An Interview with John Williams part 3

AP-L: You made a switch some years ago to Greg Smallman’s guitars. Can you tell us about that and your reasons for it, because I think it shocked a lot of people that you gave up playing Fletas after so long?

JW: I first met Greg when he was still making guitars with Pete Biffen ten or twelve years ago, and they showed me a couple of their guitars which were okay but not great. I played my Fleta for them, and showed them the sort of sound I was getting from it. Later, Greg got in contact again and said he wanted to come and have another chat about guitars. In the course of that conversation, Greg told me that he loved the sound of the Fleta, but wanted to know what aspects of its sound I would like to improve on, assuming that were possible. I thought that was a great attitude, because it wasn’t just some smart arse trying to say, “Look, here’s a great guitar, try it. Often I have found that after trying out a new guitar at the request of a maker, you give them your opinion, pointing out weak spots as well as good things, and they just start arguing with you, trying to persuade you that it really is a better guitar than it is!

Greg impressed me from the start because he was always willing to listen. I told him that I liked the resonance of his instruments, because I sometimes found the Fletas a little too percussive, especially on the top string. Soon after that I came back for a tour with SKY, and Greg came to the hotel to see Kevin Peek and I with two guitars. At that stage, Greg didn’t even presume that I might give up playing the Fleta, so he just wanted to get some comments. Kevin Peek loved one of the guitars, and has still got it. The other guitar was one Greg had fashioned out of some old pieces of wood that he had had lying around, and I particularly liked that guitar and ended up doing a couple of recordings on it; it had a rather stripy pattern in the soundboard. And that’s basically where our association started in earnest.

AP-L: Was Greg Smallman using the carbon fiber bracing then?

JW: No, just the grid strutting, but no carbon fiber at that stage. I feel that the loudness of Greg’s guitars is a by-product of their musical qualities rather than an end in itself. One of the main changes in the sound that Greg achieved which is an improvement on the Fleta, is that the sound doesn’t change as the volume of the sound increases or decreases. The Fleta always tended to emphasize a more percussive sound at higher volumes, which is a deficiency in the traditional design of the guitar generally, and it is fundamentally an unmusical thing. Of course all instrumental sounds change somewhat as they increase in volume, but with the guitar it is inordinate, like hearing distortion as you turn up the hi-fi. The bottom line is that as you drive the conventional guitar harder, say in the Bach Chaconne or Albeniz, you’re getting a lot more plonk and thwack, and a lot less truly musical sound.

I should say that I’ve seen many other guitars by good makers which were lovely instruments, but none of them solved this problem the way Greg has, and for me as a soloist and ensemble performer that has been a crucial consideration. I’ve had a number of guitars from Greg and the latest was sent to me last November, which is a great instrument. The thing about Greg, and I’m sure that I’m not doing him any disservice in saying this, is that he is always experimenting and learning further, such as getting to know the properties of woods with different weights. But what’s important is that he knows what he’s doing with it all and why he’s doing it.

I’ve also noticed that Greg has been very open about the lattice bracing and has given seminars on it; he’s not just keeping all the knowledge to himself, which I think is admirable, because guitars don’t last like a violin will. So the benefits of his work will be felt very widely in the end, which is great. I know some guitar makers who are incredibly secretive, but thankfully Greg is not one of them, and I think that’s reflected in his very enquiring mind, an openness and honesty about his successes and failure, and willingness to adapt and change.

Like any creative person, Greg sometimes has doubts about his latest guitars; for example, when I saw him in Brisbane last year, he showed me two new guitars, and we compared them to mine and Julian Byzantine’s. Greg felt that perhaps the sound of the new ones was a little too dark, but I think that’s a matter of taste, because Ben Verdery’s in New York is also like that, and he loves it. He’s been showing it around the guitar scene in the States and getting a very enthusiastic response to it, and finds it blends very well with his wife’s flute playing, whom he performs duets with.

As you know, Julian Bream and I have quite different musical personalities and therefore also taste in guitars, but he was enormously impressed by Greg’s guitars, especially the sustain and dynamic range, and the fact that they respond so well to even the faintest touch. I don’t think that this means we’ll be seeing Julian playing one next week in concert, but I know he was very taken with them.

AP-L: A lot of people feel that the Bach Chaconne has been almost a signature piece of yours over the years. How do you view it?

JW: Funnily enough, I do feel it very much as a guitar piece rather than just a piece that works well on the guitar. Apart from the fact that it is a tour de force of the virtuoso variation style, and therefore a logical choice for a soloist, I very much feel its Iberian origins, both as a dance form and its Spanish style harmonies, and that’s certainly very guitaristic in a sense. It’s also the only one of its kind that Bach wrote – the Goldberg Variations were a set of variations on a tune, whereas the Chaconne is kind of an extended 4 bar baroque blues! So in that sense, it has a fascinating and magnificent mixture of folk music and high art, and the popular element in it strengthens the piece rather than trivializes it.

Also, although there are difficult sections in it, there are more difficult guitar pieces around. It’s a rewarding piece technically, because difficult parts sound like they’re worth it, which is not always the case with guitar music. From a musical point of view, it’s also very colorful because it doesn’t have the rigid formality of separate dance movements that you find in the normal baroque suite, but rather it moves along with a great variety in its melodic and rhythmic aspects, so its always a very enjoyable piece to play. I would cheerfully pick up the Chaconne almost any day of the week whether I’d practiced or not, because even if it wasn’t particularly clean, it would always sound good, and I’d never have a problem in deciding to include it in a concert program at the last minute, even if I haven’t played it in a while.

