Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, May 18, 2004


I was talking to my friend John de Roo tonight, and he told me about playing at the Tucson Folk Music Festival recently and being thrown off by shoddy amplification of his acoustic guitar -- how distracting, how ruinous-to-concentration that is. Having experienced it several times myself, I sympathized.

I've been listening to classical guitar lately, recordings of the virtuoso Australian-born guitarist John Williams, who coincidentally has the same name as the Hollywood composer and Boston Pops conductor. Program notes to one of the albums talks about how classical guitar didn't really catch on until the 20th century, partly because it's so quiet. A soft sweet instrument. And when Segovia pretty much single-handedly made it a classical instrument, he made the new tradition mostly a solo tradition.

You can hear how soft & sweet the guitar is in bluegrass. The fiddle, the banjo, the mandolin all cut through so much more sharply than the guitar. Those fancy bluegrass guitar pickers always sound a little weak to me coming after another soloist, just because the instrument is so mellow-souding, and the genre isn't.

Virtuoso guitar traditions in Spanish Roma (Gypsy) music and Brazilian music emphasize the guitar's harmonic flexibility and rhythmic spirit in a way that bluegrass doesn't.

When I read about the guitar's quietness having contributed to its classical obscurity before the 20th century, I remembered reading an interview with an Indian master sarangi player who contemptuously talked about the quietness of the sitar, and how it never could have become such a world-famous instrument in the pre-amplification era. It was a chamber instrument played in court, according to this guy, not an instrument of the people, like the loud and beautiful sarangi.

I prefer playing regular guitar to electric, because one, you don't need an amp, and two, it sounds so sweet, and three, it's much more responsive dynamically and to changes in pick placement. But when I'm playing in a bar, I like to plug it into an amp. It's going to get amplified anyway, and I'd rather have some control over it onstage.

A friend of mine makes decent side money singing traditional Irish songs in noisy bars. He has a huge booming voice, but with a P.A., it doesn't matter. When I've sat next to him singing songs at parties, hearing that voice, it's a thrill. Unamplified is always better.

Chamber music.

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