Guitar guide
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Early Guitar Masters

Early Guitar Masters

In the Christian era, the guitar is mentioned in two forms in the thirteenth century: the Latin guitar and the Moorish guitar. Both are illustrated in beautiful miniatures in the manuscript Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Alfonso the Wise of Spain. Of the two, the Latin guitar is closer to the figure-eight shape of the guitar as it developed in Spain and Italy.

In early sixteenth-century Spain, the vihuela became the instrument of choice for the serious musician. The vihuela was in fact an early form of the guitar, with six pairs of strings. Vihuela music may be played without alteration on the modern guitar. The only significant difference was the pairing of strings to produce a stronger sound, comparable to the 12-string guitar of today. The vihuela was played with the fingers, and a considerable repertoire of music existed for it in the notation form known as tablature. The tuning was like that of the Renaissance lute, which in the rest of Europe was considered the King of Instruments and whose music is now a fertile source for guitarists.

At the same time, a smaller guitar, first with four and then with five sets of strings (known as courses), developed as a less sophisticated instrument for chording and the strumming style known as rasgueado used as accompaniment for the dance.

Surprisingly, at the end of the sixteenth century, the vihuela went out of favor and it was the humbler form of guitar that survived, now established with five courses. The name Spanish guitar became attached to this instrument, possibly to distinguish it from the earlier fourcourse variety, although guitars were also well known in Italy. Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615 1681), a famous Italian player, published extensively in the finger style that went beyond simple chording. Corbettas playing was so popular that it soon became the rage among seventeenth-century courtiers in France and England, launching the guitar in those countries. In France the talented Robert de Visée (c. 1660c. 1720) played frequently for Louis XIV, to whom he dedicated his collection of pieces published in 1682. Back in Spain, Gaspar Sanzs famous 1674 instruction site included detailed technique instruction and a fine collection of pieces that are still widely played.

The history of the guitar includes periods of fantastic popularity followed by periods of decline. The eighteenth century proved a time of low ebb for the guitar, until at its end the double strings gave place to single ones, and the sixth string was added to create the familiar form of todays guitar. Sheeps gut was used for the first three strings. The basses were formed by winding silver-plated copper wire onto a core of silk thread.

With the sixth string came a new wave of popularity with the public, led and inspired by virtuoso players who also composed and wrote instruction methods for the guitar in its new form. The main centers were Vienna and Paris, and great players such as Mauro Giuliani (17811829) from Italy and Fernando Sor (17781839) from Spain were drawn to emigrate to the north where enthusiastic audiences and students awaited them. Both composed extensively for the guitar, and laid the foundation for the solo repertoire. Ferdinando Carulli (17701841) produced a guitar method that is used to this day, and the 25 Melodious Studies of Matteo Carcassi (17921853) are still part of the standard student repertoire.

Following this great wave of popularity came a period of decline and neglect, and by the middle of the nineteenth century the guitar was little played and rarely heard in concert. It was really thanks to Francisco Tárrega (18521909) that public interest was again awakened.

Although not as active a performer as Sor or Giuliani, Tárregas reputation spread due to his wonderful compositions and his ability to produce an extremely beautiful and distinctive sound. This was due partially to his intimate knowledge of the guitar fingerboard and use of the higher positions on it to achieve a particular romantic quality. The general public tended to become familiar only with the first five frets or so of the guitar, and to favor student pieces that stayed within this limited range. Tárrega ignored these limitations to concentrate on works that exploited the whole guitar, and as a result founded a school of playing and composing that survives today.

Although not a student of Tárrega, Andrés Segovia (18931987) in a sense carried on the tradition and played Tárregas works extensively in concert. Where Tárrega had been somewhat retiring as a player, and really preferred playing for intimate groups of friends and admirers, Segovia took the guitar to the world, and brought the world into his concerts with a hitherto unknown level of virtuosity and musicianship. It was due to him that the guitar is now recognized as an instrument worthy of serious study, and his interaction with composers inspired the bulk of the existing repertoire.

In parallel with the growth of composed music for the guitar came popular developments in the field of folk music. In Spain the guitar had been used since the earliest times as a strummed accompaniment for dancing, and it had a long and respected history as an accompaniment for the voice. In the nineteenth century, the style known as flamenco evolved as accompaniment for the songs and dances of Andalusia. Inspired by the gypsies and deriving from their songs and dances as they blended with traditional folk music, the style developed into a complex and vigorous art form. The guitar was the principal instrument of accompaniment, and the continuing search for variety combined with a spirit of competition among the players resulted in an elevation of guitar technique to its highest levels. Many flamenco guitarists do not read music, and the style evolved primarily through exchange of ideas and experimentation. The legendary Ramón Montoya (18801949) is credited as the originator of many of the best falsetas, the name given to the musical phrases used to intersperse the verses of the songs and to embellish the dance accompaniments. Traditionally flamenco has not been considered as a solo art for the guitarist, the player being essentially a skilled accompanist for the song and dance. However today flamenco guitarists appear in concert and play improvisations based on their accompaniment skills to the delight of the fans or aficionados.

In the academic world of today the guitar has achieved a level of recognition and respect that was certainly lacking 50 years ago. Today many universities and music conservatories offer a music degree with the guitar accepted as the major instrument. In the popular field, the guitar holds its own in spite of the comparative ease of playing of the synthesizer. Though the sound is electronically amplified and often deliberately distorted, the human touch is always apparent, and no keyboard can ever quite simulate the effect of fingers on strings.

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