Models of Crossover Guitars on the Market, Introduction

No endorsement is implied. I have not had the opportunity to examine or evaluate many of these first-hand. What I’ve learned has come from Internet searches, visits to music stores, catalogs, and conversations with the people at Atlanta’s most excellent classical guitar store, Maple Street Guitars. Another source of information was Grant MacNeill from The Twelfth Fret music store in Toronto, who played a large part in designing Alhambra’s crossover guitars.

I will try to link to pictures on the Web and not re-post pictures myself, but in all respects all the pictures are the property of the various rights holders, which are not me.

Preface

First off, what are the criteria? For a classical guitar to be considered a crossover guitar, for my purposes, requires:

  • A slimmer neck
  • A narrower nut width
  • A radiused fingerboard
  • A cutaway

Additional criteria that others might require could include:

  • An internal pickup and preamp, with easily accessible controls
  • Reduced acoustic vibration and volume, in the name of reducing feedback on a stage with an amplified band
  • A smaller, thinner body that does not feel like a traditional classical guitar
  • Finishes, woods, or colors that are non-traditional and more emblematic of steel-string acoustic-electric guitars

As you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I wanted something that looks, sounds and performs like a traditional acoustic classical guitar, because I want to use it to perform traditional classical music. My requirement was that it have a neck more comfortable to a player who does not come from a classical guitar background.

However, there are many performers, coming from jazz or what have you, that want a guitar that looks and feels much more like a solid-body electric guitar, a hollow-body electric guitar, or an acoustic-electric steel-string guitar. In other words they just want the nylon strings, not the classical guitar experience. Probably they don’t want to play traditional classical guitar music on this instrument in the first place. They want to incorporate some of the sound of nylon strings into amplified, electrified solo or ensemble jazz or rock.

There are a lot of guitars on the market that are essentially traditional classical guitars that are designed to be played primarily plugged-in (amplified) and not acoustically. They almost always have a cutaway. In addition, they may have smaller bodies, thinner bodies, or even solid bodies. However, I am giving little coverage to those kinds of guitars if they have a traditional wide neck and flat fingerboard. To me those are not crossover instruments.

And I am leaving flamenco guitars completely out of the equation. There are a lot of interesting acoustic-electric or crossover flamenco guitars out there, but that’s outside the scope of these essays.

Ok, let’s go.

Thoughts on crossover guitars

All this research has prompted some observations, first about what a crossover guitar needs, and secondly about what traditional classical guitarists could learn from the features of a crossover guitar. I expect this to be controversial!

It is my belief that a nut width of 48mm on a nylon-string guitar would be just fine for many guitarists, even those who play classical guitar exclusively. It provides considerably wider string spacing (at 8mm between strings) than what you find on most steel-string guitars. It is noticeably narrower than the 9mm string-to-string spacing you find on a traditional classical guitar with its 52mm nut width. It really does make a difference. If you are not already accustomed to a traditional classical guitar neck, try it; you’ll like it.

At the other end, however, a crossover classical guitar needs to have a string spread of 57 to 60mm at the bridge saddle. This is the traditional classical width, much wider than that found on most steel-string guitars. The reason for this is that if you are playing traditional classical right-hand finger technique (p i m a), you need a lot of space between the strings to dig in and get a good loud sound.

Virtually all traditional classical guitars have a completely flat fingerboard which has no inlays on the fingerboard or on the side. However, virtually all electric and steel-string acoustic guitars have “side dots” that let the player glance down and determine the fret location of his left hand. All classical guitars should have side dots. There is no drawback to this. And if you’re worried about traditional appearance, don’t be. Nobody can see the side dots except the person playing the guitar.

Furthermore, there is no reason that a classical guitar should have a flat fingerboard. This is an unproductive hold-over from the 18th and 19th century when flat fingerboards were the only kind that luthiers made on plucked string instruments. The primary reason for remaining with the flat fingerboard design is one of ease of manufacture and low cost for the luthier. It does not benefit the player in any way.

