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Towards a classical guitar family

Towards a Classical Guitar Family

By Graham Caldersmith

My unsteady first steps towards a classical guitar family were galvanized by an invitation in 1980 to accompany the even then impressive singer/song writer Eric Bogie (OA)* at a special concert in the Sydney Opera House.


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caldersmith2 Having endured a nagging conviction that a lower-pitched guitar would be effective addition to folk ensembles and other acoustic musics, I resolved to have a “baritone” steel string guitar ready for the concert and worked feverishly to that heroic end. Still switching strings on the new instrument, we rehearsed carefully for the concert and confidently faced the large audience on the night. It was rather deflating to learn that after a good performance the technician had not switched the baritone guitar microphone on. It at least explained the puzzled frowns on the guitarists in the audience watching my wondrous but inaudible efforts on the portly instrument.


But all was not in vain. After realising the need for custom made strings for the new guitar and acquiring them from Pyramid Strings in Germany (who were yet to learn the ramifications of the project in which they had colluded) the prototype steel-string baritone guitar, sporting two lowest strings bronze wound nylon core, recommended itself favourable to two local singers who ordered production steel string baritone guitars.


The feedback from these intrepid musicians plying their new instruments through stage and studio venues generated a series of fussy adjustments to the string specifications in the sets manufactured by the long-suffering Pyramid Strings, a process exacerbated by my shameless creation of a prototype classical baritone guitar in 1981, I confess emboldened by the interest in the steel-string baritone. Classical baritone string sets were ordered in profusion from the wretched manufacturer, with on-going havoc wreaked on my financial resources.


In 1982 I graced the American continent, courtesy of the Churchill Foundation, and reported on inaugural work with the baritone guitars towards a Guitar Family to the Catgut Acoustical Society Annual Meeting 1. – the notion had apparently reared its fuzzy head by then. At the subsequent Acoustical Society of America Conference in Chicago I held forth on the guitar frequency response, a paper included in a collection entitled The Chicago Papers 2. and then at the Estes Park Guild of American Luthiers Annual Meeting my paper on guitar behaviour was published under the optimistic title Dissolving the Mysteries 3. The physical research program underpinning this guitar science and the genesis of Australian Guitar Family instruments is funded by the Australian Research Council. It enables the physical analysis of the new instruments at several stages of construction and provides a scientific foundation for designing and refining new generation instruments.


Back in Australia I made and despatched a steel-string baritone guitar to Thomas Rossing, a sympathetic professor of physics researching music acoustics at University of Illinois, DeKaIb. Tom Rossing has regularly contributed articles on guitar physics to American Lutherie, soliciting a gentle application of physics to the fine craft of lutherie. That emigrant baritone has become entrained in Tom Rossing’s guitar research program.


I was now circulating the prototype classical baritone amongst guitarists at the Canberra School of music as a probe to the viability of a classical guitar family in the real world of the professional guitarist. I realised that the evanescent enthusiasm the instrument elicited from students and teachers w~ genuine but had no foundation of technique or repertoire upon which to extend a tradition. An ensemble of Canberra guitarists had adapted a few multi-guitar arrangements to incorporate the baritone, but the heavy routine of teaching and performing weighing upon professional, and qualifying guitarists stifled substantial innovative commitment.


Soon after I returned from America, Timothy Kain was appointed Lecturer in Guitar at the Canberra School of Music and became the natural target in my campaign for the Classical Guitar Family. At that time the superior powers of the lattice-braced guitar developed by my colleague Greg Smallman 4. were being recognised and the Canberra guitarists were eagerly acquiring these advanced instruments and exploiting their virtues (i.e. those of the guitars). Comparable preoccupations assailed the Sydney guitarists to whom I exposed the orphan baritone. It was evidently not the season for the guitar family.


In 1984 John Williams gave a seminar to the Canberra School of Music Guitar Faculty and I manoeuvred to show him the dusty baritone on that occasion. The innovative maestro who had been first to recognise and to patronise the Smallman guitar was impressed with the first classical baritone and the family concept it heralded. He urged the Canberra guitarists to work towards realising the family with its potential for broadening the experience of the guitar for musicians and audiences into new ensembles and new repertoire. This welcome encouragement coincided with Tim Kain’s nurturing a group of graduate and advanced students into the Canberra Guitar Ensemble, a necessary medium for the realisation of the Guitar Family. Fiona Walsh, a resourceful member of the Ensemble, undertook to prepare an irresistible application for a grant from the Australian Council to fund the making of the prototype bass and treble classical guitars to complete the first Family, with the faithful prototype baritone of 1981 donated to the project.


