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On Fingerings & Breakthroughs

2012 January 15
by Giacomo Fiore

Choosing the fingering for a passage of music is an extremely personal process—what comes off easy for one player might prove a stumbling block for another. Granted, there are some general guidelines and principles that can be applied to everyone as a starting point, but that still leaves a critical amount of discretion to the individual player, who usually ends up choosing fingerings in accordance to the bias in his or her hands.

My personal preference is for easy fingerings. Somewhat along the lines of the Buddhist mantra “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” I find playing classical guitar to be a challenging enough endeavor without the need to make it even harder. If there’s a way to employ open strings for shifting, or to arrange a chord in a more “ergonomical” position, I always consider these possibilities very carefully. On the other hand the musicality of any given fingering comes into play quite heavily as well. Is it musically acceptable to use an open string to help with a shift in a given passage? More often than not, I’ve found that the easier fingering is also the more musical one—presumably because I can play it in a more relaxed, flowing fashion.

Sometimes, a slight adjustment to your plucking hand can also come to the rescue. An old assumption is that, by moving fingerings “upstairs” to a thicker string/further up on the fretboard, the player would gain in tone color and expressivity. A good right hand exercise is to try and homogenize your sound as much as possible, so that if needed you could “smuggle” a note or passage on the high E string as sounding fuller and darker, as if you had played it on the B. This way you might end up unlocking an easier way to finger an entire phrase.

A Brief Case Study

Perhaps the most important concept regarding fingerings is that they should never be considered engraved in stone. Case in point: Earlier this afternoon I was practicing a couple of passages from the Villa-Lobos Concerto that have been bothering me for months. Sure, I could play them, but as I approached these measures I kept feeling as if I was putting my success in the hands of some fickle deity. Today I decided to backtrack a bit and reconsider what I had chosen as the “best” fingering for one of the phrases.

classical guitar fingerings

It occured to me that the fingering in question had two significant problems:

  • To fret the F#, I am moving from fifth to fourth position for a split second. This shift is against the direction of the phrase, since I have to hit a high C, D, and E immediately after. That’s not a very economical approach, to put it mildly.
  • Because of this “mini-shift” to fourth position, I was fretting the high C with my pinky, then basically sliding it up all the way to a high G in the space of a few (and rapid!) beats. I felt this “sequential shifting” was likely the culprit of my difficulties with the passage (especially considering I was lifting the pinky a bit to avoid sounding a series of portamentos)

Within a couple of minutes I had already found a viable substitute. Fingering #2 is better in pretty much all aspects: I am shifting in the direction of the phrase, and I am giving my pinky a modicum of relief by using 2 to fret the high D. Although it’s early to tell, I feel much more confident when practicing the phrase—a feeling that helps making the ensuing measures easier to pull off as well.

classical guitar fingerings

Some readers may be wondering why I didn’t choose the best fingering in the first place. The honest answer is that I thought the first fingering was just fine, and I just needed to practice it more. The lesson in this? Sometimes we’re the ones building the walls that we end up hitting. If you feel stuck with a phrase or passage, try breaking it down in its essential parts and reconsidering the way you approach it. You might end up slapping your forehead and wondering why on earth you didn’t think of this other solution sooner.

Five New Year’s Resolutions for the Classical Guitarist

2011 December 29
by Giacomo Fiore

The approaching New Year gives us a chance to assess where we are as well as where we want to go. Although any day is just as good a day for making things better, there is an undeniable psychological boost to starting anew together with the calendar. Here’s a few music-related resolutions to make the most of 2012.

Practice More Technique

To a lot of people—myself included—strict technical work can get old fast. On the other hand, the benefits of consistent and determined technical development to one’s playing are self-evident. A great resolution for those who don’t work on technical aspects regularly would be to incorporate one twenty-­minute segment into their daily regimen. Whether you work on right-hand string crossings, rasgueados, or scales, you will find that your increased technical confidence will make your overall playing much more secure.

Keep a Practice Log

Keeping track of what you practice, how much time you spend doing things, and how quickly (or slowly) you meet your goals can be a truly powerful tools. Lack of focus and time managment skills are perhaps the most tangible dangers to a guitarist’s progress: Conversely, making the most of whatever time you can dedicate to practicing will yield surprising results. Consider breaking up your time into shorter segments with frequent breaks, and working on one thing, and one thing only, for the duration of each slot. You’ll accomplish more and the variety will help you keep a fresh perspective.

