by Kathryn Lambert
Almost every guitarist has had that moment of realization when they understand that whatever they’re doing with posture, it isn’t working. Maybe you start with a footstool, and after years of back pain and hearing your joints pop every time you stand up, you start looking for a new support system. Perhaps you even start with an ErgoPlay, and after that first suction cup fails to deliver, and you feel your instrument start to tumble out of your hands, you re-evaluate. This is not a new problem; the ideal way to support our instrument has plagued guitarists for years. From Sor’s use of a table to Aguado’s tripod contraption, guitarists have been searching for the ideal solution long before the invention of many modern supports. With new technology and ideas, we have certainly gained significant ground in this department!
As an “itty bitty” guitarist, I started out with the classic footstool option. It’s cheap, so parents don’t feel like they’re investing in a first car for a teenager, and practical to adjust when you have a growth spurt. While these supports can be great short- term solutions, they are absolutely not friendly for your body. Not only does having the left leg elevated put extra strain on the back, but this also makes it necessary for the performer to hunch over their guitar to maintain an ideal playing position. I can even remember trying to find a comfortable compromise with this set up, and after a reasonable amount of tweaking and experimentation, I ended up just feeling like a contorted figure from a Picasso painting. While all of these difficulties were apparent to me, I must say that I was hesitant to transition to using the ErgoPlay at the suggestion of my Professor. Suction cups? It felt like sticking an octopus to the side of my instrument...sacrilege and hideous. However, I was amazed at the tremendous improvement the device made in my playing! I very quickly dropped the adolescent notion of its oddity, and accepted it as my preferential support system.
While the ErgoPlay is a significant ergonomic improvement from the footstool, it still has its drawbacks. The suction cup adherence to the instrument is most definitely one of the largest downsides. They’re usually quite effective for a while, but with the wear and tear of being removed and stuck back on a daily basis, they begin to lose their grip. There has been more than one scenario in which I have been in the middle of a performance and had a suction cup lose its grip. The guitar then moves in my hands and threatens to tumble! I have tried boiling them and keeping up with replacing them on a regular basis, but it still seems to be a major setback to this system. Nonetheless, I still consider it a major improvement from the footstool.
Another more recent option is the Sagework Magnet support. Using magnets inserted on the inside of the instrument, the support adheres to the side of the guitar using the magnetic attraction, thus eliminating the aggravating popping of suction cups. While I’ll admit that this support is not one I have used in my personal performance, it is certainly the option I am heavily considering as my next upgrade.
Until guitar levitation is a universal skill, we’ll have to remain open- minded and curious to new solutions for posture and support...
To Be Amplified Or To Not Be Amplified? That is the question that so many classical guitarists struggle with.
Many of us who have performed with any kind of chamber group are familiar with the issue of producing adequate volume with a classical guitar. From crossing out every dynamic marking other than forte or fortissimo to wearing down our nails to jagged little stubs attempting to coax every last decibel from the strings, we go to such great lengths to come close to matching our colleagues in volume. Even playing with one other bowed instrument can pose balance issues, so it’s almost always assumed that the guitarist should be amplified in groups that are larger in number. However, some performers will even play concertos without amplification. Why? The answer unfortunately boils down to the issue of quality versus quantity.
Our instrument has a heritage of salon performance. Small halls, homes, private gatherings, etc., were the original performance venues for the guitar. In fact, the instrument wasn’t really considered a concert instrument until the 19th century, and even then it is behind most other instruments in its constructional advances for sound. It’s simply a quiet instrument. While this might sound like a negative quality, that’s just not always the case! The guitar has so many nuances to its tone qualities, variances in articulation, and textures in its repertoire that wouldn’t necessarily be possible if the instrument was simply designed for volume. It’s because of these intimate qualities of sound that many classical guitarists don’t want to be amplified. Any acoustic instrument that is run through an amplification system is going to have a change in sound. That being said, some methods of amplification do work better than others, and there are amplifiers made specifically for attempting to eliminate any sort of electrical quality to the sound. Perhaps it’s becoming more of a matter of opinion, but in my experience and the experience of most of my peers, the sound is always modified with amplification.
