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Playing guitar — what else is there?

September 16, 2010

I remember growing up as a kid teaching myself to play guitar and it not being taken seriously by my parents or anyone else, for that matter.

That's probably because it took me a long time to become any good at it, and when I first started out I made not much more than a beautiful racket.

It's not that I wasn't musical. I've always had an ability to "hear" music and translate that into notes on the guitar. It's just that I really had no idea what I was doing technically, being self-taught.

Guitar is one of those instruments that really has very little serious study behind it. It's only been for about the past 50 years that's it's been taken seriously as an instrument, and really in only the last 100 years has there been any attempt to teach the instrument in any kind of academic sense.

Most of the greatest guitarists in rock, pop, country, blues and jazz were pretty much self-taught. That's not really all that unusual when you realize the guitar began as a "folk" instrument and was never ever meant to be for "serious" music such as classical. That was the domain of the piano, which has a good 500 years of serious study behind it.

A guitar was thought of as kind of frivolous, and with the advent of rock and roll it was treated with even more contempt. But when great guitarists playing more popular music started to emerge from about the 1930s on - the jazz guitarists Charlie Christian, Eddie Lang and Les Paul being the pioneers - the instrument began to be treated with a lot more respect amongst musicians themselves. It took the public a little later to catch on, but they eventually did.

Many of those we think of as the greatest guitarists never learned how to read music on the instrument. This has to do with way the guitar is set up and where the notes are in standard tuning. It really doesn't make any sense, and it's extremely confusing to those just beginning on the instrument. Hell, it's hard enough for those advanced on the instrument as well.

One of the reason guitar defies reading is because you can have the same exact note in six different places on the neck. On the piano you just have one "middle C." Not so on guitar. So, when you see the note on a staff, which one do you play?

Unless you take the context of where that note is in relation to the others surrounding it, you can't be sure. There could be several ways to play a written phrase - some of the possible fingerings for a phrase will be easy to play, while others might well be impossible.

This is why guitar is so hard to read on. As a "serious" instrument it has real limitations. On the other hand, as a folk instrument it has infinite possibilities.

It's portable, it's cheap, it's easy to learn to play quickly and it's also a rhythm instrument. Anyone that can keep a beat can learn to play at least some guitar. It's also polyphonic and monophonic, unlike a lot of instruments. Polyphonic means you can play more than one note at a time - chords - while monophonic means you can play only one note at a time, like the saxophone.

The guitar has been called a "portable orchestra" by some classical composers, and it also has the unusual ability for only two notes to sound like more than, well, just two notes, depending on how they are played.

The guitar could well be the dominant instrument in modern music, but even in the digital realm it has its limitations. While keyboards have easily been adapted into synthesizers and digital music for decades, the guitar still is in the digital stone age, so to speak. The difficulty lies in "digitalizing" the notes on the guitar into digital information that can be read and understood by a synthesizer. Notes on a keyboard always stay the same pitch, no matter how hard you play them.

Not so on guitar.

Your fingers pressing on the fretboard cause the notes to be slightly out of tune and different almost every time a note is played. Because it's not a "precise" instrument like piano and the note varies slightly, it's not possible for a digital instrument "reading" the note value to correctly interpret the pitch consistently. That's because the digital information being sent to the synthesizer for interpretation is always going to be a different value. Therefore, the synthesizer misinterprets the information and plays a "wrong" note - sometimes nowhere near the value the player intended.

There have been advances made in figuring out this problem, but the pace has been glacierial and frustrating.

In many ways guitar just doesn't seem all that compatible with the digital age. I'll write more on guitar next week.

(Mark Miller is editor of Toronto Scene and a Toronto resident.)

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