Perform More

During the first year of my Ph.D. I had a hard time keeping my performance schedule up. I was overwhelmed with readings, seminars, and papers, felt like I had not enough time to practice, and didn’t dedicate enough energy to finding more and better gigs. Eventually I realized that this lack of performance was actually impacting my overall well-being, and vowed to make gigging a priority once again—with supremely satisfying results. While you don’t have to be in such an extreme situation, anyone but the most over-worked concert performer can use more stage time. If you’re dealing with stage-fright, booking a monthly or weekly performance can work wonders in easing your nerves. Check out local hospices, convalescent homes, pre-schools, and churches for an opportunity to share your passion. You’ll find the audience to be extremely appreciative of your time, and it will be a very rewarding experience for yourself as well. You don’t have to present full programs—two to four pieces with a few introductory words will easily make for a twenty-minute mini-recital.

Expand Your Knowledge of the Repertoire

I don’t mean the guitar repertoire (although that would be a worthwhile and noble effort), but rather that you spend some time exploring some other music, classical or not. You could start from the canonic works described in every anthology, and then focus on whatever vein or sub-genre strikes your fancy. You can be a comlpetist, getting to know as many of Sibelius’s or Davidovky’s works as you can find, or you could focus on the non-guitar works of composers you already like. Especially if you have access to a library and its databases, this resolution can be a free one: use services such as the Naxos Music Library, the IMSLP, and borrow study scores from your local branch.

Exercise More

I don’t think you are actually allowed to have a New Year’s resolution list without this item. Let me come clean and confess that I am guilty as charged, but in all honesty there is no excuse for a musician to not give his or her body the care it deserves. You don’t have to turn into a competitive body builder (although it did work for Scott Tennant), simply choose an activity that fits your needs and inclination and stick with it three-four times a week. Being in better shape can help you avoid injuries and keep your mind in focus. You can also use the time you spend running or working out in the gym to do visualization exercises, listening to a recorded practice session, or checking out new repertoire. Some activities like Yoga and martial arts can also help you get the best of performance anxiety. For obvious reason, be careful with your hands and nails—basketball and rock-climbing are probably not the best choices.

Editors note: I’m a huge fan of lifting weights. Lifting is, in my opinion, one of the best physical activities anyone can do. That said, there is more to it than throwing a few plates on a bar and benching. Train smart. This article is a good place to start: it’s about “computer guys”, but we classical guitars are very similar (hours sitting, etc). -CD

An Interview with Jon Mendle

2011 December 14
by Giacomo Fiore

Jon Mendle is a young classical guitarist who performs on seven- and eleven-string guitars. A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory, he has recently released an album of 18th century German music by C.P.E. Bach, Flanckenhagen, and Weiss, entiled L’Infidele and available through In A Circle Records. In this interview Jon talks about his approach to extended-range guitars, his experience performing with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and more.

Jon Mendle Classical Guitar What was the path that led you to the classical guitar? Were you taking formal lesson as a child, or did you start out playing in a different genre, as is the case with many present-day players?

Jon Mendle: I started out playing electric guitar when I was twelve. I actually picked up the guitar kind of on a whim—a friend of mine got one as a birthday present one year and I thought it was really cool. I asked for one for Christmas the same year and Santa came through for me. At first I wanted to learn stuff like Metallica and Rage Against the Machine, then I became interested in shred guitar—got into Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Marty Friedman, Yngwie Malmsteen, and so forth. That’s how I got interested in finding out what the guitar can really do technically and musically.

A couple of things got me into classical guitar—my first teacher, Matthew Grasso, is an accomplished classical player and he would show me some classical stuff from time to time that would blow my mind. Also, Yngwie Malmsteen, of whom I was a huge fan, always spoke very highly of classical composers like Bach and Paganini, so I started to think that classical music could have more to offer me than rock music.

Hearing Bach on the guitar sealed the deal for me—I knew I had to play classical. The recording that sold me was Segovia playing the Gigue from BWV 997. I fell in love with that piece and worked parts of it out on electric guitar before I had a classical. I got my first classical when I was 15 and haven’t looked back since. You play on extended range instruments, like the 7- and 11-string guitar. How do you approach them?

Jon: I started playing 7 string guitar in 2004, Matt Grasso had been playing one for a while and I became really interested in what the extra range could add to the guitar. I also played an 11 string for the first time that year, but had to wait until I had one built for me in 2007 before I could focus entirely on that instrument.