Regardless of the width of the neck, some curvature in the fingerboard profile, or radius, is always helpful in making the guitar easier to play. I have read about classical guitars with a very slight curvature, 24-inch or 20-inch (610mm or 510mm). Mine has a 15-inch radius, like a Martin steel-string guitar. A greater curvature, say a 10-inch or 7.5-inch radius like on a Strat, would probably be more than a nylon-string player would want.

The late Thomas Humphrey, builder of the Millenium Guitar, championed a slightly radiused fretboard on his traditionally-proportioned instruments with full-width fingerboards. He mentioned that in addition to comfort and playability, it was helpful to increase the curvature under the bass strings to enable a slightly greater string height to correct problems with string buzzing.

Obviously, it’s easier to plane a flat fretboard and hammer in flat frets. With a radiused design, you have to sand or mill the fretboard to a specific tolerance, and you need to individually bend each piece of fretwire to match that radius before it is hammered in to the fingerboard, in order to get a good fit. Finishing the frets by leveling and polishing is a bit more complicated also. Then you need a radiused profile on the nut and the bridge saddle, and this probably complicates intonation compensation. All this takes time and money, but boy is it worth it to the player.

Cutaways are good. You can play the high notes more easily.

The idea of the cutaway first came from archtop steel-string guitars in the 1930s, and was incorporated in to the design of most solid-body electric guitars. Additionally, many models of steel-string acoustic guitar are available with or without a cutaway.

I won’t offer any verifiable data here, because the cutaway issue has been discussed far and wide for many years. Let’s just say that traditional classical guitarists have not approved of the cutaway because it simply makes the guitar look unlike a traditional classical guitar. The cutaway remains an unpopular option for serious, acoustic classical guitar players. But the cutaway is gaining acceptance. It’s been demonstrated that the presence of a cutaway does not necessarily alter the sound, volume or projection of a guitar.

One of my tenets in this blog is that classical guitars should break from tradition in terms of size and shape if there are innovative new ideas that prove beneficial. So I would like to ask traditional classical players to be more open to new shapes and dimensions for their guitars. Why must all guitars look, externally, just like the ones they built in Europe in the 19th century? If somebody builds a design that’s easier to play yet sounds just as good or better, it shouldn’t be rejected just because it does not look orthodox and conformist.

If you want to do some outside reading, I would refer you to the Web site of the famed and innovative builder Greg Byers, who discusses different designs with regard to scale length. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information on the Web about Thomas Humphrey’s design principles, since his passing and the abandonment of his Web site and domain. I’m sure you can find many other links. The biggest area of innovation is in the construction of the tops of the guitars and how they are braced, and that’s way outside the scope of my blog.

My review of the Alhambra crossover guitar

Review of the Alhambra 5p CWX

Please read my previous three posts, which provide full specifications and detailed pictures.

My primary aim in selecting and buying this guitar was to find an instrument that is built like, and sounds like, a traditional classical guitar, with its traditional acoustic properties, but which has a cutaway and a crossover neck (you can read all about that in my earlier posts).

Alhambras are all entirely made in Spain. While I think China is making good guitars these days (they seem to be able to emulate any design developed elsewhere), it’s refreshing to find an actual Old World-crafted instrument at an affordable price. Everybody is feeling economic pressure from the competition of cheap Chinese labor. I get a strong “old-world” authentic Spanish vibe from the Alhambras, and hey, what’s better than Spanish (or Catalonian; hi to my friends in Barcelona!) if you are talking about a traditionally built, braced and voiced classical guitar?

Out of the case, the Alhambra smells like cedar and rosewood, and not like lacquer or glue, like a good guitar should. It’s such a pleasant sensation when you open the case, pick up the instrument, and start playing. This guitar is noticeably (and surprisingly) lighter in weight than similar guitars in its price range, which are usually more heavily built, often to the detriment of the sound quality.

