Classic

I recently rebuilt a classical guitar—with a touch of irony, the guitar was made by Suzuki, a Japanese corporation.

This is the Suzuki Violin Company, not the automobile manufacturer, and like good wines, the guitar is numbered—Number 34, to be precise—the company itself was formed in 1887.

The classical guitar is traditionally a concert instrument, but it’s also the workhorse of popular music in Southern Europe. The cheesy duo that drifts into your beachside restaurant and starts yodeling interesting covers of Paul Anka songs—in the sense of the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’—will most likely be armed with a Spanish guitar.

It’s a winning strategy, because you must pay them urgently to shut them up—if the local fare doesn’t paralyze your digestion, their version of Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ most certainly will.

Most boys learn to play guitar for a simple reason—to pick up girls. By and large, if the strategy works, their musical pursuits are quickly abandoned as other interests raise their head, so to speak.

Classical, or Spanish, guitar is a pretty basic instrument. In its original form, the strings are tied to the bridge using a fisherman’s knot, and there is no cutaway. My Suzie has eighteen frets, but above the twelfth you hit the treble end (or upper bout) of the body—whatever you can play above that line depends on the length of your fingers, but forget bar chords.

The neck is thick, particularly when compared to the slim fretboard of an electric guitar, and the nylon strings are also thick—and difficult to keep in tune—when compared to steel strings. Truss rods are almost unheard of and the action is too high, which affects the playing speed.

All this makes Suzie difficult to play, which is a mixed blessing—frustrating when compared to more modern guitars, but if you get it right on a Spanish guitar, playing it on an electric is real easy.

Guitars are a good investment—this one is now set up as a lefty, and probably worth about three hundred bucks. If you get into the pre-war Gibsons or other lofty heights, start adding zeroes.

Although a classical guitar is more of a challenge, it has a lovely, warm sound—you can get a lot out of it by finger picking, rather than using a flat pick. A good number of rock guitarists started life learning classical guitar, and the Spanish guitar influence is obvious when they solo—one example is Robby Krieger, from The Doors.

The young Argentinian boy who plays this classical guitar version of Titanic—a tune I don’t much care for—demonstrates what you can do on a Spanish guitar. Apart from the cutaway, which gets him to a couple more frets—but he’s eleven, and has small fingers to match—the guitar you see is a pretty basic job, just like my Suzie.

Compare that to the Music Man played by Albert Lee in this amazing version of ‘Country Boy’. The Music Man electric guitar company was bought by Ernie Ball, a well known string manufacturer—and a great example of a name that matches a profession. I keep a list of those—one day they’ll make it into an article.

Albert Lee’s guitar—he’s so good this is the Albert Lee signature model—has twenty-two frets, which is normal for an electric, and it’s pretty obvious from the shape he can get at all of ’em!

Along with that, there’s all sorts of electronic wizardry, including Seymour Duncan pickups, as well as a tremolo arm. You’re looking at about two grand, and no exotic woods—ash for the body, maple for the neck.

The history of the guitar goes back four thousand years, but Suzie is only forty-seven years old. When you compare her to an offering from the early XIXth century, she looks pretty much the same—the only major difference is in the strings, which are nylon rather than sheep gut.

When you consider how far electric guitars have developed in the last fifty years—not to mention all the wonderful gadgets that project, modify, and record sound—you get a feeling for the warp-speed of technology change.

The most wonderful thing about this evolution is the symbiosis with humans—we have developed and mastered a vast range of techniques that only shine when you pump up the amp. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato, all manner of arpeggios…

And now there’s a very deep YouTube—a tribute to learning, and to the joy humans have in sharing knowledge. How much better to do this than fight all the time.

I use the YouTube knowledge daily, and every time I do, I wish it was around the first time I ever learned the chord of G, when Suzie and I first got acquainted.

Any twelve-year-old boy who wants to impress the girls by picking a tune now has YouTube at his fingertips. And the girls can do it too!

When it comes to guitar picking, the world is definitely flat.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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