Many thousands of books have been written about how to play the guitar; it is probably the most popular subject in all music publishing. Yet surprisingly little is written about guitarists and what a decidedly strange group of feral creatures they are.
True, there are a lot of guitarist jokes. I have several favourites.
For example: What is the difference between a rock guitarist, and a jazz guitarist? Answer: One plays three chords in front of thousands of people; the other plays thousands of chords in front of three people. Or: What do you do when a guitarist knocks on your door? Answer: Pay for the pizza. Or: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Answer: Put sheet music in front of him.
I could go on but, mercifully, I will not. However, I do urge readers to pay attention to that third joke, because it reveals something about guitar playing that is unusual.
Unlike most instruments, there are many different ways to play the same note on a guitar. On the piano or wind instruments there is only one finger position per note, so it is possible to play any written notes (sheet music) immediately. But with guitar there are so many possible combinations, when players are given sheet music they have to spend time making complex computations about how best to finger it on the fret board.
This is not a problem if you are playing the perennial Stairway to Heaven. Anyone who spends any time in a music shop quickly realises it can be achieved by any neophyte. Neither is it especially hard to learn the chords for popular songs; it is simply necessary to learn the relevant finger shapes.
Scaling the higher levels of musical accomplishment on the instrument is an entirely different matter, however. All instruments are difficult to master, but the guitar is dauntingly complex, almost like having to learn chess strategies.
It is not so much of an issue with classical guitar because performers simply learn and remember the finger combinations, allowing them to concentrate on tone and interpretation. Being able to play the pieces does tend to acquire an undue level of importance, however. Australian classical guitarist John Williams, for example, is extremely clean in his execution of difficult works – a feat for which he received much approbation – but there has always been a certain lack of expressiveness in his playing.
That would never be tolerated in classical piano, where simply having the ability to play a difficult piece is not regarded as remarkable; proficiency is assumed. This writer preferred the slightly less technically accomplished guitar playing of Julian Bream, whose performances possessed more nuance.
The classical repertoire for guitar remains far behind what is available for other instruments and it is in jazz, blues and rock that the guitar has acquired its dominant status – and jazz guitarists make the most of this.
Once it became an electric instrument, especially as developed by Jimmy Hendrix, guitar began to display three distinctive features, the combination of which is not seen anywhere else. It became a rhythmic instrument of great force, as Hendrix and many rock players have demonstrated. Only drums can produce anything as percussive.
Second, it introduced a level of pitch bending seen in few other instruments. There is the delightfully weird theremin (featured in the Beach Boys’ song, Good Vibrations) and pitch wheels on electronic keyboards, but these sound artificial, whereas pitch bending on guitar sounds organic.
Achieved by pushing the strings across the fret board, it was invented by blues players imitating the fluidity of the voice. It has now become a standard technique for any electric guitarist.
The third distinctive feature is that fingering complexities became part of the improvisational challenge. It is why jazz guitarists (this writer can attest to this from long experience) spend hours talking to each other about fingering techniques and how to absorb them into their practice regimes. Then they go off and practise for hours what they had discussed, before returning to tell each other about other fingering combinations they discovered and how they can be absorbed into their practice routines. And on and on, ad infinitum.
If they seem just ever so slightly mad, it is because they are.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.