My Alhambra, designed along the specifications of their stock 5P model, is a mass-produced student-grade instrument, with a solid red cedar top with traditional fan bracing. It has laminated rosewood back and sides. The neck is Spanish cedar, not mahogany or sapele as used on cheaper instruments. The body is what is considered full-size and full-depth, and the neck meets the body at the 12th fret, like a traditional classical guitar. I think the regular 5P sells for somewhat under US $1,000. Mine is not a regular production model, so there’s no price comparison.

These are the measurements from the Alhambra web site:

Measurements

I’m not yet an experienced classical guitarist, and my technique is limited, so I’ll admit that I don’t understand the complexities and subtleties of how a classical guitar should sound, particularly with regard to timbral variations and dynamic range.

My friend Eric Larkins, an accomplished professional classical guitarist, played my guitar and offered that he liked the sound. “It’s loud” were his first words.

Eric likes cutaways but prefers extra-wide fingerboards (54mm nut width and of course flat), so he’s not convinced of the value of the “crossover” concept. Still he happily played the guitar and gave it a thumbs-up.

The guitar is comfortable to hold and play. I found playing a traditional classical neck to be quite fatiguing, but this neck causes me no fatigue or strain, by comparison.

I haven’t made any study of classical guitar necks with regard to the profile of the back of the neck or its thickness, but suffice it to say that this one has a thinner neck that  is easy to get your hand around, and feels great in my hand. Again, this is a crossover feature designed to appeal to guitarists who are not comfortable with the thick, bulky neck of a traditional classical guitar in the first place. But this one is not too thin to affect the sturdiness of the neck. There is an ebony stiffening rod glued into the back of the neck, which is visible. There is no truss rod; I would have preferred one, because I want to try different string gauges and tunings, and a truss rod would mean that it would be possible to adjust the neck relief if it were found to be necessary with different strings. But I do not anticipate any problems here.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the cutaway and especially the contoured heel (with its compound cutaway on the back) are wonderfully done, comfortable, and effective. I think Alhambra really knows how to do a cutaway correctly, and theirs is better than what you often find on much more expensive instruments from other makers.

The headstock and neck are carved from a single piece of cedar, while the neck block and heel are a separate piece of wood (possibly mahogany) to which the neck has been glued. The headstock has an attractive rosewood veneer on top.

The headstock logo is nicely done, although traditional classical guitars don’t have headstock logos. Looking at this guitar from a few feet away, this is the only obvious visual clue that this is not a fully-traditional instrument (aside from the cutaway). The letter “A” appears to be an inlay made from some wood that has an irridescent stain, set into what appears to be an unstained, natural maple chevron. (See the picture in my previous post.) But if I had been able to special-order my own instrument, I would have asked for a guitar with a plain headstock with no logo. I’m just not in to that.

The ebony fingerboard is fine, and the fret finishing is good. The side dots are very helpful. It has the standard 19 frets.

The guitar came properly set-up. I asked for more or less traditional string height and action. I’m now using D’Addario Pro Arte composite strings.

The pronounced curvature of the saddle causes the bass strings to have a shallow break angle going in to the traditional tie block. The saddle sits extremely low under the bass strings, which you can see in the photo in the previous post. I imagine this has a somewhat negative effect on sustain and tone. I believe that, had it had a 12-hole tie block (a recent innovation which Alhambra does not offer), that this would provide a better break angle. I have not examined the bridge saddle on the regular production line of Alhambra crossover guitars, but this is something that they might need to address.

When I changed to my own preferred gauge of string, I experience some buzzing on the D string with the stock setup, so this may have to be addressed. The fact that I have selected a guitar with a radiused fretboard, nut and bridge saddle will make this task more difficult. I don’t consider this a negative thing, because every guitarist needs to have his instrument set up correctly after he buys it.

