THE NYLON STRING GUITAR EARNS ITS RESPECT

William R. Cumpiano
2001 All Rights Reserved

 

It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that Spanish guitars first appeared as six-stringed instruments—almost a century after the modern stringing was common all over Europe.  In spite of the late start, however, the entire world would eventually come around to Spain before the close of that century, and to its great builders, to set the trend for the way acoustic guitars would be built for the following hundred and fifty years. It would be up to the Seville luthier Antonio Torres to fashion the definitive form for the guitar, creating a model so superior in power and balance to the others that all his contemporaries—and all builder subsequent to him—were compelled by popular demand to imitate his model as the standard to follow.

For all of Torres’ improvements on the sonority of his instrument, however, the guitar remained locked out of the concert hall, since it could still not hold its own in the company of symphonic instruments, or even in the solo company of a violin or a piano. It was said at the time that “if capacity and quantity of sound is not a virtue in the guitar, it is in its richness of timbre, dynamics and expression: it is as an orchestra heard from afar.”

So the guitar remained a fixture only to be heard in the parlors of the elites…or on the streets in the hands of the riff-raff. Yet some of the greatest classic and Romantic-era composers—enchanted by its sound—created a small repertory of light classical music for it, mainly for the playing in front of friends and associates in informal settings. This slender repertory of charming, yet modest pieces by Beethoven, Sor, Aguado, Carcasi and Carulli, would form the musical foundations for the instrument’s future history as a full fledged concert instrument.

 Thus, up to the 1920s, the world’s concert halls were effectively closed to the delicate and ephemeral sounds of the guitar. It would take a player of the stature of Andres Segovia to give the guitar the “respect” its adherents craved. But it would be a hard, slow road: The New York Times, reviewing a 1927 performance would refer to him as  “the leading exponent of an instrument which has heretofore had little consideration as a vehicle for the interpretation of serious music.” And in his 1928 New York debut, the Times again damned him and his instrument with faint praise:

 

“Mr. Segovia did not and cannot succeed in removing the limitations which will always surround his instrument. He has stretched these limitations to the utmost. He has far outdistanced in his knowledge and his musical conceptions the ordinary twang of strings. Nevertheless, the guitar remains the guitar, with limits of sonority, color, dynamics.”

 

During the following fifty years, Segovia’s legendary mastery eventually succeeded in earning for his guitar the respect of concert-goers around the world (if not the respect of many of his fellow Spaniards for siding up to the brutal dictator, Francisco Franco, during the Spain’s Civil War), and the Spanish guitar finally became a familiar presence in symphony halls around the world. Besides establishing his technique and repertory as a norm, the classical guitar world also adopt his entrenched conservatism. Hence the term “classical” would come to mean strict adherence to the past, a formalism that would brook no experimentation. Even after his death, the instruments that he played, instruments made by Hauser, Fleta, Ramirez--the inheritors of Torres’ mantle--became the apotheoses of guitar design. These models became the “classics,” the guitars that all builders and players would henceforth build and play, or simply not be taken seriously in their fields.

It can be said that the world of the classical guitar began to undergo a great transformation after Segovia’s death in 1987. The great master’s overarching presence was gone, a factor which permitted a liberation of the instrument’s repertory, style, and later, even its form. As the classical field became more “laid back,” the instrument became more attractive and the field more inviting to players from other realms of the guitar world, expanding the role and market for the venerable instrument. The instrument made significant inroads into the most unlikely realms—into country and western and jazz, for example, championed by the likes of Willie Nelson and Charlie Byrd. Joao Gilberto’s Bossa Nova and Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” even brought the instrument into the Top 10 for a brief period. Yet essentially, the nylon-string guitar remained predominantly cloistered as a “classical” instrument played primarily for the enjoyment of elites. In sheer numbers, the nylon string guitar industry was (and, to a lesser extent, still is) dwarfed by the massive popular interest in steel string acoustic and electric guitars. As a result, in the United States the classic world remained essentially the realm of individual players playing instruments made in small workshops by a tiny bunch of dedicated individual artisans, Manuel Velazquez, José Rubio, Michael Gurian, Gene Clark and Frank Hasselbacher among them, building dozens of instruments a year predominantly with hand tools, and sold in several specialized stores in a just a few cities around the country. In contrast, the steel-string guitar evolved in the United States as a creature of the Industrial Revolution, a product of the factory, tailored to the requirements of mass production and mass distribution. And so they’ve both remained, until recently.

