Monday, 7 October 2013

That Old Spanish Dog: Me and the Classical Guitar

Like millions of young guitar players over the years, I first got into guitar by having a bash on a cheap nylon strung classical jobby. These are often almost impossible to play (the action is ludicrous) and usually a nightmare to get in tune for the aspiring pubescent Segovia.

The budget classical is usually the halfway house, the wobbly stepping stone before the progression to a more expensive steel-strung electric or acoustic. Unfortunately, a lot of amateurs find this first instrument so frustrating that they jack it all in, believing that they just haven't got that 'natural talent' for playing the guitar.

Of course, as a lot of us know who are lucky enough (and persistent enough) to coax a few dodgy chords out of one of these Spanish dogs, its often the way the guitar is set up in the first place rather then any lack of innate talent that prevents learning development.

I remember when I was still school age and had learned my first few chords on the nylon classical, and then one fine day I had a go on a friends dad's Yamaha acoustic ... wow, this was another world! Although the steel strings hurt my fingers a bit, I didn't have to be Geoff Capes to press the strings to the fingerboard (to people of a certain age and cultural poverty, Geoff capes was a famous TV strongman in the 70's). Another amazing fact about this guitar was that when you fingered a chord it actually sounded like a proper chord - shimmering and full and ...tuneful.

I'd tuned my classical with a free 7 inch vinyl record that came with the guitar, this seemed okay: the open strings on my guitar sounded like the plucked strings on the record. I checked and triple checked, yes they did indeed appear very similar. The problem was, when I played a chord something didn't sound right. The shapes I was making with my fingers were correct but the chord example from the vinyl wasn't the same.

I realized later that the action was so high that I was pushing fretted notes sharp and the intonation was way out (string length and all that). Another fact that may have had a small impact on the synchronicity of the two instruments was my theory that the guy on the record was playing an instrument around forty times more expensive than my humble plank.

Anyway, playing this substitute axe gave me my first inkling that being able to sound reasonably 'good' wasn't down to some latent genius like talent that I may or may not possess. For the learner, having a reliable and properly set up instrument that stays in tune is the single most important element in developing the most basic skills on guitar.

It got a little better a couple of years later when I got a cheap Les Paul copy for Christmas. The action on that plywood beauty was a tad lower and the chords sounded a little more familiar - but I was still pretty ignorant of the more technical aspects of setting up a guitar. I finally educated myself through a library book and word of mouth from a mate's mate who played in a band. Remember, this was the early 80's: sans Internet and instructional guitar mags.

Years later when I was skint and signing on, and unusually for me, without a guitar at all, I bought a second hand classical for about twenty quid. I swear, that guitar saved my life during a really bleak, dark time. Yes, the action was a bit daft, but at least it stayed in tune and had the appearance of some kind of intonation. Shit, it sounded okay really, and still did for about twenty years afterwards. Yes, I kept it all those years. In fact it was the most constant guitar in my life.

Through all those Fenders, Westones, Yamahas and Ibanezs, that little tatty Spanish dog sat in the corner or in a cupboard or on top of the wardrobe before it was tickled again for a lazy ten minute strum when the mood took me. It was finally skipped when the soundboard started to come away and cracks appeared around the neck. RIP dear old friend, maybe you're getting twanged by an angel as I write ..

~ H-Allen