Roadmap, sort of. An ambitious outlay of plans.

Being new to this blogging thing, it occurs to me that I’ve got a book brewing here. The subtitle might be “An Outsider’s Guide to All Things Guitar.”

All I can do is post stuff as I think of it and as time permits. What will probably happen is a bunch of installments presented out of order, and later on I’ll have to re-organize it into chapters and sections.

I already have tons of written material that I created in the form of emails to friends, and one or two long essays that I wrote just for myself. Then there are sections that I have been mulling over for months but not committed to the word processor or paper. I’m not going to publish this all at once, because I want you, the reader, to keep coming back for more.

[A whole ‘nother thing that I can write about is my method for playing jazz guitar with the instrument tuned in all fourths, low-to-high Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-B-E.

I don’t use this method for classical guitar; I play classical in standard tuning, at least for now.

I did not invent the 4ths-tuning method, but I came up with all of my principles myself; I “re-invented the wheel” to suit my own needs. I call this “Stanley” tuning, after Stanley Jordan, but I’m talking about using it for traditional right and left hand technique, not tapping a la Jordan or playing a Chapman Stick. I have been receiving some consulting on this from guitar educator and guitar designer and manufacturer Matt Raines, who has made it his specialty to play seven-string guitar in 4ths with the traditional technique. He doesn’t endorse my work, yet, but I think I’m on to something.]

Anyway, Becoming a Guitarist will include, but will not be limited to, the following (in no particular order). I will present my insights and opinions on:

1. How classical guitar notation is too hard to read; here’s how to change it for the better. Lots of music notation examples. This is not about “tab” or tablature. It’s about traditional music notation.

2. Using computer tools for notation and arranging for guitar, and for studying scores. Do it yourself.

3. How to use extended-range bass guitar in the classical ensemble context; available instruments and strategies. 7-string, 8-string, 10 and 11-string classical guitars, regular scale, long scale, “fanned fret”, and a section on using the five-string acoustic bass guitar in the ensemble. There are several renowned ensembles using one or more of these instruments today.

4. How to cross-over from electric and acoustic guitar to classical guitar; specific modifications to the classical guitar design that are commercially available, and how to obtain them. I did a lot of research before I bought my unusual yet quite affordable Alhambra “crossover” guitar. This will contain an extensive section on fingerboard and nut width, radiused versus flat fingerboards, fret dressing, string spacing at the nut and bridge, action, intonation, and cutaway design. Then, once you have decided to play classical, can you continue to play your old electric and steel-string acoustic guitars? Should you?

5. How to make your classical guitar sing. Most classical repertoire consists of music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, “transcribed” to fit onto a guitar or ensemble of guitars. In many cases we are talking about vocal music with lyrics (think madrigals, Bach chorales, and Schubert lieder). Now, I’m a singer and chorister who has worked with all kinds of vocal music. So I think I’m entitled to give the guitarist (any kind of guitarist) some tips on how to make your guitar playing sound more like singing. I personally interviewed Paul O’Dette, the world’s greatest lute player, and got some insights on this subject. I also draw on a published interview with Sharon Isbin that I need to dig up and quote.

6. Related to (5), how to really learn and understand the music you are going to play, before you pick up the guitar. It has to do with taking the trouble to find the sheet music and a good recording of the original arrangement as the composer intended, even if it’s a symphony with a full orchestra, before you plunge into the guitar transcription or arrangement with which you’ve been provided. This goes doubly for lyrics. You shouldn’t play an instrumental arrangement of a song unless you know the lyrics and what they mean in English (if that is your language). This goes doubly for jazz guitarists playing out of the fake book. More advice from Paul O’Dette.

7. Posture, relieving stress in your body in practicing and performing. Footstools are archaic and obsolete, and in my case, needlessly stressful and painful. Putting both feet flat on the ground and propping up your guitar into the proper playing position using a special cushion or a support bracket that attaches to the guitar are better ways to play.

8. Keys, how to approach selecting a key, and the important but usually overlooked issue of guitarists being needlessly inflexible about keys. Important side-note on how guitars and writing songs based on playing licks built around open strings in rock and pop music have ruined life for singers everywhere, and how this could be corrected. The bottom line is that if you are working with a singer, you and your ensemble should let the singer select the key of each piece he or she is singing. The singer should select the key that works best for his or her particular voice according to the melody of the piece being considered. Everybody in the band should be prepared to play the song in any key requested at any time. This is the way it has always been done in classical music, folk music, and especially jazz. Many hit rock songs make this task impossible, due to the way in which they were written, which I will explain.

I’ll think of other stuff. Well, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

If you have some comments on these points, and I hope you do, you might want to wait until I publish the section in question and explain myself fully, rather than comment on my little outline above. On the other hand, if you have specific ideas on other topics about classical guitar and musicianship that you think I ought to address, please post comments here. I’m looking mostly for conventional, traditional things that everybody does that you think should be done differently.

Introductions

Hello and welcome.

You can click on “About Wheat Williams” above and learn some more about me.

If you are learning guitar, I hope you’ll find lots of material here in the coming months that will be helpful. If you are an established classical guitarist (a member of  a clique of generally stuffy academic elitists who really know how to play music) I hope to make you think about and reconsider things that you take for granted. I have an iconoclastic bent, and lots of ideas about how things could be done better.

Basically, I’m an experienced, classically-trained singer who has never been good enough at an instrument to call himself an instrumentalist. I have determined to become a classical guitarist, late in life. I’m going to approach the whole subject of learning and playing classical guitar from a total “outsider” perspective. I hope to provide some unusual insights and try to change some attitudes and perceptions.

Although I have a Bachelor of Music degree, I have never made much income from being a musician. And I’m a singer, not an instrumentalist. I have an extensive background in traditional church choral music. I also know an awful lot about rock and jazz, having been a professional freelance music journalist for publications such as Guitar Player Magazine and Keyboard. Oh, yeah, I did freelance publicity for Sony Music Nashville in the early 90s, writing marketing materials, press releases, and industry tip sheets, artists’ press kit bios, and the like.

I haven’t made much music in the last ten years, but as part of a total life makeover I’m going through (call it the positive outcome of a serious mid-life crisis) I made a commitment to join a very good amateur traditional church choir in a small Presbyterian church in the North Druid Hill community of Atlanta, Georgia. As I’ve been called up for solos, I have taken up with a voice coach, which will be the first time I’ve seriously studied singing since about 1996, thirteen years ago.

Recently an acquaintance who is a professional guitarist called me up and asked me if I could join his new classical guitar trio. He intends this to be a gigging, money-making side project, playing weddings and casuals.

Now, let me tell you, I am an experienced singer with an extensive background in classical music, but I have never called myself an instrumentalist. I have always been a guitar fancier, and usually had several cheap guitars lying around that were frequently rotated around by selling them on eBay and getting new ones every few years.

I need more musical outlets, very much, so I decided this was it. I have to stop calling myself a singer who plays a bit of guitar, and I have to Become A Guitarist. I’ve done a great deal of research and rumination about this–and I’ve spent more time on those pursuits than I have actually practicing the guitar. I have taken copious notes, and shared a great deal of what I’ve learned with the two other members of this nascent ensemble through email. So I thought I would take this information and post it here on this new blog, kind of a “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” maneuver.

And so the journey begins.