Fiona’s application indeed proved irresistible and the funded instruments replete with custom strings from the untiring Pyramid were unleashed at a homely barbecue in March 1987. The cheer of that happy milestone receded into a gruelling round of arrangement and rehearsal for the CGE before the first public performance on 18 October 1987. The almost indecent enthusiasm of the overflow audience (which demanded a repeat performance) was buoying to the frayed CGE, and armed with good critical review of their work, Fiona prepared another application for second generation baritone and treble guitars to overcome deficiencies discovered in the prototypes – the bass was found adequate at that stage – and Tim prepared applications for inaugural compositions for the Family.


The second generation grant was gratefully received in March 1988 and was used to commission two lattice-braced treble guitars made by Eugene Philp under Greg Smallman’s supervision as well as an improved baritone from myself. I delayed second generation work until the Philp trebles had been delivered and assessed so I could design and made a second generation fan-braced treble with two baritones in the light of accumulating experience with the new genres of guitars. The two baritones were presented to John Williams during his visit to Canberra in November 1988 with Inti Illimani, and his reactions and recommendations incorporated in the Guitar Family baggage. Unfortunately the two infant baritones were incorporated in Inti Illimani’s baggage on their departure and were located at Brisbane airport later that day by a bemused John Williams, who shepherded them back to Canberra observing that they seemed to travel well.


The new baritones were presented to the CGE with the new treble at the final year class where the CSM guitar students were rehearsing a Haydn String Quartet arrangement with Guitar Family. The CSM now houses four treble guitars (one long-string treble, two short- string Philps and one Caldersmith short-string treble), two baritones (one prototype and one second generation – the other second generation baritone is for sale), and one prototype bass. This collection provides two guitar quartet sets where the baritone take the ‘cello part, a standard guitar the viola part and the trebles the violin parts. CSM guitar students now have new dimensions in guitar careers available to them thanks to unfunded and intense work contributed by Tim Kain, Fiona Walsh and the CGE in the pioneering stages of the Guitar Family project which has inaugurated the:


Exertion of resourceful musicianship by Fiona Walsh and Tim Kain and the enervating round of technique development during rehearsals towards the first public concert on the new instruments resulted in an embarrassingly successful performance in October 1987. The program opened with five Elizabethan Consort Pieces by Thomas Morely, John Dowland, Anon., Thomas Simpson and Richard Nicholson. These pieces could be read onto the new instruments from the printed music with only clef adjustment and they exhibited the various voices to clear effect. Two organ fugues, BWV 542, BWV 543 by J.S. Bach, were carefully transposed and rearranged by Fiona Walsh and are substantial works for one baritone, one standard and two treble guitars (actually the string quartet equivalent) the contrapuntal lines being clearly articulated on the four plucked string instruments.


The very popular Hungarian Dances Nos. 4 and 5 by Brahms, transposed and adapted by Tim Kain emerged as exciting variants on the new instruments employing the colourful range of techniques available on the classical guitar. Similarly Tim’s arrangement of Percy Grainger’s Shepherd’s Hey for four standard guitars was easily adapted for three standard guitars and one treble, facilitating and brightening the top line.

The first concert closed with Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer set by Fiona Walsh for guitar family and as a rousing encore her sparkling arrangement of G. F. Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba demonstrated the effectiveness of the higher-voiced instruments in the treble duets.


By the time of the 1988 International Society of Musical Education conference, at which the Guitar Family was presented to a small party of delegates, the first of the galaxy of string quartet works had been selected and transposed for the quartet equivalent by Tim Kain: the Mozart Divertimento Kl36 in which amidst the effervescent first and final movements, the fluent slow movement rolled delicately from the fingers of the CGE. In quartet transposition, the violin parts can be read straight onto the treble guitars, as can the ‘cello part onto the baritone guitar. Only the viola part needs to be transposed for the standard guitar, so that the essential issue in exploiting the string quartet literature is appropriate selection of works. Tim has loosed his enthusiastic degree students onto the Haydn opus 33 No.2 quartet with the second quartet equivalent guitars at the Canberra School of Music, initiating a guitar faculty course in guitar family performance.


