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!