What is a guitar?

This is a branch off of yesterday’s post, in which I described my accidental (serendipitous?) discovery of a classical guitar method.

The other day I was at a guitar clinic held by Chris Proctor. Chris would play a tune or two and take all sorts of questions from the audience. There were no more than 20 of us in attendance, so it was sort of a salon format. Having a nationally known guitarist all to ourselves for a couple of hours was quite the treat.

There were a couple of points in the evening where Chris alluded to the relative rigidity of the classical guitar culture. There is essentially one body shape for the guitar – all classical guitars are within a few millimeters of one another on key dimensions (not counting child-size guitars). There is one standard posture – sitting, guitar balanced between the legs but leaning against the left leg, left leg raised on a stool or guitar propped up on a brace. Strings are plucked with well-shaped right-hand fingernails. The left hand thumb is planted firmly in the back of the neck. All of the sheet music is in standard Western notation, G clef raised one octave.

In contrast, Taylor Guitars advertises 8 main body shapes for their steel string guitars (5 full size, 3 “mini”), and that’s just for the 6-string models (yes, there are other configurations). Players may sit in a variety of ways – guitar on right knee, on left knee, strapped on – and of course standing with a guitar strap is popular.  Strings may be played with fingernails, fingerpicks (essentially artificial nails), or a plectrum (guitar pick). The left hand thumb may wrap around to grab a bass string, or as Chris demonstrated, the entire hand may span the fretboard to achieve a long reach. Music – when it’s written down – might be in standard notation, but that’s far less common than tablature (where the actual fret positions are marked, rather than the pitches those frets represent) and chord diagrams (short-hand for the left-hand chord positions).

I have to agree with Chris’s assessment – the steel string guitar world is like the wild west compared to the classical community. Musicians are often shopping for “that sound” – whether it’s Neil Young or the Indigo Girls or Chris Proctor they want to emulate. The gold standard sound is different for each musician and circumstance. (Yes, to a much smaller degree, classical guitarists will note the subtle differences between instruments, but the distinctions are much finer).

Do I prefer one to the other? It depends. Right now I’m both playing classical guitar music much more than steel string, and building a classical guitar as well. But when I’m with friends and someone breaks out a guitar, it’s inevitably a steel string model to accompany singing, and I’m down with that too. Some of the pieces I’m most eager to master are steel-string instrumental compositions.

As a student guitar builder, I’m excited about exploring alternatives to the standard classical guitar shape. Some builders have come out with “cross-over” models – nylon string guitars that will feel comfortable in the hands of a steel string player. I’m interested in the reverse – creating a steel string guitar that will not require a lot of adjustment to my playing technique. In a sense that’s turning back the clock – the original steel string guitars were essentially classical guitars with extra reinforcement for the steel string tension. When I pick up an instrument modeled on those early guitars I tend to like the sound and feel, though – it could be an interesting project when I get to guitar #003.

No punchy ending to this blog – I’m essentially writing down some thoughts and signing off.

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