Today, interest in playing and making the nylon string guitar is greater than it ever has been. Classical guitar is a popular college major and doctoral degree. Classic guitar master-classes and recitals are common in virtually every academic setting in the land, where on any given weekend they can be seen filled with prospective young recitalists. The market for the nylon string guitars is rapidly expanding, and correspondingly, so is the number of builders to serve it. The instrument is now a familiar voice on the radio, on television, and even on the internet. The dry woody twang of the nylon string guitar lends a fresh, compelling exoticism to Afro-Pop, to Flamenco fusion, to the re-emerging Brazilian guitar Bossa scene, and in the hands of the Latino rocker Carlos Santana, into the world of mega-seat stadium performances and the Emmy awards.

The august classical/ nylon guitar world has let its hair down, so to speak, and today’s concert halls are hosts to classical guitars that are hardly classical in their anatomy, let alone their materials or even sound. Experimentation in guitar design and the adoption of new and unusual materials is no longer “prohibited,” indeed, each innovation in either the form or structure of the instrument has come to be a factor of great interest and curiosity in the classical guitar community.

Today’s neo-classical luthiers are dramatically changing the appearance of their concert instruments: Fingerboards are raised boldly off the face of the guitar (which facilitates access to the upper frets and to improve tone and sustain in the higher registers) by such innovators as Thomas Humphrey, Greg Byers and Thomas Rein. Inside the soundbox, Torres’ fan bracing has been thrown out and replaced with advanced graphite-reinforced lattice-braced systems with ultrathin tops, low-mass bridges and massive internal frameworks. Soundholes are being moved out of the way, out from under the strings (as the Spanish luthier Francisco Simplicio dared to do during the late 1920s) to increase the soundboard area. These changes result in instruments with explosive tone and projection (yes, you can now use that adjective to describe the sound of a nylon-string guitar!) when played by the likes of Manuel Barruecos and John Williams. Among the most prominent innovators building these powerful new instruments are the Australian Greg Smallman, the New Englander Alan Chapman, the German Matteas Daman, and the Briton Paul Fischer. Several prominent nylon-string guitarmakers today are placing lead weights and steel reinforcing bars in their guitars, and using graphite reinforced balsa wood braces, and like Canadian William Laskin and New Englander William Cumpiano, even ergonomic sound box shapes. These are not fringe amateurs or experimenting hobbyists, but well renown makers with firm reputations in their field.

On the other hand, many players and builders feel that the guitar’s sound is described by its anatomy, and when you change the guitar’s anatomy radically and you radically change its sound. With greater power, some instruments gain a cavernous tone and exchange warmth and intimacy for these “broad shoulders.” Unwilling to make some of these tradeoffs, another group of luthiers continue building successfully in the traditional classical form. In this group, luthiers such as Jeffrey Elliott, Cyndy Burton, David Dailey, and Tom Bazzolo are happy to use traditional materials, finishes and structures with great success. And finally, luthiers are getting their due where it really counts: prices ranging between ten and twenty thousand dollars are not at all uncommon, and even advanced students of the classical guitar nowadays know that to play in today’s classical game, it will cost you at least five to ten thousand dollars for a serious instrument with the power, projection and character to make you sound your best.

The guitar recitalist’s traditional sense of inferiority, the age-old result of playing a instrument with such an evanescent, perishable sound, is a thing of the past: the nylon string guitar can now easily hold its own against the piano and even the violin in any concert hall. Today’s players need not fear, like Segovia during the twenties, to be damned by faint praise. In the hands of today’s bold crop of makers and players, the nylon-string guitar has finally earned it’s respect.