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Column: The Versatile Guitar

on February 10, 2013 - 6:42am
The Versatile Guitar
Column by Richard Hannemann
 
I play music on the guitar. I write music for the guitar. I teach the guitar. I've been doing this for a while now.
 
So before you go out and buy a guitar, either for yourself or your child, here are a few things you should know.
 
Andres Segovia once said the guitar is like a small orchestra in the hand. Yep. You've got six strings, each an octave and half; that means you essentially have six instruments.
 
You have a total range of 3 and a half octaves, and you can stretch this to a little over 4 by using harmonics. The sounding range of the guitar is the same range as the choir.
 
This means you can be playing melody, harmony, and bass all at the same time. You can play contrapuntal polyphony, meaning more than one melody being played simultaneously.
 
You can play arrangements that are almost orchestral in nature and sound.
 
And you can do all of this as an accompaniment instrument, providing the entire harmonies that a single line instrument (like a clarinet or a voice) needs, and "sit in" with other musicians, or you can play fully self-contained as a solo instrument (and is there really any other way to be?) playing full arrangements of anything.
 
You can also transcribe music written for orchestra (called a "reduction") or choir to the guitar, or you can write the music for/with/on the guitar and transcribe it to the orchestra or choir. The only other instrument that can do all of this is a keyboard instrument such as the piano, but the guitar will double at the unison and the piano won't.
 
The entire world of music and musical possibility, in every genre, is literally at your finger tips in a readily portable instrument – indeed, now-a-days you can get a "travel guitar" which really will go anywhere; Sharon Isbin takes hers on jaunts to the Amazon.
 
Of course, to do this you need to learn finger-style guitar techniques. A flat pick just won't get you there. Anything you can do with a flat pick you can do with your fingers, but there is a lot you can do with your fingers that you simply cannot do with a flat pick.
 
There is no such thing as "jazz guitar" (though jazz players often prefer the arch-top), or "blues guitar", or "folk guitar", or even "classical guitar" for that matter. Jazz, blues, folk, classical, etc, are musical genres and styles which can be played on any guitar of which there are different styles/types.
 
The new guitarist should never start on an electric guitar. The electric guitar is more of a controller – you are not only playing the instrument, you are also playing the sound system and its various effects.
 
Additionally, there is a bit of delay between the time you strike the string and the time you hear the note as the vibrations of the string are turned into electrical signals, which then travel through the cords to the sound system and are sent to the speakers which convert the signals back into vibrations which then must travel whatever distance the speaker is from your ear.
 
By that time you have played a few more notes and if one of them is wrong you don't know about it until it is way too late to do anything about it. So you can drop the electric from your shopping list unless the guitar player getting the electric has already been playing for a while.
 
The term "acoustic guitar" as applied to the steel string flat-top is a misnomer. Strictly speaking an acoustic guitar is one which can be heard when played without the aid of electronic amplification. This would be the "classical," "flamenco," "arch-top," "resonator" (Dobro, which is a brand name), and steel string flat-top, to which the name "acoustic" is usually applied.
 
The mis-application of the term "acoustic" probably has to do with Eric Clapton, with a little help from marketing whiz-kids. Clapton decided to do an album of his style of playing on a non-electric guitar, probably simply to show people what was possible.
 
Since Clapton is a rock-blues style musician it wouldn't do to refer to the steel string flat-top he played by its then current monikers of "western" (shades of Gene Autrey) or "folk" (Burl Ives would have been equally un-cool.) Hence "acoustic."
 
Of the various acoustics, the most versatile is the nylon strung 6 string guitar, most commonly referred to as the classic guitar and this is the one the beginning player should start with for a variety of reasons:
  • You can play anything on it.
  • It is more forgiving of standard student mistakes. It is also more forgiving of standard advanced player mistakes.
  • It is easier on the fingers.
  • It doesn't have to plug in somewhere
  • The body size is pretty ideal for any and every body type – makes it easier to hold, particularly in tight places. Dreadnoughts and round backs (Ovation) are unwieldy at best and should only be played by people who have reached their full height and already know how to play the instrument.
  • It's light weight construction means it doesn't weigh a ton and won't pull your arm out of the socket trying to lug it around.
  • If reasonably well made, it has more voume and better projection than a steel string which means it has a greater dynamic range for expression – you can do a really soft passage just on the edge of hearing and people will hear it, and, if I really lay into it I can outplay a saxophone (I've done this.)
  • You can play anything on it – just because it is called a classical doesn't mean you are obliged to play only classical music. I play jazz, blues, folk, standards, country, flamenco, pop, and, oh yeah, a little classical and some rock – or a mish-mash of all of the above. I use every playing technique associated with the various genres (though I don't "bend" strings, I've seen it done.)
 
So if you are of the rock era – get over it. Get a classical. Certainly do not stick a youngster with an unwieldy dreadnought simply because you want them playing blues-rock.
 
I have played all of the guitars listed and I have enjoyed them. But if you were to have only one guitar it would have to be the versatile classical.
 
Editor's note: Richard Hannemann will perform on guitar at 5:20 p.m. at the UNM-LA Music Marathon, which features a variety of local musicians performing 2-8 p.m. Sunday, Feb.10 in the UNM-LA Student Center.

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