My approach to the extended range is to utilize it as much as possible, but not in a forced way. I don’t play much 6 string repertoire, because I feel like most music written for guitar is complete as is, and changing or adding basses isn’t always tasteful. And playing that music as-is on an extended range guitar doesn’t do the guitar many favors. I seek out my own repertoire and play mostly my own transcriptions. Almost all of my repertoire is 16th-19th century music. I do play some 20th century music on every concert that I give, though again it’s not the usual fare—pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis, Matt Grasso, or something I’ve written myself. I’ve also played music by the great 11-string guitarist James Kline, who introduced me to the instrument, and I’m currently working on Philip Rosheger’s beautiful “Serenade,” which works great on my guitar. I’m in the process of seeking out new music from living composers for my instrument, and I have at least one piece on the way, so it will be exciting to see where that goes. Earlier in 2011 you released a recording of 18th-century German music, L’Infidele, featuring works by C.P.E. Bach, Falckenhagen, and Weiss, all played on your 11-string archguitar. Tell me about how you went adapting this music to the instrument—two of the works are originally for 13-course lute, and the Bach is a keyboard piece.

Jon: I arranged the music on this album with my guitar in hand—the archguitar has the same range as the 13 course baroque lute, so what was challenging was finding the right fingerings and articulations to do the music justice. Much of it is very idiomatic on the lute but not so much on the guitar, as the instruments have very different tunings. The first 6 strings of my guitar are in standard tuning, whereas the baroque lute’s first 6 courses were tuned to an open d-minor chord. So my approach was to keep the slurring and phrasing style of baroque lute music in mind, but come up with solutions that felt as natural to guitar as the ear allowed.

As for the C.P.E. Bach piece, there are a few licks in there that are ridiculously hard! Again, it was a process of trial and error. I fell in love with the first movement and wanted to see if it would work on my guitar. When it did, I went on to the other two. I took the standard approach of preserving melody and bass first, and then keeping as much of the inner voices as I could. In the summer of 2010 you joined Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble—a musical group that aims to draw a connection between Western and Eastern musical styles. Could you describe your experience performing with the ensemble?

Jon: Playing with the Silk Road Ensemble was an amazing experience. The Ensemble really feels like a big family, and everyone is really nice, very supportive, and a great musician to boot. Yo-Yo Ma is one of the kindest people you could imagine—he really has a passion for people, and giving back through music is a huge part of his artistic vision. The Ensemble’s outreach programs and his commitment to helping young musicians such as myself are amazing testaments to this.

My biggest take-away from the experience was how the Ensemble works together and rehearses—Yo-Yo motivates through encouragement. I never felt like I was playing with an authority figure, rather he made it feel more like playing with a friend. One might think that this could foster a lack of serious effort, in that he is always very kind in how he gives advice and rehearses, but I don’t think so. I (amazingly) didn’t feel any added pressure working with him—he was very encouraging when things improved or when he liked something. But I know that this wasn’t because it couldn’t be better. Instead, it made me want to give more, to reach the next level in the piece we were working on, rather than stay where I was with it.

The other thing is that Yo-Yo is always trying to learn from the musicians he works with. If he liked something that someone played during a warm-up or rehearsal, he was always curious about it, and would often ask them to teach it to him. The whole group learns form each other in that way, and so it’s “fusion” in every sense of the word. Currently you are a member of the San Francisco Guitar Quartet, and the Pacific Guitar Ensemble—a Bay Area supergroup which includes S.F. Conservatory faculty members David Tanenbaum, Marc Teicholz, and Larry Ferrara, fingerstyle guitarist Peppino D’Agostino, and your fellow SFCM alumni Michael Bautista, Tony Kakamakov, and Paul Psarras. Tell me more about your experience playing in these groups.

Jon: Ensemble playing has become a big part of what I do, and performing with both the San Francisco Guitar Quartet and the Pacific Guitar Ensemble has been a lot of fun. The SFGQ is a very progressive group with a focus on 20th/21st century music and works written for us. With the Pacific Guitar Ensemble we also play a fair amount of “chestnuts”, so to speak—Bach, Dowland, Brahms, Mozart—which is great because I love that music and I am very much pro-transcription. The guitar repertoire is just too limited without arrangements.

Both groups are a lot of fun to work with – it’s been an honor to get to perform with some of my professors in the PGE. Sergio Assad is writing us a new piece for mixed ensemble that we are set to premier in the spring which is going to include instruments like electric guitar, bass, oud, steel string acoustic and more—so that’s very exciting and we are looking forward to that. The SFGQ has given me some great opportunities to travel and play—we went to Dresden, Germany, last year, and it’s become one of my favorite cities. This past September we had the honor of opening up for Pepe Romero at the La Guitarra California festival in San Luis Obispo, and that was a blast. I met a lot of great people and heard some absolutely stunning playing by the other artists. What about your solo performance? What are some of your upcoming projects?

