An Interview with John Williams part 2

AP-L: That leads almost directly to my next question – in your opinion, is the guitar an intrinsically harder instrument to play than the major classical instruments, the piano and violin, given that there is a relative shortage of established virtuosos?

JW: The answer is no, on two counts. No instrument is more difficult than another, because we have to establish by what standards we are making the judgment. Even if we take all three instruments playing the same piece, say the Bach G Minor fiddle fugue, it won’t help because if we compare it to the Liszt B Minor Piano Sonata, is it more or less difficult? Obviously, on the guitar the Liszt is going to be impossible, so we have to look at the total repertoire available to each instrument. Yet a 6 month old baby could probably hammer out a middle C on a piano whereas it couldn’t do that on a guitar until it was a few years old, but that doesn’t make it a candidate to play Chopin and Liszt!

The second point, regarding a true comparison involving note preparation, is also no. In basic respects, note preparation on the guitar is no harder than the fiddle, maybe even easier, but there may be certain aspects that are harder playing certain types of music. Personally, I don’t think that fingering or sight-reading is any harder on the guitar than on the violin. Some people don’t find holding down notes on the guitar very difficult at all, because they have great natural strength in their hands.

A-P-L: You obviously are one of those people…

JW: Funnily enough, I’m not! But that may be because I don’t practise a lot. Contrary to popular belief, I do practise, but not in vast amounts. If I practised five hours a day, I’d have stronger hands, but I don’t. Obviously some chord shapes are difficult to get because of the position and angle on the neck, but learning the first scale on the violin is also very awkward to do. Frankly, I think it’s a big cop-out on the part of guitarists; deliberate or not, its still a cop-out. So in summary, guitarists are bad technicians, bad sight-readers, bad at playing ensemble, bad listeners and don’t know their instrument as well as they should.

These things are all changing, as I have indicated, but still apply regarding sight-reading, as any student at a music college knows. I have been giving master classes in ensemble at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and the Royal College of Music in London for just that reason. It’s the history of the instrument that has given us this awful legacy, but we are learning from it and we are changing it. The guitar, in my opinion, is also becoming a more acceptable concert instrument because we are making the change.

Up till now, those works which allow the guitar to play in a chamber ensemble, such as the Bocherini Quintet, are a relative rarity and always make allowances for the guitar. As it is, a guitar student will often spend six months just learning the guitar part in order to play it at the end of year recital, which is ridiculous! The whole point of chamber music is its accessibility, and any student string player would be able to sight-read a dozen Mozart or Haydn Quartets before deciding which one to learn.

Here in Australia and elsewhere, as I have indicated, this is changing, particularly in Melbourne with Jochen Schubert, and Tim Kain in Canberra and previously in Manchester, as well as Trinity College and Paco Pena’s summer school in Spain. The answer at all levels is quite simple, irrespective of the standard, is to use existing chamber ensemble for other instruments from the enormous catalogue of music available; for example, the renaissance consort repertoire, the Terpsichore dances, the Mozart and Haydn Quartets, all in single line form. Most of the parts are playable directly, except perhaps for the viola clef, but even that is no great job to transcribe. In the cello part, it isn’t very often that you have to play its lowest note, C, but that isn’t a real problem.

I’m not suggesting that we should start hearing Mozart Quartets for four guitars at the Opera House, but this music is invaluable in developing all the skills I have been talking about. Another thing is that it also helps to widen the guitarist’s musical horizons. Fernando Sor’s music is pleasant enough, and Carulli’s, but if you play even an early Haydn Quartet, brother, you know you’re playing great music! Most of guitarists I meet who play in competitions still belong to the older school of guitar playing where ensemble work is rare, but a couple of the young ones, especially from Germany, are very good all-round musicians.

AP-L: What do you think about the problems of tone production for guitarists?

JW: I think it’s an extension of what we’ve just been talking about because one of the effects of having a tradition of solo repertoire, which is often music which is difficult to play, is that more emphasis is often put by a teacher on getting through the notes rather than playing the real substance of each note, and that’s a reason why we don’t concentrate continually from the beginning on tone production. By Grade 4, 5 and 6, for example, you’ve got Villa Lobos Preludes, which are much too difficult for those levels, but we’re lumbered with that problem.

Take a major third on the top strings with a bass accompaniment, the type of thing you’ll find in any simple guitar piece by Giuliani. If you hear a guitarist play it, it will sound fairly dull by comparison with how a string trio would play the same set of notes, where there would be much consideration of the phrasing and tone variation by each player. But because the guitarist finds such a thing superficially very easy to play, very often their approach to tone production is also superficial, with little or no consideration given to voice matching and tonal contrasts, even though the guitar has special difficulties because each of the three top strings has a quite distinct sound, so it’s both a blessing and a curse.

AP-L: You have an enviable reputation as a very powerful player, one capable of getting the maximum volume from an instrument – what are your thoughts on volume as opposed to tone?

JW: Yes, it’s understandable that guitarists generally have an obsession with volume, because the guitar is a quiet instrument, but I think that many guitarists confuse loudness with fullness; they should seek a focus in their sound rather than simply trying to fill a room – the thing about fullness of sound is that it also louder because of the extra body on the note. It’s the range of dynamics and tone in music that make it interesting to the ear, not volume per se. One thing that I loved about one of my two old Fleta guitars, was the ability it gave one to express that wide range of sound. I’ve always had strong nails, so that has helped too, but the reality is that the dynamic range that the guitar has is much less than the range, which actually carries in a concert hall.

AP-L: Does this explain your use of amplification, despite your obvious ability to produce a full, strong sound?

JW: I feel that subtle amplification overcomes most of these problems, but it seems ironic that many makers are now aiming directly at producing much louder instruments. I feel that the wide range of options available today for amplifying the guitar means that you can focus on the warm, intimate sounds of the guitar even in a large auditorium. The end result will be musically much more satisfying than trying just to produce a large, possibly unmusical, sound output, even if it is totally natural.

I know that to some critics any form of amplification is musical heresy, but I think that we have to go one step further. The guitar played in a large hall is not heard at its loveliest for most people in that hall; ideally, the guitar should not be played in a large hall if we want to experience the full range of its tone, because it doesn’t sound the same at a distance of 20 meters or more. This is because it’s a partly percussive instrument, and the percussive aspects carry more than its other dynamic and tonal qualities, so what we’re hearing is not really a true guitar sound. So it’s not whether you can hear a guitar at the back of the Sydney Opera House, but what you hear that counts. I find that amplification helps in that regard, but obviously it has to be well done.

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