AP-L: Of all the prolific recordings you’ve done through your career, do you have any favorite albums you’ve recorded?

JW: Well, when it comes it solo records, not unnaturally I usually feel best about the ones I’ve done most recently, like the baroque album and the “Spirit of the Guitar.” That doesn’t mean I hate what 1 did in the sixties with Albeniz, but I feel I have done it better now on the Smallman; I will be re-recording more Spanish music in a couple more years like Granados’ Valses Poeticos. In some ways, the older records I feel fondest of are the collaborative efforts, like the Theodorakis with Maria Farandouri and the albums with Cleo Laine. Also, I still like the “Streets of London,” for sentimental reasons.

AP-L: Guitarists generally talk about their “influences”, the other guitarists or musicians who helped to shape their sound and style. Who were your main influences in that respect, aside from Segovia?

JW: I have always loved fiddle playing, so if anything I think 1 have been more influenced in some ways by violinists like Alan Loveday who was at the Royal College with me in the late 1950’s, especially in the baroque style of playing. I also learned a hell of a lot from Rafael Puyana, the harpsichordist, for things like Scarlatti, Bach and French music. Itzak Perlman is my favorite fiddle player, and I’ve done a record with him as well.

One thing I feel strongly is that it is the way someone plays is more important than whether it is “authentic” – for example, if you hear Heifetz or PerIman playing Bach, it could be argued that they are not playing in true baroque style, but their playing is far more enjoyable to listen to than a historically correct performance that is as dry as a bone. I think in regard to Baroque music it would be hard not to be impressed and influenced by some of the electrifying performances of baroque music that are around today, and the interpretation of baroque ornamentation has also advanced greatly compared to the boring stuff that was common years ago.

AP-L: Reading between the lines of your interview in George Clinton’s book on Segovia some years ago, there seemed to be an edge of tension between you and Segovia. Could you enlighten us on that?

JW: Yes, there always was really, and it has come out more as years have passed and I’ve felt a little more confident in talking about it. To be honest, I feel it has become necessary for me to become open about what my reservations with Segovia were. It’s all very well hiding behind respectful statements, but there was a personal gap between us that began in the mid-1950’s. Segovia had organized, or was involved in organizing, a guitar competition in Switzerland and asked me to compete in it. At the time, I would have been the logical winner, so it was an attractive idea. But my father was against it, partly because I was still at school and also because he felt I was still too young. My mother, however, supported the idea of my entering, so in the end it was really left to me to make the decision. As it turned out, 1 decided not to enter, and very soon after received an extremely angry phone call from Segovia, in which he abused me roundly in Spanish and called me all sorts of names of names.

Anyway, we all got over that one, but in the years that followed there always seemed to be an edge of tension when he was present for Summer School in Siena. Mostly, the players there like Alirio Diaz and myself would teach each other, because Segovia wasn’t always there a great deal, but when he did come, it often felt strained. As I’ve said on other occasions previously, he taught mainly by example – four bars here, four bars there, in which you were meant to imitate him – and I suppose that my training at the Royal College was giving me a more structured and structural approach to learning music, so it was sometimes hard to adapt to his very individual teaching style.

Having said all that, of course there were many positive aspects to Segovia and his influence on me as a guitarist and as a person. You couldn’t help being influenced by him and his sound when you were as close to it as I was. And he was extremely generous and usually very sweet tempered most of the time. But it would be wrong, especially now that he is gone, to assume that there were never any difficult moments between us, because occasionally there were, especially musically. As time passed, I found my interpretive approach becoming more direct, more linear, whereas Segovia’s was often shaped by the beautiful resonant qualities of his Hauser, which didn’t suit either my personality or musical inclinations in either solo or chamber music. Also, Segovia emerged during the age of the other great soloists like Kreisler and Heifetz, and some would argue that their period sound is dated, and it may be, but you can’t say its wrong, just different. But you can’t change the fact that it all began with Segovia and his sound. We wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for him.

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6 Responses

  1. Excellent interview!
    It touched on many of the subjects I was interested in hearing discussed by John Williams.

    One of the points that was brought up was amplification.
    I’ve been to concerts at very large halls where guitarists were performing and I could barely hear the guitar. In the same hall where I’ve listened to guitarists who used a decent sounding amplification, their music was expressed clearly without any loss of tone. Being heard is the object of a performance. Unless if you’re playing poorly that day and then you would prefer thick carpets on all of the walls.

    The concept of being a purist is an ever evolving thing. Nobody questions the use of nylon strings but that is a relatively new inovation for the guitar. And many people now refer to the classical guitar as a nylon string quitar.

    I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of others on this subject. Also what, if any, type of amplification is preferred.

  2. John Williams must be insane to prefer Smallmans ,with their artificial banjo sound ,to a beautiful guitar like Fleta .The man ,I am sorry to say ,is a great guitarist but has lost the plot.

  3. ronjazz says:

    The musicality of the Smallman, especially in live situations, is a natural next step in the evolution of the guitar. The clarity and separation of the voices is almost miraculous, and contributes another facet to the Williams magic.

  4. John Selig says:

    I prefer Williams’ “Leyenda” on the Fleta rather than the Smallman, even though Williams says the Fleta is more percussive or distorts when played hard. The “Leyenda” on “The Seville Concert” sounds muddy compared to the bright and powerful sound of the same piece on Williams much earlier recording with the Fleta.

  1. April 16, 2018

    […] guitars which, when he first tried one out were unknown but now sell new for around $36,000. Classical Guitar Review interviewed John in 2010 and in Part Three of their publication he gave the reasons for his switch […]

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