The finish is urethane, and it’s well-applied. This is a durable finish often used on mass-produced student-grade instruments. Professional guitars have only a very thin layer of French polish, which is thought to be better because it does not impede the vibration and sound, but which provides less protection to the wood. So for student instruments, the priority goes to protecting the guitar from getting banged up, rather than using the thinnest possible finish to avoid restraining the sound. Professionals know that a French-polish finish makes a guitar very delicate and that it must be treated carefully.

On my guitar, the (presumably Indian) rosewood, (sometimes called palisander or palosanto), does not have the most attractive color or grain that you would find on more expensive guitars. It’s laminated construction, not solid wood. Hey, all this is just fine with me. I don’t much care about what the back of the guitar looks like, because neither I nor an audience could see it while I’m playing it. And the idea of a more durable laminate over a more delicate solid wood seems sensible to me.

The back and the sides are nicely book-matched, although as I mentioned, they are not highly figured. There are two unattractive knots visible on the sides, but this doesn’t affect structural integrity or sound. The binding is rosewood with a thin strip of un-dyed maple on both edges, and looks simple and elegant. There is a thin maple strip down the two-piece back.

You can look at my pictures to see the rosette, which is authentic and traditional. The tie block on the bridge has some attractive wood strips, but it does not have a matching rosette figure (not many guitars do these days).

I can see a slight gap on one edge where the rosewood bridge is glued to the top, and a slight unevenness in the finishing of the bridge around the edge. Nothing major, and I think the bridge is solidly and properly mounted.

The tuners are decent quality, nothing too fancy, but better than what you would find on inexpensive mass-produced guitars. The tuners are in the lyre style, gold-plated, with black threads on the gear posts, and pearloid plastic buttons that are not removeable. The rollers are white. This is all quite traditional.

This model, from a custom-ordered run commissioned by The Twelfth Fret of Ontario, Canada, does not have a pickup or preamp. I think I will need one, and so at some point I’m going to pay $180 or so to install a simple, unobtrusive L. R. Baggs or Fishman undersaddle piezo pickup with an end-pin preamp and battery.

I love this guitar. It’s perfect for me, and I’m glad, because I did an awful lot of research before I ordered it sight-unseen from a dealer in another country. I certainly recommend buying an instrument from The Twelfth Fret in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The co-owner, Greg MacNeill, spent a lot of time with me on the phone and in numerous emails to answer all my questions and educate me about what I was buying.

Which guitar to buy? Part One

I did an inordinate amount of research in order to find a guitar that met my needs. Maybe you can benefit from my experience.

Four or five years ago I got an inexpensive Alvarez classical guitar, a very traditional model except for having a cutaway. It was set up correctly with the usual action, and it played okay for a classical. It had the traditional wide, totally flat fingerboard and fat neck profile. I just could not get used to playing it. My fingers couldn’t easily or properly reach the low strings, even though my hands are normal-sized and I was very careful about my hand position on the neck.

My experience was in playing a Gibson-style archtop jazz acoustic-electric guitar, with a thinner neck and a narrow fingerboard width and a radiused (curved) fingerboard profile. What’s more, playing this standard classical guitar was actually painful to my left hand due to all the extra stretching. I sold the guitar and gave up on playing classical.

So when I decided to go classical earlier this year, I determined to find a crossover guitar, which is a nylon-string classical guitar designed with a neck that is a compromise between the large classical neck and the small, more comfortable neck found on a typical steel-string acoustic guitar or electric guitar.

The crossover guitar is a relatively new product category, and they are gaining popularity. There are many new models arriving on the market from many manufacturers and luthiers.

The crossover classical guitar makes no sense at all to players who have only ever played classical guitar. They see the crossover design as undesireable and inadequate for the classical guitar repertoire and playing style. But that’s not the point! Crossover guitars are specifically for experienced adult, full-grown steel-string and electric guitarists who want to play classical but just can’t deal with those enormous, wide, flat fingerboards and chunky, fat necks.

