconds while concentrating like crazy on what you wish to remember. Two hour later, brew up some green tea, and upon imbibing, clench your left fist for 90 seconds whereupon all your stored memories will be recalled, no problem.

And can you think of a greater pleasure than playing a Bach fugue effortlessly from memory while stuffing yourself with blueberries and refilling your glass from a case-load of red wine, knowing that such excesses are in the pursuit of improved recall and enhanced performance?

Watch this space for more amazing discoveries from the world of science.

28th April 2013, London

For a complete index to my blogs click here

Reflex Memory and Why You Can't Trust It

Having listened to hundreds, no, thousands of student and professional guitar players during my eventful life I can with some confidence declare some common tendencies. Here are just three for your reading pleasure and reflection:

- they get nervous before and during public performances
- they make mistakes
- their memory fails them from time to time

If you know a guitar player or other instrumentalist who is unfamiliar with any of these three tendencies please write to me and we shall carry him or her shoulder high from his or her next concert through the streets of his or her hometown!

Now, I think the third factor is a powerful reason for the first two tendencies happening at all. In the acting world it is called 'drying' on stage and is considered the nearest you will get to wanting to disappear down an imaginary plug-hole there and then. Musicians are not far behind in how they feel, only it is not talked about so freely.

If the memory is not secure then the nervous system goes into a state of alarm and all the bells in our fragile interior start to sound. When this happens the fingers tense up. As they do so they miss their footing so-to-speak (handling is a more appropriate word!) and make a mistake. This often causes the flow and rhythm to stutter which in turn causes havoc with the memory.

What is the answer? It is a big step forward if the memory process does not rely only on finger reflexes but also on visualisation techniques which include:
- name the notes under the fingers as you play in slow motion
- name the fingers, frets and strings step by step without playing
- name all the notes one at a time without playing
- run an imaginary film of yourself playing in which you visualise the finger patterns, frets and strings and below (as subtitles) the musical score all at the same time.

Once one has gone through this process you will feel more confident of not forgetting. At first this is an admittedly laborious process, but with time it speeds up and becomes second nature. In doing so you will be less nervous. Being calmer you are less likely to make mistakes.

And so at a stroke we have dealt a blow to three of the most negative factors common to guitar players and other musicians. Call me an optimist, but believe me, I am convinced it works!

20th April 2013, Celano, Italy

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Stephen Dodgson 1924 - 2013: A Personal Recollection

Stephen Dodgson 1924-2013

I am very saddened to learn of the death of Stephen Dodgson, He was a wonderful composer who wrote a great amount of music for guitar which include solo works, chamber music, and two concertos – all this without playing the instrument himself.

Encouraged by both his friends Julian Bream and John Williams he became quite expert in his understanding of the guitar. He composed for it from his earliest association with Julian Bream in the 1950’s and for the next fifty years. Listen to the development of his style starting from the energy and wiry rhythms of the Partita No. 1 (1963) in a landmark recording by John Williams to the mellow lyricism and dreamy nature in this sound sample of Partita No. 4 composed more than 25 years later and recorded here by the brilliant Jonathan Leathwood.

His ear for the sonorities of the guitar was very fine. Maybe no composer has shown such sensitivity to the harmonic nuances of chordal voicing on the instrument, taking Villa-Lobos’ idea of open strings against stopped notes in the higher positions to a whole new level. His command of bigger structures was equally impressive. Listen to the way he creates monumental sounds (like a Henry Moore sculpture in music) in these sound samples in such works as the Duo Concertante for guitar and harpsichord (1968), and
Personent Hodie - Fantasy on an Ancient Carol for Massed Guitars (1980), Watersmeet for solo guitar and guitar ensemble and in his two concertos for guitar and orchestra.

His list of works for guitar in chamber music provides enough music to fill many programmes, and satisfies the most unusual requirements of instrumental combinations too. Check out these two lists: one in Wikipedia and another one here.

On a personal note, Stephen Dodgson was my composition teacher when I became a student at the Royal College of Music. He was charming, kind and invariably in a good mood, even when I turned up with a poor musical scribble in response to his homework demands that week. He showed me the beauties of Medieval and Renaissance music and encouraged me to follow the learning processes of that time (first species, second species, etc), thus instilling me a life-long love of ancient music. His knowledge of music was huge, and his sharp observations priceless. He loved to point out the absurdities and contradictions in people’s behaviour, all in the most good-humoured and kind-hearted manner, talking and gesticulating while all the time laughing and chuckling in his characteristic manner. In those moments I always recalled his family antecedent Charles Lutwidge Dodgson better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.