Jon: I’ve been playing concerts as much as I can this year in support of my album, and that’s taken me up and down the west coast and into Nevada. As I said, I’m also taking some time to develop different repertoire and seek out new pieces for my 11-string. I hope to play some more concerts in 2012, and start thinking about a new album then too. I think my next album will be more eclectic than my first, with some 21st century music as well as some early music. I’d love to record something very dark, like Dowland or one of the Weiss Tombeaus. And I also want to record my version of Mertz’s Fantasie Hongroise, which was originally written for 10 string guitar with a low A. I can play it with all the original bass notes on the archguitar, and it’s quite a different experience hearing it that way. So that’s a bit of what’s to come. Thanks so much for your time and your insightful responses, Jon. All the best to your multiple endeavors!

They Sound Good, and They’re Good For You: Rasgueado 101

2011 December 5
by Giacomo Fiore

Rasgueado strums represent the backbone of many Mediterranean and Latin American folk styles, and they’re found throughout the modern classical repertoire from Joaquin Turina to Magnus Lindberg. Because of their reliance on extensor muscles, rasgueados also make for an excellent practice tool, even if you’re not trying to incorporate them in your playing otherwise.

The rasgueado originates its striking force as a flicking gesture of the finger, wrist, elbow, or, most often, a combination of the above. I think of this motion as much more “explosive” and instantaneous than the regular plucking one. For finger flicks, I find “cocking” the fingers against the heel of my hand most useful—allowing the fingernails to dig into my palm a tiny bit. For flicks originating from the wrist or the elbow, I let the weight of the hand do most of the work. I should also point out that wrist and elbow flicks are akin to the “rotating” motion one does when turning a door knob, only “looser”.

Get to Know Your Hand Better

Most flamenco books teach rasgueados as going from pinky to index. An often overlooked problem with this approach is that not everyone’s hand is “wired” to unfurl the fingers in that order. Mine most certainly is not: I can fan my fingers open much faster and more seamlessly if I go from index to pinky—and that’s true with both of my hands. To find the way your hand “likes” to open, simply rap your fingers on a table-top, starting from a closed-fist position. Try both ways (pinky-to-index vs. index-to-pinky), and you should find one of them to be much more natural.

I suggest you stick to the most natural finger order when first learning some introductory rasgueado patterns, and then slowly to begin re-training your hand to do some in the opposite way

Bursts Vs. Rolls

Below are some of my favorite finger-strumming patterns, but in this case the sky’s the limit—nothing really keeps you from discovering what works for your hands. The nomenclature reflects the conventional one; however, I’m introducing the letter “h” to mean any combination of fingers (hand-strum).

Generally speaking, rasgueado patterns can be divided into bursts (quick sequence of finger strums used as an accenting devise) and rolls (sequences that can be looped indefinitely). You should strive to learning a couple of useful patterns for each category.

In terms of rolls, I would suggest you eventually build your own: you can do so easily by dividing each roll into sets of motions that allows for some time to recoil in between. In other words, you don’t want to use the same finger twice in a row, or go back to a finger that hasn’t had a chance to recoil to a “ready to strike” position. Also, notice how some use the whole hand as a “big finger”, integrating wrist- and elbow motions into the roll to enhance fluidity and seamlessness. Finally, I should point out that downstrokes (towards the floor) are marked with up-arrows, for consistency with sheet music notation (towards the “high” treble string).

As with every new technique, practice slowly and take frequent breaks. Your extensor muscles might be a bit underdeveloped if you haven’t spent a lot of time practicing these sorts of motions before, but if you incorporate some rasgueados in your daily practice routing you’ll soon see the results of this new technique in all aspects of your playing.

rasgeaudo burst and simple roll

*note: the two consecutive downstrokes are obtained by combining the outward flicking of the fingers with a forearm rotation; returning the forearm to the normal position will yield the thumb upstroke.

rasgeaudo two finger roll

**note: return all fingers to a coiled position as you do the upstroke with p.

Traditional Rasgeaudo Roll

*note: this one’s tricky. Start with all fingers coiled. Flick i out, then, as you flick c out, recoil i. Unfold each successive fingers. When you loop back to flick i out again, recoil all remaining fingers at once. Personally I find this particular rasgueado quite awkward to pull off, but it’s one of the most widely-taught patterns.