Most crossover guitars fall into the acoustic-electric category; they are designed to be played plugged in and they don’t put out much volume or a good tone acoustically. But increasingly, there are new models of crossover guitars that sound about as good unplugged as a traditional acoustic classical guitar. After deciding that I needed an acoustic-electric, I changed my mind when I found a well-designed crossover guitar that had a crossover neck on a traditional, full-sized body with good acoustic volume and tone.

So what are the parameters that you should consider in selecting a guitar and its neck?

Fingerboards

Look at any guitar. If you look at the fingerboard, start at the nut, and follow the strings down to the bridge, you’ll see that they describe a long, narrow trapezoid. The string nut has a certain width, and there is a certain width from the center of the lowest string to the center of the highest string; this is called “string spread”. The strings at the bridge have a certain string spread which is wider than the string spread at the nut. And the fingerboard widens in width from the nut down to the end of the fingerboard. Its width at any given point is a function of the string spread at the bridge.

Then there’s radius. A typical classical guitar has a completely flat fingerboard. But most other guitars’ fingerboards have a curved profile, which is much more comfortable to the hand and fingers if you are playing chords. However, the next question is “how much of a radius”?

The conventional design principles follow this sort of logic:

Acoustic guitars like a dreadnought are designed for strumming chords. So they have a narrow fingerboard width, the strings are placed closely together, and the fingerboard is radiused. This is comfortable and easy to play.

However, if you play more complicated music that involves counterpoint, scale patterns, intricate close-position jazz chords, or string bending (on steel-string instruments), or if you fingerpick with several fingers independently rather than strumming with a plectrum, you need something slightly wider in a fingerboard, and you need more space between the strings. Otherwise your fingers on your fretting hand will frequently find themselves too bunched together to play your intricate music correctly. You also want less of a fingerboard radius because a small radius (meaning a pronounced curve in the profile of the fingerboard) interferes with intricate fingering and string bending.

Thus, different kinds of steel-string acoustic guitars and electric guitars are available in a range of nut widths, fingerboard widths, radiuses, and to some degree, string spacing at the bridge.

At the other extreme is the classical guitar, which has the widest fingerboard of all six-string guitars, and has a fingerboard with an infinite radius, which is another way of saying that it has zero curvature or that it is completely flat. The music that you play on a classical guitar requires the most dexterity and independent finger-movement, and the highest degree of counterpoint, of any other style of guitar music; this is the usual rationale given for why a classical guitar has this design.

Modern classical guitars generally follow standardized designs developed by master luthiers in the 1800s and the early 1900s. A few modern guitar designs incorporate radical innovations in materials used in the top and bracing, but it seems to me that almost all guitar builders and luthiers feel duty-bound to use the same neck and fingerboard dimensions, scale length, and body shape (plantilla) as the traditional designs from the 1800s. In other words all the classical guitars you are likely to see today will look virtually the same from the audience’s perspective, but more importantly they all feel the same in the hands of the players. This won’t do for me.

I think this is a mistake. We need guitars that accommodate different players’ personal preferences, and we need innovative designs. Fortunately these are beginning to appear on the market and gain popularity.

I don’t want or need a totally flat fingerboard radius. It’s just uncomfortable, particularly in those times when you make a barre. I don’t need the widest possible fingerboard width, because my left hand is accustomed to fingering music on strings that are more closely spaced. I also don’t want a fat, thick neck. So since there are a range of parameters, how would I decide on the ideal neck for me?

First let’s look at popular guitar designs and their typical measurements (individual models may vary slightly). I have ranked them from the narrowest designs to the widest designs. American measurements are usually expressed as inches with fractions, but to maintain sanity, I’ll convert everything into millimeters.

Scale

length

Nut width

String spread

at nut

String spread

at bridge saddle

Fingerboard radius
Fender Strat (traditional) 647 41 35 54 180    (greatest curvature)
Fender Stratocaster (modern) 647 41 35 54 240
Gibson Les Paul 629 43 36 52 305
Martin dreadnought 647 43 35 58.7 380
Martin fingerstyle 647 45 38 54 380
Parlor Varies

48

40.5

Varies (wide)

380

Traditional classical 650 52 44 57.5 to 60 Flat (no curvature)
“String spread” means the width between the lowest string and the highest string. This is narrower than the fingerboard width, since there needs to be extra wood on either side so that a string won’t pop off the edge of the fretboard if it’s fingered carelessly or used for the ever-popular pull-off maneuver on the high E string.

