Classical Guitar – Guitars Unsung Hero

By Daniel Ondaro

Daniel Ondaro

Daniel Ondaro

Classical guitar is truly the unsung hero of guitar styles. While not nearly given as much praise as other styles, it still provides some of the guitars most complex and fascinating music. Tending to be overshadowed by louder, more in your face music, the classical guitar is constantly shrouded in misconceptions and stereotypes in many realms of music and musicians. The style however, moves on. Expanding the techniques and literature of guitar music in many interesting and organic ways through the ingenious work of excellent composers and performers of many different genres. By conducting a brief survey of the classical guitar’s instrumental, literary, and stylistic history one can gain an enhanced perspective on the guitars richest and oldest tradition while dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions commonly held about the style.

For thousands of years humans have been playing lute and other guitar like instruments but it wasn’t until the 15th century that the classical guitar as we know it started to take shape and gain popularity in Europe. Originally brought to Spain by the moors and redeveloped there, the early classical guitar like instruments attracted lots of attention in high courts and among the people. Early forms contained four of five sets of coursed strings (two strings for each pitch, usually in octaves) made from animal intestines. These instruments were much smaller than the modern classical guitar and were less potent in sound. As the centuries passed the instrument was able to grow larger (because of new technology to brace a large body), course strings were eliminated, nylon materials for strings were invented, and six non-coursed strings (three treble and three bass) became the norm.

As the instrument evolved so did the literature. As in other classical styles the classical guitars literature can be categorized into different periods of classical music history with each period growing out the old one, while reacting to it in different ways. These musical periods for the guitar include the Renaissance (in which early tab systems evolved and were unique to their European country of origin), Baroque (of which Bach was a large contributor to lute/guitar literature), Classical (a prolific time for guitar literature with works by Giuliani, Sor and others), Romantic, and 20th Century. It is however true that the literary evolution of classical guitar was indeed significantly later for each period compared to other western classical instruments and that as an instrument it enjoyed considerably less popularity in conservatories all over the world.

Many people theorize one of the contributing factors to its lack of popularity in classical circles and subsequent delay of stylistic evolution to be because of the public’s perception of the guitar in general as an instrument only used in folk styles. The more we study the stylistic elements of classical guitar, however, the more we can discover similarities to other classical styles and instruments in the western and world classical realms. Many classical guitarists place a great emphasis on tone, volume, etc. in hopes of achieving all the expressive possibilities capable of the instrument. Therefore much of the student’s time is devoted to practice of foundational and progressive exercises. Many methods have been created to build upon aspects of the classical guitar student’s physical and mental capabilities. Accordingly the student is expected to practice his or her skills for sight-reading, scales, and other elements essential to classical guitar playing in addition to repertoire. The apprentice style pedagogical approach remains at the heart of this tradition and is a fundamental aspect to the student’s progression. In general the stylistic and pedagogical approaches to classical guitar compare to many other styles of classical and non-classical music in that practice is done before hand in order to achieve great expressiveness and virtuosity in performance.

Today the style of classical guitar enjoys considerable popularity and recognition in many of the worlds leading conservatories and music programs. It is also being recognized in the public eye more and more by the incredible work of performers and composers such as Andres Segovia, Christopher Parkening, Joaquín Rodrigo and others. These people have indeed popularized the style of classical guitar in both the classical and popular realms and have helped dispel myths on both sides about the classical guitars capabilities and place within the world of music. Many players however still struggle to find a place in the classical realm and to be recognized by the general public. Because of this the style of classical guitar still remains the unsung hero of guitar music. One finds, however that through the historical and instrumental study of classical guitar one can gain an enriched perspective of the guitars evolution, literature and stylistic qualities as well as a deep interest in its oldest tradition.


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