The Texas Guitar Quartet Needs Your Help

2011 November 18
Comments Off on The Texas Guitar Quartet Needs Your Help
by Christopher Davis

A while back classical guitarist Giacomo Fiore asked for help. He did it with a Kickstarter campaign that raised several thousand dollars and helped him cover the licensing costs for the music he recorded.

The Texas Guitar Quartet is doing the same. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising funds for their debut album.

The TGQ is made of Alejandro Montiel, Isaac Bustos, Joe Williams, and Jonathan Dotson. All of them are great players, and active contributors to the greater guitar community.

So click here help the TGQ out if you can!

A bit more about Kickstarter

So I’m just supposed to give my money to a group?

Well, not exactly. Kickstarter is a lot like doing pre-sales. For instance, if you give the TGQ 10 dollars, you’ll receive a copy of their album if it gets recorded. If you donate $3,000, the quartet will travel anywhere in the state of Texas and play a concert for you.

Moreover, you only “donate” the money if the campaign meets its goal. If the TGQ doesn’t raise $4,000, none of the pledged money will get sent to them and you won’t be charged.

Kickstarter is an intermediary that takes care of the technical details (secure payments though amazon, tracking gift givers, etc) allowing independing artists to connect with fans to “crowdfund” their endeavors. Of course, you still get something out of it! When I “donated” to Giacomo’s campaign, I got a copy of his excellent CD and a recipe for some great Italian food.

I suspect you’ll be seeing more kickstarter campaigns for guitarists in the future. At least I hope so: more great musicians can get exposure without the marketing budget of Milos Karadaglic.

Review: Pascal Valois at the American Musicological Society, San Francisco (Lecture-Recital)

2011 November 15
Comments Off on Review: Pascal Valois at the American Musicological Society, San Francisco (Lecture-Recital)
by Giacomo Fiore

As a budding musicologist living in the Bay Area, I couldn’t have avoided this year’s iteration of the AMS meeting if I tried. For four days, the biggest names in music history and criticism convened in an unusually sunny and terse San Francisco. Imagine my excitement when I spied a lecture recital on early-nineteenth century guitar practice in the Parisian scene on the busy program—a particularly surprising listing, given how guitar matters are not exactly the main preoccupation of this Society.

The speaker was Pascal Valois, a guitarist and independent scholar based in Montreal. Valois is a former student of Hopkinson Smith, with whom he recently completed a postdoc at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis—one of the world’s epicenters for early music and historically-minded performance.

The first part of the presentation was dedicated to a brief lecture on the guitar scene in Paris between 1800–1830, a time when both foreign-born and French guitarist-composers represented a major component in the city’s musical life. The abundance of composers, coupled with a healthy publishing industry and the meticulous archival practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale, meant that even today there is no shortage of repertoire and pedagogical material from the time, making it a treasure-trove for students and scholars alike.

Valois’s presentation was terse and succinct. After a discussion of nineteenth-century playing posture, he proceeded to demonstrate some ornamental practices, such as portamenti, arpèges, and harmonics, drawn from the method books of Adolphe Ledhuy, Pierre Joseph Plouvier, and Charles Doisy.

For the performance part, Valois presented a tried-and-true standard such as the Variations on the Magic Flute, Op. 9, by Fernando Sor, juxtaposed to two pieces by French composers I had not encountered before: the opening allegro from the Sonata Brillante by Louis-Ange Carpentras (1786–1854), and Five Andantes (from opp. 8 and 17) by Victor Magnien (1804–1885).

Valois played with grace, elegance, and élan. This repertoire is far from my favorite (let’s just say I would die perfectly happy if I never heard the Sor again), but I thoroughly enjoyed this performance: it was light, effortless, and full of spirit. The previously-unknown pieces were surprisingly good—motivically charming, harmonically inventive, and with a sort of ineffable “French” air. I heard much more counterpoint than you usually do in guitar music of the period, and some textures were almost suggestive of the Style Brisé of late-seventeenth century lutenists.

Performing on an instrument built in 1825, Valois was the right man for the job: he took advantage the shorter scale and lower action of the nineteenth-century guitar by slurring most scalar passages and thus projecting a sense of lightness and grace. His phrasing was similarly remarkable, as he imbued each melody with a beautiful vocal quality.

To top it all off, the audience—consisting largely of non-guitarist, with a couple of notable exceptions—absolutely loved it. As I left, many of the attendees were still showering Valois with questions and compliments. I was especially pleased to see such interest around the guitar in the broader musicological arena. Congratulations to Pascal Valois for his inspiring scholarship and inspired performance—he did the guitar world a great service today.