String spread at bridge saddle can be narrow if you’re playing with a pick. But if you play fingerstyle, and especially if you are playing an acoustic guitar and you have to dig in with your fingers to get a loud sound, you need wider spacing.

Some classical guitar manufacturers and luthiers permit the customer to order a traditional classical guitar with a wider nut width of 54mm, or a narrower one of 50mm.

Here are some American measurements: a Les Paul has a nut width of 1-11/16”, a Martin fingerstyle has a nut width of 1-3/4”, a parlor is 1-7/8”, and a classical guitar is 2-1/16”.

As a final note, 12-string electric and acoustic guitars usually have a nut width of 45 to 48mm, or 1-3/4” to 1-7/8”. More space is needed for the extra strings to be manipulated by your fingers. Rickenbacker 12-strings are a noteable exception; theirs are very narrow, more like a 6-string Strat.

Play a range of these guitars and you’ll realize that a difference of a couple of millimeters in any width makes a readily discernible difference in how the fingerboard feels, and how easy it is to play intricate fingerings. The question is, what can your hand adapt to? Will you adapt your fingers and technique to fit the guitar, or will you go the extra step of finding a guitar that fits the technique you have already developed? What if you have smaller-than-usual hands? As long as it doesn’t notably interfere with playing the music, it makes sense to me to find a compromise and get the narrowest, most comfortable fingerboard with the most curved radius that works for me.

Here’s the deal: Most models of crossover guitar have a nut width of 48mm, a string spread at the bridge saddle of 60mm, and a fingerboard radius of 380mm to 510mm. Thus they fall neatly between the measurements of a traditional classical guitar and a “fingerstyle” acoustic steel-string guitar. This is wide enough to play classical guitar music, but narrow enough for your average steel-string player to be able to adapt to a classical guitar.

When I went to a classical guitar store and told the proprietor that I wanted a guitar with a narrower fingerboard width and string spacing than standard, she frowned and said, “But you need all of that width to play classical guitar music”. Well, maybe you do, but I can’t get used to it. So for now, I need something that fits my fingers. Maybe in the future I could graduate to a full-width fingerboard, but for now, I need a crossover guitar.

A nice visit from a pro

Earlier this month I invited Christopher Davis, who writes “The Classical Guitar Blog” at http://classicalguitarblog.net, to have a look at my new blog.

He wrote me a nice private email, with some general suggestions on having a succesful blog. He also made some points where he took issue with statements that I made, so I thought I’d address a couple of them.

No, I don’t dislike classical guitarists! I do find them a bit stuffy and overly formal at times, though. It’s not as bad as it used to be, because most classical guitarists my age or younger came up playing rock (which can’t be stuffy) and then decided to cross over into classical because rock was no longer challenging to them, or they had blown out their ears from all the loud amplification, or other reasons. Now when I was a singer in music college, twenty years ago, I was a classical elitist snob in a school where most of the voice majors were studying jazz, country and pop, so I know what it’s like to be a snob. It took me a long while to come down from that.

You may not know me, but all my life I’ve been the kind of guy who wants to figure out different ways to do things from the standard method. Kinda funny since I’m a pretty conservative, conventional guy otherwise. Since 1987, I’ve set my computer keyboards to type according to the Dvorak keyboard layout, for instance. After mastering the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout and using it for ten years, I decided to start over from scratch and learn a totally different system for typing. And I became a much faster and more accurate typist as a result. Still, all these years later, I find myself constantly having to justify to people what the heck Dvorak is and why I insist on using it.

Sometimes I obsess about how to be unconventional, and spend more time thinking up different ways to do things than I spend on actually getting anything done. Call it attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, if you will.