Is the change in sound worth being heard in large groups such as full orchestra? Most people, including myself would say yes. In this scenario, many of the timbre differences wouldn’t be heard anyway. Only in the cadenzas or sections where the guitarist is heard alone would the amplification be very obvious. In addition to the overall issue of being heard, exerting so much physical effort in order to achieve volume is taxing for a player’s hands. This decision becomes more difficult of course the smaller the chamber group gets, but it usually comes down to whether or not the player believes that the extra physical effort is worth the preservation of the sound, and whether or not the audience will be able to hear them.
All of these issues aside, who knows what the future holds for sound technology? Perhaps the perfect solution to our problem is just around the corner. If it is, we’ll be anxiously waiting!
We Can Have Our Cake and Eat It Too: The various ways guitar builders make our instrument so personal
Choosing a guitar is a unique, fun, and extremely personal experience. While almost any instrument has different customizations that can be made and different sound qualities that can be achieved by the maker, virtually any part of the guitar can be changed according to the player or builder’s desire. Whether it’s choosing a custom rosette, tuners, particular woods for the back and sides, type of polish, or any of the myriad of personal touches, this freedom of style has appealed to instrument builders for centuries.
One particular aspect of guitar customization that is particularly important to both players and their audience is the type of wood used to create the instrument. It seems that over the years of what we now see as our standard sized guitar’s development, two main preferences have evolved for the choice of the top piece of wood: cedar and spruce. Interestingly enough, most players usually classify themselves as preferring one or the other. Those that favor cedar often prefer a “warmer, darker tone” while those who prefer spruce typically seem to desire a “brighter and clearer tone”. Although there are most definitely sound differences between the two types of wood, these adjectives we’ve come to so casually throw out to describe them are not always true. The more builders experiment with changing the traditional build of the guitar, the less significant this difference in wood seems to be. Tone is so often affected by the type of polish, the age of the wood, the climate that the instrument has been built or kept in. So, even these stereotypical descriptors vary from instrument to instrument.
One thing that has plagued classical guitarists for years about the general construction of the instrument is the production of volume without sacrificing sound quality. The unamplified guitar is a relatively quiet instrument, which makes performing in a large concert hall or in a chamber group a difficult proposition at times. One way that luthiers have found to try and accommodate for volume is changing the construction of the top of the instrument. The three most recognized forms of construction are the traditional fan bracing, the lattice bracing (or hybrid lattice bracing), and the double-top guitar. All of these variations were conceived in order to compensate for volume or sound quality, and many players have vastly different preferences regarding the sound of each of these. What other instrument has so many variations of body construction to accommodate sound preference?
Another incredible way of modifying a guitar that is unique from most other instruments is the way in which we can improve the playability of an instrument based on a particular performer. For example, it’s now very commonplace for players to use a 640 scale length as opposed to the traditional 650. Unlike most of the string family, changing the scale length actually modifies the stretch between notes, whereas the reach between pitches on a violin, cello, etc. would not change regardless of fingerboard length. There are 7/8 size instruments in the string family that can accommodate a smaller performer, but the guitar is unique in that the fretboard is often modified independently of the standard body size. In addition to the length of the fretboard, builders often modify the way the fretboard meets the body. On some instruments it is almost flush with the body, but more commonly builders are now elevating the fretboard and angling the top of the body to assist with playing in the upper positions.
Whether it’s changing the construction of the instrument or its aesthetics, the guitar is such a personal instrument. This is something that we should embrace (and dare I say brag about?) as guitarists. From bracing choices to the type of polish and/or wood chosen for the top of the instrument, builders are constantly looking for ways to push volume, quality of sound, and resonance of guitars. Our instrument is continuously evolving for the better, and through this evolution we continue to expand our palette of personalization.