Practicing Performance

2011 November 13
by Giacomo Fiore

The time we spend practicing is probably the most critical time from a creative and professional standpoint. Part athletic conditioning, part meditation, and part artistic development, who we are on the concert stage depends largely on who we are in the practice room. If you’re not prepared for a concert, your nerves are going to be much worse than usual, and—unless the stars are looking kindly upon you—chances are you’re not going to have the most memorable night. Over the years I have found that there is a particular mindset that one can strive for when practicing, in order to obtain more reliable and, dare I say, flat-out better results as a performer.

Let’s assume you divide your practice time more or less equally between technical issues, learning new pieces, and the upkeep of pieces you already play or are currently programming. Every time you’re “running” one of these latter pieces, I suggest you do that as if you were onstage. Picture yourself in concert garb, hear the hollow reverberation of your steps on the wooden floor, see the dimly-lit figures in the scarcely attended hall…wait a second—since this is a visualization exercise, let’s be generous and give ourselves a standing-room only performance. With some practice, you should be able to recreate the experience, and hopefully the same pre-performance focus. If you’re doing it really well, you might even get a little nervous.

Now play. Unlike the saying, play as if someone is listening. Play outwards, project the sound to the back of the imaginary hall, project your musical thought and interpretations to the imaginary audience. Let your playing be bold and clear—own every note you play, and put all of yourself into every musical gesture. In other words, be deliberate, and practice being deliberate.

Granted, reading the above couple of paragraph might make the more pragmatic among you scream. But in all seriousness—shouldn’t we aim to recreate what happens in performance within the confines of the practice room? Isn’t one of the worst elements of stage fright that feeling of alienation, that eerie taste of strangeness that comes from realizing that you’ve never actually done that before? New hall, new program, new shiny suit—it even makes the guitar slip a little bit. All strange and unfamiliar. “Wouldn’t it be so much better,” you think, as you notice the pounding of your heart and the dryness of your mouth, “if I could just be back in the safety of my practice room? Then I could really play.“

What I’m suggesting is that you pre-empt that feeling of strangeness through the methodical employment of visualization techniques. As you prepare for a performance, you should try as much as possible to envision yourself in the act of playing. Do so without a guitar, perhaps with the score, or simply by closing your eyes. As you go through each piece on the program, hear the music in your head as you feel the movement of your hands on the guitar. Imagine the sound of your guitar in the hall, and if you lose your place—well, you have found a spot that requires a bit more attention. As you get better, you can do these exercises in places and situations quite remote from your usual practice schedule, effectively expanding and maximizing your actual practice time. Nothing wrong with visualizing your program as you go for a jog, or when you’re stuck in traffic (just don’t get in an accident).

Run-throughs, whether physical or imaginary, can help making your next performance an enjoyable and successful one. Don’t wait until it’s showtime to practice your performing—make every practice session more deliberate and expressive, and I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the results.

Gearing Up: External Pickups, Preamps, and Other Amplification Accessories

2011 November 4
by Giacomo Fiore

classical guitar preamp

Splitting the Difference: Removable External Pickups

External pickups, such as the Schatten Dualie and the Schertler Dyn-G, offer an interesting compromise between the convenience of internal installation and the non-invasive nature of microphones. Although they lack the airy detail of the latter, external soundboard pickups can sound surprisingly natural. I’ve used one for many years with satisfactory results and zero feedback issues—I still consider them the best solution for extra-noisy situations (cocktail hour?) and outside, possibly windy gigs. Although the Schertler is quite pricy, it can sometimes be found used for a reasonable rate, in which case it should find a permanent place in your gigbag or microphone locker.

Chains of tone

Unfortunately, the quest for excellent amplified tone doesn’t end at the choice of transducer or microphone. In an ideal world, performing in a plugged-in situation would automatically entail a top-notch PA system and live sound engineer—suffice to say, the reality will oftentimes be much different. Retaining some degree of control over your tone will save you many a headache and embarrassment. On the other hand, you also want to keep your setup simple—the less items in your signal chain, the less chances you have of running into problems at showtime, and the easier it will be for you to keep your tone clean and pure (another case of the KISS rule, for the engineers amongst us).