Fiona’s arrangement of HoIst’s St. Paul Suite was an innovative subject for the whole new family, extending the powers of Peter Constant on the bass in the frantic bass passages. Although only two of the movements were played on initial public presentation, Fiona has now arranged the whole set for Guitar Family, I feel the impact this work made at the overflow April 1989 concert confirmed the Classical Guitar Family as a vital new force in ensemble music. Similarly the three movements of Mozart’s Kl36 were received with justifiable and voluble delight and sparkled with the breadth of tonality the new instruments have to offer.


Although convincingly consummating their degree courses at CSM with respectively first and second places in the Sydney Guitar Competition 1988, Peter Constant and Richard Strasser have participated in arrangements of the burgeoning CGE repertoire during rehearsals. Peter has now opened his account in the Guitar Family Repertoire with an arrangement of Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue BWV 538 which was presented at the April 9 1989 – concert to public and critical acclaim: “A most skilful transcription of Bach’s great organ work.”


With new works commissioned under Australia Council grants from Nigel Westlake and Larry Sitsky for Guitar Family and after a fortunate encounter with Graeme Koehne whereby he ceded a very attractive composition for adaption to Guitar Family we are now able to unfurl the current:


Five Elizabethan Consort Pieces: Now is the Month of May – Thomas Morey, Fortune My Foe – John Dowland, Nutmegs and Ginger -Anon., Bonny Sweet Robin -Thomas Simpson, The Jew’s Dance -Richard Nicholson.


Organ Fugue BWV 542 “The Great” G min – J .S. Bach (Walsh)

Organ Fugue BWV 543, A min – J.S Bach

Organ Toccata & Fugue “The Dorian” – J.S. Bach (Constant)

Hungarian Dance No.4 – J. Brahms (Kain)

Hungarian Dance No.5 – J. Brahms (Kain)

Shepherd’s Hey (Trad.) – P. Grainger (Kain)

Country Gardens (Trad.) – P. Grainger (Walsh)

Irish Tune from County Derry (Trad.) – P .Grainger (Walsh)

Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (from ‘Solomon’) – G.F. Handel (Walsh)

String Quartet Op.33, No.2 – J. Haydn (Kain)

St. Paul‘s Suite – G. HoIst (Walsh)

Jig – Ostinato – Intermezzo -Finale (Dargason)

The Entertainer – S. Joplin (Walsh)

To His Servant Bach, God Grants a Final Glimpse – G. Koehne

Final Glimpse: The Morning Star – G. Koehne

Divertimento Kl36 – W .A. Mozart (Kain)

Allegro -Andante – Presto

Untitled new work – L. Sitsky

Untitled new work – N.Westlake


THE TREBLE: 5 semitones (one musical fourth) above standard;

Tuned A (110Hz) DGCEA.


While “Requinto” guitars pitched one musical fourth above the standard guitar have been used in traditional South American music and have been made in several string lengths and body sizes, the “treble” guitar proposed for the integrated Guitar Family was intended to translate the standard guitar into a treble register. This feat was supposed to be performed by designing an instrument in which the principal sound generating resonances occurred one musical fourth higher than in the standard, but in my enthusiasm for a bright, cutting, hopefully “treble” sound I boosted the lateral stiffness of the small face of the prototype treble and “stretched” the higher resonances to the above the appropriate frequencies. The result was certainly a cutting sound but one uncomfortably so, and also adjudged “thin” by the guitarists. Removing the lateral stiffening brought the resonances close to one fourth above standard and smoothed the sound, to my ear. But a philosophical debate about the nature of the yet unheard true treble guitar sound had by now erupted and the quest for the elusive entity had begun. We at least knew that stringing a standard guitar with strings sounding a fourth higher (creating the “mock” treble) was no good and therefore that the smaller treble body with higher resonances was a step in the “treble” direction. Thus armed with guitar family phase two grant, two lattice-braced, short-stringed trebles were commissioned from Eugene Philp (working under Greg SmaIlman) as instruments purporting the envisaged smooth but clear treble sound.


