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The Classical Guitar: A Dummies Guide

The Classical Guitar: A Dummies Guide

Considering Classical Guitar for your event? Classical Guitarist Dennis O'Kelly, one of Alive Network's most popular wedding guitarists, talks us through the history of this great instrument, recommending romantic, dramatic and popular pieces perfect for your wedding or private party along the way!

Written by Dennis O'Kelly

  • Dennis OKelly Classical Guitarist Cornwall

    Dennis OKelly

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The classical concert guitar, a carefully chosen synthesis of the forest, hand build by master luthiers such as Maestro Antonio Marin Montero of Granada, Spain or Herr Herman Hauser in Munich, using the finest aged European spruce for the front, premium quality solid Indian rosewood for the back and sides, Honduras mahogany for the neck, and dark and dense African ebony for the fingerboard. Good enough to eat, and yours for anything between £6000 and £20,000 depending on the quality of woods used and the skill and experience of the maker.

The origins of the modern classical guitar have their roots in the Middle Ages when the Moors brought the vihuela, a guitar like instrument with 6 double strings made of gut (similar to its contemporary the Lute), to Spain. It was in Spain where the vihuela and instruments like it became part of the popular culture - which has led to Spain being the spiritual home of the classical guitar.

When the strings of what we now recognise as the modern classical guitar are vibrated, they produce, as the famous Spanish guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia once said: “One of the most beautiful sounds ever created.” Not only one of the most beautiful sounds but also one of the most versatile in terms of the variety of musical styles it can cover, without ever sounding corny or mediocre. 

After having devided to hire a classical guitarist to provide their wedding entertainment or private event, clients often make requests as diverse as ........

“play romantic pieces from the traditional classical guitar repertoire; my fiancé and I only ever listen to BBC Radio 3, and anything by Bach will sound perfect when we get married in Chichester Cathedral.”

Or “We can’t bear all that classical stuff, keep it lively with flamenco and Latin American rhythms.” ...........

Or ...... “We only like popular songs, here’s a list of our favourites. We do hope you can play ‘One Day Like This’ by Elbow.”

So traditional, romantic classical guitar music is fitting for a Church or any grand setting. Here is an example of such a piece, called “Torre Bermeja” by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, played with a plaintiff and poetic grace by Segovia.

For those wanting a livelier repertoire for weddings in less formal surroundings (or for private parties), I have two examples. One flamenco guitar piece played by Juan Serrano (look particularly at his dazzling right hand technique).

Secondly, a piece played with perfect execution by John Williams called “Asturius” (his guitar did actually cost £20,000!).

For people who would like their favourite pop music to be played on classical guitar, here is a piece which nicely illustrates the guitar’s versatility, "In my life” by the Beatles, played by Peo Kindgren.

I usually play a mixture of all these styles - including finger picking blues and ragtime styles - so there’s something for everyone’s taste.

I often have to judge the mood of the audience. If I play in a hotel restaurant, at the start of the evening people will be talking quietly and so I'll choose dreamy, classical music for this. Towards the end of the evening, after drink has been taken, things are much noisier and only strident, dramatic flamenco guitar will do. I can speak from personal experience when I say that this can encourage uninhibited diners to mount their tables, shouting and stamping rhythmically to the music!

This broad spectrum of musical styles gives the classical guitar a major advantage over other solo stringed instruments like the violin, cello or harp. It would be difficult to imagine distinctly guitaristic flamenco or Latin music being played on the harp (although I can’t wait for harpists to prove me wrong on this!).

But it is partly this subtlety of sound which first drew me to the classical guitar rather than any other instrument. I became captivated by established pieces of the classical repertoire like “Asturias Leyanda” by Isaac Albeniz, a dramatic piece conveying the coming of an earthquake, or “Recuerdos de Alhambra” by Francisco Tarrega, with its remarkable tremolo technique.

These, and pieces like “Cavatina“ (The Deer Hunter theme) are familiar to many and are well worth seeking out on You Tube - especially the versions played by John Williams.

Earlier guitar music is also worth hearing like the lute music of John Dowland, court lutenist to James 1 (“Play for me a melancholy air, Dowland, that I might gaze from my castle window and contemplate my Kingdom’s misfortunes”).

The music of Fernando Sor, J.S Bach and Granados (the latter two whose piano, lute and cello music was successfully transcribed for guitar) also need mentioning.

I also recommend three contemporary guitarists to listen to; Segovia for his expression and the variety of sound colour he could draw from the guitar; Julian Bream for his interpretation and conviction of play, and John Williams, a supreme technical player who furthered the guitar’s popularity in recent years.

I hope that some of the pieces mentioned here will inspire someone to want to learn to play this great instrument of the people. Alternatively, it may encourage others to consider hiring a guitarist, with the huge number of styles that can be successfully interpreted on it, for their own wedding or party.

Written by classical guitarist Dennis O'Kelly - The perfect musical backdrop for a wedding ceremony or accompaniment to a dinner event