What I consider absolute necessities in a live preamp for guitar:

  • The right input for your pickup or microphone of choice. That includes the input impedance (which should be roughly 2-3 times the output impedance of your pickup), and the availability of the right Phantom Power voltage if you’re using a condenser microphone.
  • A powerful EQ section. EQ will help you fight feedback, counter any shortcoming in your mic or pickup (such as the proximity effect with a closely placed cardioid mic), and adjust the overall sound for room acoustics, if needed. Especially useful are parametric or semi-parametric midrange controls, given how the real “quality” of a given guitar’s tone lies in that section of the spectrum.
  • Ground lift and phase reversal switches can save the day. You never know what kind of electrical system you’ll be plugging in, and a ground buzz will simply destroy your acoustic tone—being able to flip a switch to get rid of that nasty hum is one of the few true joys of amplification. Similarly, reversing the phase of your signal by 180° can give you an ulterior line of defense against feedback, especially in cramped, difficult rooms.
  • A plethora of output connections. You want to have the choice between sending a balanced XLR signal or an unbalanced line—that way you can plug into whatever input is available.

There are several terrific preamps available by dedicated acoustic amplification companies—the undisputed king of the field is the Pendulum SPS-1, but at almost $2k that’s not exactly a budget-friendly solution. Among the most reputable are the L.R.Baggs Venue, the D-TAR Solstice, the Radial PZ-Pre, and the Headway EDB-1. Some of these preamps allow you to blend two separate sound sources, so you could blend an external microphone with a soundboard pickup for a sound that’s both natural and reliable in terms of feedback resistance.

Speaker Placement and Monitoring

If you have ever performed with a rock band, you’re probably used to using stage monitors to hear you bandmates as well as yourself. One of the tricks to improve your amplified tone as a classical guitarist is to nix monitoring altogether, and rely on the acoustic monitoring you get from the instrument itself. You will also hear some reverberated amplified sound coming back at you from the room, but try to ignore it—it’s not a faithful representation of how you sound out front. Keeping stage volume as low as possible will be the most effective thing you can do to help avoid feedback.

Another crucial anti-feedback technique, especially when playing with an amp, is to make sure that you are behind and/or to the side of any loudspeaker you are using. Placing the amp behind you might sound like a good idea, but when using a microphone it’s flirting with disaster. Once again, the acoustic sound of your guitar should be more than enough for you to hear yourself and act as a monitor.

I hope you have found these guidelines on classical guitar amplification useful. It’s a complicated and ultimately personal choice, but with some experimentation (good old trial and error!) everyone can find a solid plugged-in tone. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have any questions on amplifying your favorite guitar.

Of Mics and Men

2011 October 26
by Giacomo Fiore

We have taken a look of some of the most commonly used permanent/internal solutions for amplifying classical guitars. Let’s flip to the opposite end of the spectrum and discuss the king of external amplification: the microphone.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: mics are a much more cost-effective and tonally accurate way to amplify. If you were to spend $100 on a pickup or on a condenser microphone, you’d be getting a much more natural and just plain better sound with the latter. The downsides? Microphones are not as “plug and play” as an internal pickup, as they need to be setup carefully for best results; they are also susceptible to feedback and external/ambient noise (such as wind). In my experience, the tonal advantages largely outweigh these drawbacks, especially considering that many of these problems can be obviated through technical means (proper placement and EQ).

A Few Technical Definitions

The three main kinds of microphones that concern us as classical guitarists are dynamic, ribbon, and condenser microphones. Dynamics are the most common—the Shure SM58 and SM57 are perhaps the most widely used backline microphones in venues around the world. Dynamic mics don’t need to be powered, and are rugged, cheap, and reliable. However, most of these mics lack top-end definition and a flat enough response to be the first choice for our application.

Ribbon mics are interesting—they have a very warm, smooth kind of detail in the top end. From a practical standpoint, ribbon mics are fragile and require gobs of clean gain from a dedicated preamp—the front-of-house mixing board might not be enough. The Beyerdynamic M160 is an excellent ribbon mic for live use, if you can feed it enough clean gain.

Condenser microphones are not as sturdy as dynamics (don’t use them to hammer nails, or to fight your way out of that biker bar where you tried to play Recuerdos), and for the most part require Phantom Power from the board or (better) your preamp. However, these are small prices to pay in return of the sonic goodness and detail they provide. Condenser are also among the smallest microphones—an element that can provide crucial for placement. My favorite microphone at the time is the amazing Line Audio CM-3.

Do You Notice a Pattern?

I’m going to be speaking broadly about a very technical and detailed field here—I refer you to the Microphone University on Danish maker DPA’s website if you want more (and more accurate) definitions.