When the trebles were duly delivered and attuned for best playing condition, they did seem to embody the envisaged treble tonality but some notes lacked the sustain so critical to instruments playing single lines in ensemble, particularly in slow passages. During rehearsals for recording the Bach organ fugue and the Mozart divertimento the guitarists found that the cutting quality of the prototype treble combined with its even sustain was an advantage, and that a combination of the long-string treble with the short-string lattice treble produced a pleasing overall sound.


So with this experience firmly in mind, I set to designing the second generation fan-braced short- string treble, intending to make an instrument with the fabled smooth and clear sound as well as good sustain on all notes. At this stage the new treble seems to have approached those criteria fairly closely in the treble strings but lacks body in the lower register. For the next concert the CGE decided to use the Philp lattice trebles for overall power.


Adjustments and stringing experiments continue with all trebles in the light of accumulating experience.


THE BARITONE: 7 semitones (one musical fifth below standard; Tuned A (55 Hz) D G C E A, one octave below treble.


The phase two baritones have been submitted to several individual artists including John Williams as noted above, and have been endorsed as well-balanced lower register instruments, and they have now been tested in the crucible of intensive rehearsal and performance as well as vetted in the recordings made by the ABC.


They have identical string lengths (71 cm) and body dimensions to the 1981 prototype baritone, though necks are slightly narrower than standard this time, to compensate for the larger than standard fret spacing. But acoustically the tables are lighter and stiffer around the bridges than in the prototype in an attempt to improve the upper range of these mellow guitars where projection does not come easily.


The baritone classical guitar is an instrument of versatility and solo potential. Its ability to carry a strong lower part in ensembles is demonstrated in the Bach organ fugue transcriptions. Because it is pitched one octave below the treble guitar, those two instruments can be used in some guitar duet works, notable some of the transcribed lute duets. The baritone solo potential is evident when the transcribed Bach ‘cello suites are played on it, the lower sustained guitar voice illuminating the lugubrious language of the somnolent suites.


But at a pragmatic level, an aspiring guitar ensemble need only acquire one baritone guitar and purchase two requinto (treble) guitars, which are not available off the shelf, and the string quartet literature becomes accessible together with a vast array of “early” consort music as well as the burgeoning repertoire pioneered by the CGE, and composed for by Koehne, Sitsky and Westlake.


THE BASS: One octave below Standard lowest four strings; Tuned E (42 Hz) A D G, as string and electric bass.


Increasing attention is being directed towards developing an acoustic bass guitar or “flattop bass,” after the establishment of the electric bass as almost universal in popular music while the traditional jazz ensembles. Almost all current flattop bass designs have emerged from the steel-string guitar concept and use the metal-cored electric bass strings. Tim Olsen, Harry Fleishman William McCaw and David Freeman have raised the issue of the place of the flat-top bass in contemporary music. The classic bass uses extended fan bracing under the table and on a long string length of 88cm (35″) silver-plated wound nylon-cored strings custom manufactured by Pyramid which are an essential part of the instrument and lend it a characteristic classic bass voice and playing dynamic. The GCE have found the big instrument best played in classic style with the large rear bout supported on the ‘cello end spike extending from the rear block. It is of comparable bulk to a ‘cello and in the custom case will fit into the boot of a family sedan.


When the bass was first finished, the lowest two resonances, (the top fundamental mode reflex doublet pair) the frequencies and efficiencies of which determine the bassiness of any such instrument, fell almost an octave apart on the notes B (62 Hz) and C (130 Hz) resulting in strong notes around those frequencies and weaker notes below and between them. After the first round of performances I recalled the bass for modifications, and by paring the bars near the top boundary and inserting a funnel inside the sound hole managed to shift the lowest resonance (the “air” resonance) down to A (55 Hz) while the upper of the fundamental pair remained at C (130 Hz). Ideally, one might wish both of these resonances a few semitones lower to enrich the lowest notes of the bass, but with an efficient long dipole resonance at 160 Hz supporting the third partial of the G 49 Hz and the second partial of the D 74 Hz, the lower range is acceptably balanced, and most importantly of a unique, pleasing and sustained tonality.


