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Eclectic Guitars?

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Just what would Bach have done with an electric guitar? The perfect question for a musicians’ pub debate over a drink or two! Whilst we ponder whether or not he would have jumped at the chance to write for the instrument and what any resulting composition might have entailed, I’d like to look at something that may well court controversy.
Revisiting earlier compositions and revising them to be played on instruments other than that intended by the composer or period is a subject guaranteed to raise the hackles of many a musical purist. The mere thought of adapting classical pieces for the electric guitar would be enough for some to send the cheeky young upstart instrument back to the ‘other side’ of music where it belongs! Joking aside though, we may be missing out on new possibilities as the electric guitar is far more versatile an instrument than just something for ‘popular’ genres, much in the same way that the piano is.
I was speaking recently to Daniel MacFarlane a performer and teacher specialising in electric guitars. He has spent a considerable amount of time adapting, learning and performing several classical works on the guitar, including Bach’s Cello Suites. I was intrigued. It’s very interesting to hear familiar pieces in a new light, some with distortion, and some without:

Given the ability to alter the instrument’s sound through effects and amps, the possibilities when composing for the instrument and potential ensemble combinations are broad and intriguing. The instrument seems to also blend really well with strings. Here is Daniel performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons:

Personally, even though I adore the original instrumentation, I really like the combination of old and new together, and also the subversive element of the concept. I’d like to see more use and acceptance of the instrument in the classical genre, and especially in current composition. Of course, we can already find examples of its inclusion in pieces such as Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, Glenn Branca’s various Symphonies, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Concerto Suite, or Steven Mackey’s Physical Property. Composers, get writing!
I’ll leave you with a recent find, including electric guitar and voices – ‘Here Where Footprints Erase the Graves’ from Missy Mazzoli’s 2012 opera Song from the Uproar:


Posted by author: ChrisLawry
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8 thoughts on “Eclectic Guitars?

  • Daniel MacFarlanes technique is interesting particularly his right hand he seems to be feathering the strings which might account for the violin sound, particularly evident in the second clip. As you mentioned there are several “rockers’ peddling their version of classical pieces. For me when they stick to closely to the orchestral feel something is lost. The electric guitar benefits from a different approach (I think). One of my youtube favourites in this arena is MattRach
    http://youtu.be/wam-oMub8EU
    A different more percussive technique lots of hammering, tapping and of course sweep picking. Theres a point where technique overcomes the music but the Mattrach Canon version although veering towards that place avoids it by dint of sheer joyous raucousness.

  • There have been many attempts since the 1950’s to incorporate the electric guitar into contemporary classical music, most unsuccessful, and really it hasn’t been until recently when the guitar grew new sounds due to the ever expanding effects found on the foot pedalshas it found its true capabilities and voices. It seems though due to many composers who have been brought up listening to rock and metal music that the guitar has now been accepted as a new sound with infinate varieties of possibilities for us to use rather than just some substitute for the classical guitar in an ensemble. I have written for the electric guitar in three of my own compositions, sometimes as an ensemble instrument sometimes as a protagonist, each with its own sounds and effects. It is a wonderful instrument to use due to its now varied capabilities. There is a wonderful concerto for rock group by George Kawalek that makes real use of the electric guitar in its own area of experimentation and is well worth looking out for.
    As far as the pieces in this article I think the vivaldi works best of all. If Vivaldi had had the use of such an instrument in his day I think he would have been the first of all the Baroque composers to use and explore it fully above any of the other baroque names. His style suites the skills of the instrument and its versatility.
    I do believe that this wonderful instrument has finally come of age in the last 15 years so I to would suggest exploring its uniques capabilities to any composers that are interested. Set your mind free as Uriah Heep’s Dave Byron once sang, one way is with this instrument.

  • I am always amused by the way that certain instruments in themselves seem to attract opprobrium from what, for convenience, I shall call the ‘classical’ music lobby (it is the same in other branches of music as well from time to time). The saxophone still struggles, the saxhorn seems almost unknown, shawms and hautbois have become oboes and I can still remember the stick that Julian Bream got for using a guitar for anything other than Spanish music.
    I love hearing music played on original instruments but I equally love experiments with all sorts of new and strange arrangements. The electric guitar seems a perfectly usable music making tool so lets use it in all sorts of music.

  • Excellent, Chris; really enjoyed the subversion, as you say. The Vivaldi reminds me of another famous link between his music and rock; takes me back to 1971 & ‘Curved Air’. (Anyone who hasn’t heard of them, have a look on YouTube.)

  • Several of us have been reworking the “classical” repertoire for a while now and, yes, it’s gaining acceptace.
    This guy’s playing well and spreading the word but why the drums? Does Vivaldi really need to be “rocked up”? It’s not rock. It’s Baroque (no pun intended).
    The sooner we stop playing to electric guitar stereotypes the sooner we’ll be accepted by the establishment (if that’s what we want).
    Duck

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