The pattern with which a microphone captures sound is crucially important for live amplification. The two most useful and common patterns are called cardioid and omnidirectional. Cardioid microphones get their name from the heart-shaped pickup pattern—they reject sound coming directly behind the microphone. This is extremely helpful in fighting feedback on an amplified stage. Because of their directionality, cardioid microphones exhibit a bass boost when placed close to the sound source—this is called proximity effect and can be easily countered with some sensitive EQ (such as a high-pass filter set at 80Hz for a guitar tuned to E).

Omni mics, as the name suggests, pick up sound from all directions. They offer the least colored and accurate response of all microphones, with no proximity effect or off-axis coloration. However, the fact that they pick up all sounds can be a problem when playing live. Because of this caveat, I suggest using omnis only when you need light amplification in an otherwise quiet setting, such as a large recital hall or church. You can use them in less ideal situations, but it might take some experience.

Placement is Key

Positioning the microphone is perhaps the most critical element in achieving a truthful and solid sound. One solution that I have been using for about a year now is to mount the microphone directly onto the guitar with a harness such as Exploraudio’s H-Clamp. You’ll have to deal with an extremely close placement (resulting in proximity effect with cardioid mics, which you can and should counter with EQ), but once the mic is positioned you won’t have to worry about the sound changing as you go through the music (you WILL move during a concert, believe me). Close micing also helps rejecting feedback, as the microphone will be “hearing” the guitar much louder than the surrounding environment. I like to position the mic to be somewhat centered in the lower bout, close to the widest point of the soundboard. You could use a low microphone stand to obtain a similar effect, just be careful of not bumping your guitar into it if you’re micing close.

Since I switched to microphone-only amplification I feel like my live sound has improved immensely. I perform amplified in less than ideal situations (such as coffeehouses, open-air festivals, and all sorts of background music gigs), yet I can tell my amplified tone is truthful to the source—especially in terms of dynamics and tone-color nuances. One last word of advice: if you’re going to embrace microphones, you should forget about monitoring. Your guitar will provide enough sound. Keeping the stage volume low is the best way to avoid feedback problems.

Next we’ll talk about preamps, EQs, and removable pickups.

Speak Up: How a Few Words Can Enhance Your Musical Presentation

2011 October 24
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by Giacomo Fiore

For the past hundred and fifty years or so, classical music concerts have been somewhat of a hallowed affair: performers wearing formal attire, presenting the music in a highly ritualized environment; the audience sitting passively and quietly, waiting to receive their fix of the sublime. In such an environment, talking might seem sacrilegious. When performers choose to break the spell of silence, they are putting themselves at risk, as some members of the audience are likely to consider words to be a disturbance to the musical continuity of the event. On the other hand, a few choice words can really enhance the communication between artist and audience: the language of music is obscure and sophisticated, and the vast majority of casual listeners can benefit from having a few “pointers” on what is about to happen for the next five, ten, or twenty minutes.

Spoken introductions are best kept succinct, to the point, and somehow light-hearted. Through several years of performing, I have found that people are likely to find me funnier when I’m on stage that in other social situations. I think there is some sort of psychological trick at play—as an audience member, you’re expecting to be entertained, so you’re automatically more inclined to laugh and be amused by the guy with the guitar and fancy attire. The trick, of course, is not to outstay your welcome, and not to try too hard—it’s very easy to go from “funny musician” to “self-indulgent blabber who ceased being funny about five minutes ago”.

In terms of the musical content of your stage barter, make sure you’re not indulging in too much jargon and techno-speak—those are instant turn-offs for even the most benign of crowds. Rather than talking about the miraculous modulation that happens after the false entry of the secondary theme in the development, for example, you might want to direct your listeners towards the remarkable change of colors they can hear about two-thirds of the way through the piece.

Explaining a bit about the structure of a piece (again, using lay terms as much as possible) can also enhance appreciation. For instance, I always tell my audiences that Dowland’s Nocturnal is a set of reverse variations—they’ll be hearing the varied material first and the theme at the end, at which point they’ll realize the theme had been running through the music for the entire duration of the piece. That gives the public something to hang on to, and makes their listening experience a much more active and enjoyable one. Along the same lines, I also make a habit of telling people a ballpark figure for the duration of longer pieces—something that keeps them from getting restless and actually helps them enjoy the moment, rather than wonder “is it over yet?”

As with your other musical endeavors, the trick to being a successful speaker lies in practicing. When you’re running your program in preparation for your performance, you should definitely include practicing your spoken intros. Extemporizing is extremely hard and should not be taken for granted—keeping to a terse and to-the-point script will ensure you’re communicating what you want, without wasting time and boring the more sophisticated members of your audience.