Guitar

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins
🔊
🔊

Pitch range

Guitar pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The guitar’s main claim to fame is that it gets everywhere! It’s not in the orchestra much, but it’s in pop, rock, heavy metal, jazz, folk, and more than happy to go solo.

The most famous guitar concerto is Concierto de Aranjuez by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.

There are many types of guitar.

Guitarist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Guitarist in playing position

Acoustic guitars

This group includes the classical guitar (pictured above), which has been around for centuries. It’s always been a popular instrument in Spain. Many famous guitar makers and players have been Spanish.

All acoustic guitars have a hollow, ‘S’-shaped body of varnished wood in varying shades. There’s a big round hole to help the sound (instead of the f-holes on the violin-family instruments).

The famous Italian violin maker Stradivari also made guitars and mandolins.

Electric guitar, courtesy of Dreamstime

Electric guitar

Electric guitars

These are a more recent, 20th-century development. They have a slimmer body and no big, round sound hole.

When the strings are plucked, they vibrate over tiny coils of wire on magnets. This creates an electrical signal that is passed through an amplifier and comes blasting out of speakers.

It’s not the kind of guitar Paganini knew about! And it’s not the kind that plays with an orchestra, either. It’s used in rock and pop bands.

To play it

Using a plectrum to pluck the strings of the guitar, courtesy of Dreamstime

Using a plectrum to pluck the strings of the guitar

A guitar is always plucked (or sometimes strummed) – there’s not a bow in sight. You hold it across your body diagonally, so that your left hand can press the strings on the fingerboard and your right hand can pluck the strings with the fingers or a plectrum.

The guitar’s fingerboard is divided horizontally into sections by thin strips of metal called ‘frets’. This makes it easy to find notes on the strings and therefore to play chords – which guitarists do a lot.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is the fingerboard divided into?

a. Frets
b. Slices
c. Bars

 Which of these is not used to play a guitar?

a. Bow
b. Plectrum
c. Fingers

 What shape is the sound hole?

a. f-shape
b. o-shape
c. s-shape

 What is it called when the guitarist repeats notes really fast?

a. Pizzicato
b. Tremolo
c. Legato

 The guitar is associated with which country in particular?

a. Spain
b. Greece
c. America

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Guitar Extracts

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901–1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez: I. Allegro con spirito (extract)

Spanish strumming and twiddling at its most expressive, in Rodrigo’s famous concerto.

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.550729

Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805)
Guitar Quintet in E minor, G. 451: IV. Allegretto (extract)

Blending gracefully with the other string instruments!

Performers: Zoltán Tokos, guitar; Danubius String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550731

Dionisio Aguado y García (1784–1849)
6 Études (Escuela de guitarra): Lección No. 19

An attractive ‘lesson’ (study or exercise) for guitar by Aguado, a Spanish composer of the Classical period. This is for the guitarist to practise tricky things on the instrument, but it’s also fun to listen to!

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar

Taken from Naxos 8.553007

Classical

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901–1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez

This is the first modern work for solo guitar and orchestra – and a really popular one, too! It was also the first Spanish composition to be successful internationally after the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Rodrigo wrote it in 1939, beginning it when the fighting was still happening and completing it when the fighting was over. It conjures up the idea of happier times gone by. Aranjuez was a summer retreat of the Spanish Bourbon royal family – with beautiful gardens. Listen to the famous Adagio (track 2): the guitar begins with gentle chords and a lonely cor anglais gives us the melody. When the guitar takes over the melody and decorates it a bit, it is brilliantly sad – simple and effective.

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.550729

Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Suite española No. 1, Op. 47: Asturias (Leylenda) (arranged by Norbert Kraft)

The Spanish composer Albéniz didn’t write any guitar music at all, but it seems obvious from the sounds he created for the piano that he could hear the guitar – Spain’s national instrument – in his head as he composed. This piece, originally for piano, suits the guitar beautifully. It is named after a mountainous area of northern Spain, and may be the musical telling an old mountain tale: its subtitle ‘Leylenda’ means ‘Legend’. There’s a captivating, mystical feel to the music. We can hear both a tremolo (‘trembling’) effect – the music is bubbly and busy as notes are repeated quickly around the main tune – and an energetic strumming (e.g. at 0.42), typical of Spanish guitar music.

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar

Taken from Naxos 8.553999

Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909)
Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Tárrega was a great classical guitarist himself. He wrote a lot of music for the guitar, and gave many concerts. This music is very personal: you can almost imagine, as you listen, the composer working out the music quietly by himself, hunched over his guitar. The title, ‘Memories of the Alhambra’, refers to a beautiful ancient palace in the hills of Grenada, Spain that Tárrega visited in 1896. There is a lot of tremolo (‘trembling’) here – can you hear how the tune bubbles as each note is repeated really fast? The speed doesn’t give it a feeling of rushing around though – it gives it a kind of magical decoration, like tinsel on a tree, or like the detailed, ornate carvings in the walls of the Alhambra Palace.

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar

Taken from Naxos 8.553999

Fernando Sor (1778–1839)
Études, Op. 6: No. 11 in E minor

Fernando Sor was a guitarist, teacher and composer – really important in the development of the classical guitar. He was born in Spain, but he left in 1813 and travelled in Paris, London, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow – he led a rather nomadic lifestyle. He published guitar tutor books and study pieces, but this doesn’t mean they are dry or boring: there is a really poetic expression in the music. He crafted his pieces carefully, influenced by Viennese Classical style: in this study, there is no flamboyant Spanish colour but instead a lovely, simple melody and an accompaniment underneath – the guitarist has to bring out the melody line and keep the accompaniment quieter, which can be hard to do!

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar

Taken from Naxos 8.553007

Stanley Myers (1930–1993)
Cavatina

This charming piece was written originally for piano. The composer made a guitar version, which was used for a film called The Walking Stick in 1970, and then used for a much more famous film called The Deer Hunter in 1978. So it has been known ever since as the theme from The Deer Hunter – and it was a hit! You don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the music. There is no ‘trembling’ here… just a simple, sweet tune and accompaniment.

Performers: Norbert Kraft, guitar

Taken from Naxos 8.553999

Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805)
Guitar Quintet in D major, G. 448

Boccherini was an Italian composer of the Classical era. He wrote several quintets for guitar, two violins, viola and cello, where the guitar blends nicely with the other instruments. These are mainly in the simple, polite, ‘galant’ style that was popular in the 18th century. The final movement of this one (track 3) is influenced by Spanish music, and after a very slow introduction, the energy is unleashed. A ‘fandango’ is a Spanish dance – can you hear the clacking castanets come in towards the end (at 5.03)?

Performers: Zoltán Tokos, guitar; Danubius Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550552

Jazz

Pekka Pylkkänen (b.1964)
13 Seagulls

According to the composer and saxophonist Pekka Pylkkänen, this piece is called ’13 Seagulls’ because of the melody at the beginning: 13 notes that sound to him like ‘seagulls wandering with the wind on a warm summer day’. They are on the guitar, before any other instruments come in. What do you think? Can you imagine them? Softly the drums enter, then a piano and saxophone c. 0.35, and this jazzy piece continues to stretch out lazily, as if all the musicians are so relaxed they have their eyes closed while they play! There’s a long duet for the guitar and the double bass (plucked) with gentle accompaniment from the snare drum, beginning at 1.46.

Performers: Pekka Pylkkänen, saxophone; Pekka Luukka, guitar; Seppo Kantonen, piano; Hannu Rantanen, bass; Marko Timonen, drums

Taken from Naxos 86028-2