His tolerance of my student ways knew no limits: I would enter his teaching room puffing away at a cigarette, commandeer the dustbin, and use it as an ash tray for the rest of the lesson. At the time he would tease me and mimic my actions delightfully to others, and this from a non-smoker who years later told me he hated the smell! He was extremely supportive of my first important London concert in 1971 when I played his Duo Concertante with Tom Gilhooley.

Stephen Dodgson has left a treasure of music to the guitar, and personally he will be missed hugely by all who knew him.

14th April 2013, London

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Visualisation is the Cinderella of Learning

Carlos in Maidstone dressing room just before playing the Aranjuez Concerto October 2012

- How You Can Improve Your Memory With a Few Simple Exercises -

Of all the aspects of practise maybe visualisation is the least emphasised. This is a shame because it uses two most vibrant parts of our anatomy: the eye and brain working in harness.

Visual memory is so strong that we can remember a face, or a picture, or an item of clothing years after we have last seen it. It can be the same with a musical score: I can remember on which page and on which part of the page a bar appears a long time after I last referred to it.

Once you have learnt some visualisation exercises your memory will become much more secure, and your playing will become more confident.

First put yourself through this test on a really familiar piece, one you know like the back of your hand. Try to name every note sequentially in the piece without playing the guitar. Now try to name every fret space and string sequentially. If you have done so effortlessly congratulations, but the chances are that you haven't got past the first few bars.

So here is how you could proceed to make visualisation a basic aspect of your learning process from now on, in new pieces.

Play very slowly concentrating on fingerings, fret placements. strings and postions.
Now do the same again - name the fingerings, frets, strings and positions in sequence - but without playing.
Play very slowly naming the notes as you play. Play slowly enough to be able to do so comfortably.
Now do the same again - name all the notes in sequence - but without playing.
Now visualise yourself playing on screen with subtitles. The screen images are the fingerings, frets, strings and positions. The subtitles are the notes of the musical score. Do it very slowly so you can visualise both at the same time.

In due course, and sooner rather than later, you will incorporate these techniques automatically into the learning process of new pieces. Until that time it is worth spending a few minutes every day on concentrated visualisation by starting with difficult passages and passages you don't remember well in familiar pieces.

This has been my rough guide to visualisation.

6th April, 2013, Alexandria, Egypt

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My week in Mauritius, Malta and Norwich and how I avoided a good kicking

Going to waste in Mauritius

The beginning of my week started in Mauritius, an island in the South Pacific drenched in heat, sun and tropical rain. At first I thought I could live quite happily there, but then decided I would probably spend all my time going to waste on the beach or at the bar, a destiny I do not wish for myself.

On Sunday night I took a series of interminable flights to reach the island of Malta, finally arriving on Monday afternoon. I have been giving concerts in Malta for many years. It is a beautiful island full of history, and what’s more the capital Valleta has one of the best theatres I know.

The Manoel Theatre is like a miniature Scala, complete with private box entrances. The sound, unamplified, is excellent. I played a mixed programme which included Renaissance dances by Jean D'Estrée, the Choros and preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Capricho Arabe and Gran Jota by Francisco Tárrega and J.S.Bach's Lute suite BWV996.

Spring in Malta and meeting Mizzi

The second part of the programme I dedicated exclusively to the music of Maltese composer Gordon Mizzi who was in the audience. I have recorded two albums of his music and admire the sentiment of his compositions. On this occasion I had worked long and hard to prepare for the performance. I made some changes and improvised some embellishments, uncertain of whether they would meet with Gordon's approval. I invited him onto the stage to share some of the thunderous applause at the end of the performance, thereby risking a good kicking from him. I could tell from his expression he was not amused, so for a brief moment a public showdown was prevented only by his good manners and my carefully guarded distance. Still, we are friends, and the next day we partook of an abundant supper and fine wine in his splendid home, and I hope all or nearly all was forgiven.

The next day Wednesday I went sightseeing in Mdina with guitarist Tony Pace ending up back at my hotel where I bumped into the newly-appointed Maltese Minister of Culture who promptly invited us to dinner 'sometime'.

In the early evening I gave a class in the theatre's Toi Toi series for local guitarists ranging from 10 to 60 years of age, the event organised by Rosetta who bubbles over with enthusiasm for and dedication to the educational programmes she runs.