But that’s why I decided to write this blog. You can get authoritative, conventional advice on playing guitar from a lot of places. I want to offer something different, from my own unique, skewed perspective. I plan on not boring you.

Christopher Davis challenged me by writing “a majority of the classical guitar repertoire is not, ‘music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, ‘transcribed’ to fit onto a guitar.”‘ So obviously I disagree with you on many points,…”

Well, he’s right in one sense. There is of course a considerable repertoire of wonderful music composed expressly for the guitar. But that’s not the kind of music that I’m going to be working on, so I won’t be writing much about it.

I’m working with a group that wants to play weddings and casuals, so we are going to be working on the classic Protestant wedding music (iTunes link provided), moldy old stuff like Pachebel’s Canon in D, which was originally written for a string section and a keyboard continuo. We are going to be working on instrumental arrangements of a lot of music that was originally written for singers. Clearly, though, a lot of what classical guitarists, solo or ensemble, learn to play, is stuff that was not originally written for guitar. Think of Albeniz’ Iberia Suite. It was written for solo piano, but you never heard the original solo piano versions. You hear wonderful, challenging transcriptions for solo or duo classical guitar, like those of John Williams in his classic album Echoes of Spain. And the first classical guitar album I really listened to carefully, when I was only 13, was Christopher Parkening‘s In the Classic Style—Bach, which is all transcriptions, including stuff from Scarlatti, Handel and Couperin, pieces originally written for keyboard. Bach lute suites for guitar, anybody? Bach’s cello suites and violin partitas for classical guitar? Big sellers.

Historically, I believe (take issue with me if you like), the classical guitar was rejected by the larger group of classical musicians and listeners as being a mere folk instrument. Classical guitar gained legitimacy when artists made their own arrangements of well-known classical music written for other instruments. A good deal of the classic Segovia and Julian Bream repertoire is older classical music written for other instruments. This is not to discount the brilliant pioneering work of Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani. And we haven’t even addressed 20th and 21st century guitar music–which, again, is not the sort of repertoire I’ll be working on.

In this blog, I’ll try to write mostly about things that I have direct experience with.

Pumping Iron and Pumping Nylon

Learning classical guitar is only one part of what I’m referring to as my “complete life makeover”.

After a protracted mid-life crisis lasting about six years, in which I went through just about everything in a person’s life that could be considered a crisis (no need to bore you with the details), I recently declared that my mid-life crisis is over. The remainder of my life will be much better.

Last October I was sick, with multiple serious health problems, and weighed 190 lbs (86kg). By February of this year I had worked myself down to 150 lbs (68kg). I did this by making permanent changes to my lifestyle, what I eat, and other stuff, but mostly I did it by working out like mad–initially three hours a day. Hiking, running, deep water aerobics classes, aerobic exercise equipment, lots of stuff. Now I feel much better.

Since February, part of my routine has been doing the Cybex weight training circuit at my local YMCA.

crunch

I am now physically stronger than I’ve ever been at any time in my life. How many guys my age do you know that can do 14 chin-ups? That’s the “Pumping Iron” part.

Pumping Nylon, of course, refers to the 1995 modern classical guitar technique bible written by Scott Tennant, best known for his work with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

nylon 2

nylon 1

I just got this book a week ago, and I’m trying to devote some time each day to absorbing all its wisdom and working through its left- and right-hand dexterity exercises. So far it’s been great. It shows me what I can achieve.

Pumping Nylon is not a beginning guitar book. It’s for a guitarist who already reads music and knows his way around a guitar. Its purpose is to un-learn bad habits, hone technique and correct physical problems that may interfere with your playing your best.

I also got the companion volume, Pumping Nylon: Supplemental Repertoire, Easy to Early Intermediate, which contains etudes and pieces that appropriately illustrate the techniques in the first Pumping Iron volume.

So to anybody in my situation, I recommend both pumping iron and pumping nylon. It’s never too late for either.

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.