I have listened critically to the virility of the lowest bass notes during rehearsals and performances in 1989, and consider that a working balance in tone and power have been achieved at this stage of the classic bass development. I believe this prototype bass has demonstrated viability of a classical bass guitar and brings a fruity undertone to the colourful timbre of the Classical Guitar Family.


The development of the Guitar Family has progressed at steady pace since the Australia Council awarded its first grant in 1986 in spite of the fact that this project is of necessity a part-time endeavour at this stage; the CGE have fully committed careers in the classical guitar field already. Tim Kain is head of the Guitar Faculty at the CSM, has a full teaching and administrative responsibility, has concert and ensemble engagements throughout the year and recording contracts for which to prepare and perform. Fiona Walsh teaches in the Guitar Faculty at the CSM, plays string bass in Canberra Orchestras and has severely researched, transposed and arranged for the new instruments. Peter Constant and Richard Strasser are engaged in consolidating their careers in solo classical guitar with performances around Australia and potentially overseas. The solid commitment to pioneering a repertoire and technique for a new family of guitars and of rehearsing, performing and recording at such an early stage is extra-curricular, unfunded, exhausting (and rewarding) work. Yet perhaps there is no other way such a project could proceed at this time and place in history.


The second factor conditioning the rate of development of the Guitar Family instruments and repertoire is the process of assessment and recognition of musical balance during rehearsals and performances, a process demanding insight, imagination and shrewdness in such uncharted musical territory. This process has progressed both formally and informally under feedback from music critics, guitarists, recording engineers, audiences, composers and between the CGE, Greg Smallman, Eugene Philp and me. It is a complex process and cannot be rapid, yet because it has entrained musicians, us instrument makers and now composers it is yielding vital if hard-won results.

Though I have related the incipient Guitar Family experience with the CGE and Australian make~ as an innovative local project, in the interval since I made the first steel-string baritone in 1980, increasing attention has been directed towards extending the existing guitar into a family for ensemble performances in several countries. In fact South American traditional music has employed the requinto, the charango and other guitar variants with the six-string bass guitarron for decades. Similarly the Viennese “bass” guitar in which the standard six fretted strings are supplemented by nine lower-pitched unfretted strings has become a popular traditional instrument in northern Europe, while ongoing experimentation with classical guitars with up to eleven fretted strings (though still based on the standard top six strings) has propelled several virtuosi into vigorous variegation of guitar technique and arrangement, notably Narciso Yepes (10-string), Bengt Edqvist and Borje Sandquist (11-strings) and Goran Sollscher (11- string).


More recently guitar ensembles in Holland and England have used requinto and lower-pitched instruments in effective arrangements of renowned chamber and even orchestral works of which compact disc recordings are now available. The Amsterdam Guitar trio uses a large baritone tuned to base A (55 Hz) but with a seventh lower string of variable pitch. The Netherlands Guitar Ensemble uses three standard guitars and the Omega Quartet used an 8-string guitar to provide the lower register. The now defunct London Guitar Quartet used a bass guitar tuned to the regular bass EADG.


Thus the Guitar Family Project with the CGE is part of a world swing toward a guitar ensemble experience, a natural expansion of the spectacular achievement of the classical guitar in this century, an expansion I anticipated in my Guitar Family Prospectus (1) published in 1982. While the impressive Dutch Ensembles have developed their instrumentation from a foundation of ensemble playing in undergraduate studies, the Australian Guitar Family was conceived as an integrated extrapolation of the classical guitar voice into three new ranges using recent advances in knowledge of guitar acoustics to scale the guitar resonances up or down to suit the proposed new ranges. The practical aspects of this project such as string lengths, body dimensions and particularly sound character were hammered out in close consultation with the musicians of the CGE and their pioneering repertoire already stands as a valuable addition to guitar ensemble literature.


Perhaps the reader will grant the early history of this antipodean initiative the character of a campaign by a company of dedicated musicians, makers and now composers towards a colourful exposition of the classical guitar as a family in this century.


* OA = Order of Australia

– Australian Guitar Journal, 1990 ©

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