Back to Arctic Blighty

Thursday dawned bright, warm and sunny and I was dreading my return to London still in the grips of winter, especially since I had not brought with me an overcoat, scarf or gloves!I imagined myself in Camden Town catching frostbite on the way home with a guitar strapped to my back, while pulling a suitcase behind me and trudging knee-deep through snow drifts. Actually it didn't turn out quite as bad.

Good Friday was nearly a day of rest, but by late afternoon I was on my way to Norwich for my engagement organised by veteran course organiser and my life-long friend Jane Bentley with the newly formed Norwich Classical Guitar Society. I heard play a variety of keen and talented players and I think a good time was had by all, including yours truly.

And so ended my eventful week, although I have to admit to you that I am off again and writing these words on Sunday from an aeroplane winging its way to Munich.

31st March, 2013, Munich, Germany

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Learning Properly is a Waste of Time

- Throw away the book and do it your way! -

Am I alone in noticing what I am about to describe? I hope not. It surprised me when I discovered it a long time ago from wise people who told me. It was reinforced by a book I read called "Compulsory Miseducation" - that too set my mind racing.

It's all about the ying and yang of education. As a consequence it encouraged me to bring up my children Dario and Adriano according to the unconventional model in so far as their musical education. As it happens they both turned out pretty good musicians!

Here's how it goes. Take two children: guide the first through a methodical approach based on sound technique from the start, reading music, and learning carefully graded pieces from one week to the next. Insist on methodical preparation and practise.

Take the second child on a different musical journey: get him or her to improvise, to imitate and to play back by ear. Tell him not how to play anything unless requested by him for you to do so. Put an emphasis on self-expression (yes, even with young children). Treat learning musical notation merely as a tool for remembering and no more, at least for some months.

Maybe you know already where I am going with this. I will tell you: the second child more frequently than not develops greater confidence as a player, becomes creative, enjoys his playing more, and sooner rather than later overtakes the first child in both technique and reading ability.

The first child is concerned with balancing the various demands made of him as he picks up the guitar (or any other instrument). These can include:
- sit properly
- read the right notes
- left hand knuckles in line
- hold up the right hand wrist
- grow your nails
- don't rest the little finger on the guitar top
- don't rest the thumb on the guitar top
- play in time, at a snail's pace if necessary

Meanwhile in the other corner, child number two is having a great time strumming with his nailess thumb, digging in to the strings with his very own homemade rest stroke technique, while his left hand fingers fly all over the fret board in anarchist abandon. The music coming from his guitar may be a well-known tune treated to his own embellishments, discreetly prompted by a sympathetic teacher.

So I repeat my question: am I alone in noticing these two contrasting types? I admit I have depicted two extreme versions, but still I think they are quite recognisable.

What conclusions do I draw? Where do we go from here? For the moment I am tempted to say throw away the book and let's focus on musical self-expression
straight away and the rest will follow from that.

Of course, some may think it is important to not allow "bad habits" to set in from the beginning, as is sitting "correctly", and adopting a good technique straight away. And all that is good.

We set a compass towards the goal we are seeking when we start on the long journey of learning to play a musical instrument. The moment we first set the compass may be the ideal time to decide where we are heading and how to get there.

The goal for me and my students is self expression through music in its many forms. It includes Improvising, composing, fluency, confidence, expression, reading skills, good technique, tone...they are all up there, and they are all important, jostling each other for good positioning within the goal mouth. How exciting!

And that's how it should be.

23rd March, 2013, Mauritius

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Three Golden Rules for Making a Good Tone

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Making a good tone is the most important consideration for attracting the attention of a listener. Forget about virtuosity, that comes second. Don’t agree? Well let me put it this way: what do you prefer to listen to, an expressive piece played with good tone, or a virtuoso showpiece played with lousy tone? If you prefer the first option read on, if you prefer the second please don’t turn away, give me a chance, and read on too!

The three golden rules are:

1. SMooth Surface

2. Sensitivity

3. SMart Spot

If it helps you remember, think SMS + S + SMS.

Here is more about each of these headings:

1. Smooth Surface
If you play with nails keep them as smooth as possible. Use an emery board and afterwards a fine sanding paper to smooth your nails completely. Shape your nails so that some 50% of them come into contact with the string before sliding off. The contact point with the string is with the inside of the nail or the tip of the finger depending on the context. By context I mean style and speed.

