Hannemann’s Music Corner: The Sustain

Hannemann’s Music Corner
Los Alamos

The Sustain

One of the truly neat things about the guitar is its natural sustain. Play a note and then sit back and listen to it roll.

There are very few instruments that have this characteristic, the two most notable being the piano and the orchestral harp. The downside to the natural sustain of the piano is that it can be thunderous. Push down the sustain pedal on your piano and play a lot of chords and notes; it becomes a very flood of cacophony, and a powerful one at that, which overwhelms the melodies, counterpoint, harmonies, notes in a tsunami of noise. The instrument is quite capable of overwhelming the music.

The harp not so much so. It has a wonderful luxuriantly rich sustain but not quite so much that the instrument overwhelms the music. The downside to the harp is that it isn’t exactly portable.

Which gets us back to the guitar. The guitar has this wonderful sustain which allows the notes played to overlap each other blending in to harmonies intended and unintended. But the sustain isn’t usually written in so what you see is not quite what you hear. For example

What you see:



What you hear:




What you see is nice and clean. It is also simply the “attack” – what note you play when. What you hear is something else entirely. Take a look at the 3rd measure – the e5 is over-lapping the d5 making a really nifty dissonance of a major 2nd.

Of course, we don’t write in the sustain for the guitar; as you can see it gets a little messy. Playing the sustain is assumed. Here is the opening to a Caprice by M. Carcassi:

All the notes here are played on different strings: looking at just the first two beats of m1 we have d4 on the 4th string, a4 on the 3rd string, d5 on the second string, f5 on the first string. Each note will sustain until the string is played again which gives a wonderful overlap and blending of tones but which would be a nightmare to have to read.

The thing about playing the guitar is that you get used to hearing this overlapping blend of tones – and you get used to hearing things like 2nd s. Regularly. It becomes second nature. This has consequences.

First off, the “rules” of composition require a certain amount of modification. Okay, a lot of modification. You are going to get dissonances where dissonances are not supposed to be. You are going to get 2nd s and 4th s and tritones and augmented 5th s and all manner of interesting things that you try to avoid if you are writing for choir or orchestra – or instruments that have no sustain. “Open” (parallel) 5th s and octaves aren’t really open since the sustain from previous notes fill the space rather nicely – creating, of course, harmonies and chords and suspensions and all manner of stuff that you didn’t write in but gets heard anyway. If you are going to write or arrange for the guitar you have to take this into account – so the “rules” need more than just a little bending.

Since, as Segovia once said, the guitar is a small orchestra in the hand, you start thinking in terms of each string being a separate instrument. Which of course gets you to “hearing” orchestra and writing guitar.

Then you write something for orchestra. Which instruments characteristically have no sustain (except the harp). So, since you are used to the sustain … you write it in.

Which is pretty much what happened when I was writing “High Desert River”. I noodled out a rather large chunk of the opening on the guitar – a nice simple little slow turn from e5 to f5 to e5 to d#5 to e5. This can be played on three separate strings (bit of a reach, but it can be done). Well …

The orchestra would simply be playing what you see in the first 2 measures … and there’s that wonderful sustaining overlapping blend of minor 2nds. So … Yeah, I wrote it in. 3 different instruments. Because even though when you write guitar you might hear orchestra, when you write orchestra … You hear guitar.

You can hear the resulting “High Desert River” along with the Carcassi “Caprice” on http://soundcloud.com/richard-hannemann

Ain’t guitar wunnerful?


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