In free-stroke technique “scoop” up the string with the inside nail and “push” the string at an angle as horizontal as possible to the guitar top, just missing the string behind, but only just.

For rest-stroke I suggest the same approach to the string, only this time you come to rest on the lower string.

2. Sensitivity
Keep an open mind on the methodology of tone production. Experiment with very small changes to approach. Listen acutely to your sound, especially in difficult passages and when playing high up the guitar. Be relaxed, and relax the fingertips. Don’t play loudly – yet. Lean over the sound hole to hear well the sound you are making, or rest your ear on the side of the guitar. By doing these things you will develop an extra sensitivity. With sensitivity comes good tone, and with extra sensitivity comes your very own especially good tone!

3. Smart Spot
One of the key factors in making a good sound is resonance. The guitar resonates most deeply when a maximum number of harmonics and sympathetic vibrations are set in motion on playing a note. There is one spot on each string where this happens. It is less than a centimeter across and is usually somewhere between the middle and edge of the sound hole. Let’s call it the smart spot.

You can find the smart spot by playing rest-stroke repeatedly along this area of string until suddenly you will feel the whole guitar vibrate. This should become your “default” position for playing, with plenty of variety added ranging from extra sound-hole to ponticello. Return to your smart spot with frequency, for it produces the deepest tone and consequently the most pleasing sound.

This has been my rough guide to the three golden rules of making a good tone.

16th March 2013, Kochin, India

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Make a Great Sound on the Guitar

Carlos interviewed on Radio Nuevo Leon Monterrey, Mexico, 2009

Nail it down now by separating fact from fiction!

Lots has been written about this by lots of distinguished guitar players and pedagogues. Some comments are excellent and I agree with them, but others I have found absurd and confused. So here is a checklist which in my humble opinion separates fact from fiction, and divides clear thinking from the wishful variety.

You need a good guitar to make a great sound.
True or false?

A player with good tone can make a rough guitar sound good and deceive a listener into thinking it is a really good instrument. A player with poor tone will make a good instrument sound OK, but not great.

Verdict: true and false.

You need good nails to make a great sound.
True or false?

This statement assumes that you need play the guitar with nails. Until the 20th century this was not the case. Almost all early guitarists and lutenists played without nails. Since nail-playing has become standard, fretting and worrying about broken and chipped nails has become part and parcel of many a guitarist’s make up. And talking of make up, false nails can sound as good and often a lot better than real nails. I have not been able to tell them apart on various occasions. The only downside is the time they take to fix on and the lurking danger of them flying off into the front row of an unsuspecting audience.

Verdict: false.

You need good strings to make a great sound.
True or false?

There are few more dispiriting things about playing the guitar than playing on dead strings. No matter the quality of your guitar, good or indifferent, a new string adds life and intensity to the sound. A new string hums and sings with you as you give it vibrato, and what’s more it plays in tune (or should do) unlike dead strings which are hopeless above the 5th fret.

Verdict: true.

Good tone will develop naturally the more you practise and as you become more experienced.
True or false?

This assumes that players listen to their tone at all times and develop the skills necessary to refine it just as they do with technique. It would appear reasonable to make this assumption since we all hope for a player’s development to be consistent. It has been confounded in my experience by observation and listening. Players can become completely immersed in developing acrobatic guitar-playing techniques and one of the first casualties is good tone.

Verdict: false.

The secret to good tone lies in the correct right hand position.
True or false?

Try a simple experiment: play the strings with the worst hand position you can imagine while at the same time trying to make a pleasing sound. I hope you will be surprised that it can be done, provided you do not play loudly. The explanation is simple: the key to good tone lies in the subtle relationship between nail, fingertip and string and this is only partly affected by the hand position. Everything changes though when you try to project the sound fully. This is when hand position becomes crucial.

Verdict: true and false.

Free-stroke technique can produce as great a sound as rest-stroke.
True or false?

Now we are going into a controversial area but I find no problem to answer the question with certainty. The free-stroke can never have the complete roundness and firmness of the rest-stroke although you should aim to attain that sound. To banish rest-stroke from playing is to diminish the range and depth of tone at your disposal.

Verdict: false.

Sunmary: I hope this article serves as an introduction to this important area and gives you the confidence to proceed with confidence to play with great tone. What matters more than received wisdom about fingertips or nails or technique is listening to your playing and experimenting with small changes to how you play. This may be obvious but needs to be said out loud as I have tried to do here.

This has been my rough guide to making a great sound on the guitar.

10th March 2013, London

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