A Brief History of Spanish Guitar Methods.

By Matanya Ophee

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This article is a short history of guitar methods which were published by Spanish-speaking guitarists, in Spain or in other countries. A rather large number of articles and Ph.D. dissertations have already been published on this subject. The names of Paul Cox, Danielle Ribouillault, Joseph Holecek, Nicola di Lascio, Brian Jeffery, Mario dell’Ara and Erik Stenstadvold should be mentioned in this regard. I would propose that most of these studies, besides dealing with the historical significance of the major methods in the field, were mainly concerned in analyzing the technical aspects of guitar playing as demonstrated by various method writers. Another approach which I found inadequate in some of these works was that while trying to cover the field from all possible angles, they have only concentrated on the methods which came to us from the early part of the nineteenth century, originating from Western and Central Europe.

Instead of covering the field as it needs to be covered, including guitar methods from the Americas and Russia and including those which have been published in more recent times, I would limit my discourse here to one linguistic group, but covering the entire historical gamut from its earliest method published in pitch notation, to our days. Moreover, instead of discussing technique, I would concentrate here on the pedagogical principles employed by Spanish guitarists in the teaching of specific technical aspects of guitar playing.

With few exceptions, all the important figures in the history of music were involved in teaching it. In passing musical knowledge to a student, one is bound to arrive at certain conclusions and methodologies which become a part of one’s professional apparatus. The urge to expand the sphere of one’s influence beyond the intimate boundaries of the teacher’s atelier, is a strong motivation to codify and organize one’s thoughts in a progressive manner and make the whole available to a wider public. Thus is born a printed collection of maxims, rules, examples, exercises, studies, verbal theories, philosophical observations and other dicta which the author compiles as the fruit of his experience and knowledge and which is called a “method.”

Let me make this observation: the psychological interaction provided by the situation of a given teacher and a given student is unique. It can never be duplicated. A method book cannot possibly address itself to all possible teacher-student combinations. Yet, the author of a method always insinuates himself between teacher and student like an invisible but constantly present entity. This is true regardless of whether the method writer is Spanish, German, American, English, French, Italian or Russian.

The great majority of methods printed in the last three centuries, were addressed to the individual student directly and assumed that no teacher was available. Often they were designed to circumvent the teacher even if one was assumed to be using them.

It is possible to say that methods which enjoyed repeated editions, Carulli’s and Carcassi’s for example, were successful because they enabled amateurs to learn basic technique, either with, or without access to a good teacher. As many guitarists of my generation recall, these books also served as ready-made didactic texts used by our teachers. The number of guitar methods which fall under the title of this lecture is very large. In the short time available to me, I will discuss a small number of them, based on my assessment of their historical importance in regard to the art and science of guitar pedagogy.

The first guitar method which used pitch notation was published by an anonymous writer called DON*** in 1758.

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Title Page of 1758 method of DON***

The fact that the author’s name is given as a pen-name with the DON form of address, tells us that he may have been a Spaniard, and perhaps a person of some social rank such as a well-known nobleman or military officer. The significance of this book is that it is the only existing guitar method of the mid-eighteenth century, which gives us a direct testimony of the state of guitar practice in Spain at that time. Don three asterisks’s testimony, whoever he may have been, does not appear to be borrowed from other sources. In almost every chapter, the author makes continual references to Spanish practices, with a sometimes apparent national bias.

All didactic examples throughout the book are given in parallel in both pitch notation and tablature.

Example of music in notation and tablature from DON***

Plucking is done, generally speaking, by using the right hand thumb for the fifth and fourth courses, while the third, second and the first are plucked with the first and second fingers alternating, presumably the index and the middle fingers. However, says Don***, there are other possibilities as well, but

Pour ne point surcharger la mémoire des commençans je ne parlerai des autres règles de doigter et de pincer que lorsque j’en présenterai les exemples

(so as not to overwhelm the beginner’s memory, I shall speak of other rules of fingering and plucking when I shall present the [actual] musical examples.)

An interesting interjection about the psychological effects of the pedagogical process. The author then presents the usual plan of the fingerboard and suggests a ten-day regimen of learning-by-rote which will assure a complete mastery of the fingerboard. At the first day the student should memorize the names of the open strings. At the second day he should learn the notes found at the first fret, and so on up to the tenth fret, one fret per day. In ten days of this practice, the student would know what usually takes six months of study to learn. This first known guitar method to use pitch notation, demonstrates that its author was already concerned about the process of teaching the guitar.

Federico Morreti’s Principios.

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Moretti's Principios title page

The political events connected with the French Revolution, and further, with the expansionist adventures of Napoleon Bonaparte, may have been responsible for the increase in the flow of ideas across national boundaries in Europe. Several important guitar methods began to appear in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia. Perhaps the most influential, at least in the eyes of his contemporaries, was the guitar method of the Neapolitan Federico Moretti—Principios para tocar la guitarra de seis órdenes, published in Madrid in 1799.

With few additional details, this book is almost an exact version of a similar method, published by Moretti in Italy in 1792. The major difference is that this version was written for a Spanish audience, and that it was configured for the most popular instrument in Spain at the time, the six-course, double-strung guitar. The first part of the Prólogo to the book ends with this footnote:

Aunque yo uso la guitarra de siete órdenes sencillos, me ha parecido mas oportuno acomodar estos Principios para la de seis órdenes, por ser la que se toca generalmente en España . . .

(Even though I use myself a seven-string single-strung guitar, it appeared to me more useful to adapt these Principios for a six-course double-strung guitar, because this is the instrument generally played in Spain . . .)

The Prólogo continues with a detail description of the reasons which prompted Moretti to add a full compendium of general music theory. He was not able to send his customers back to Italy in search of theory books and he could not find any Spanish language book to satisfy his requirements.

Pedagogically speaking, Moretti’s book is not a practical method for the average amateur. Yet, this book is an indispensable source for information on the history of Spanish guitar pedagogy. This was, perhaps, the first serious attempt to systematize knowledge of the guitar and its possibilities, an effort brought to higher standards by Moretti himself and by Giuliani, Sor and Aguado in later years.

Fernando Ferandiere’s Arte de Tocar La Guitarra Española

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Ferandiere 2nd edition title page

The guitar method of Fernando Ferandiere, published in Madrid in the same year as Moretti’s,(Note 1) is a more conventional book, attempting to deliver a practical knowledge of the instrument, while teaching elementary music education. Ferandiere’s main argument in favor of his book, is that the guitar, the “national” instrument of Spain as he says, must not be played only for the accompaniment of fandangos and boleras, but regarded as a serious instrument for the performance of chamber music.

Salvador Castro de Gistau.

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Castro title page

Many guitar methods continued to be published in all parts of Europe. Perhaps the most remarkable work to be published at the turn of the nineteenth century, was the one published in Paris by Salvador Castro de Gistau titled Méthode de Guitare ou Lyre par S. Castro. Castro was a reputable guitarist, a close friend of Federico Moretti to whom he dedicated some of his compositions.

The method is arranged in six sections, each divided into two parts, consisting of a total of 12 folios. The major characteristic of the book, is the almost total lack of verbal text. Several remarks are placed throughout the series as footnotes, but for the most part, the folios contain only musical exercises. Another remarkable feature of the method is that with the exception of a few position markers, there is no fingering anywhere. That would suggests that the method was not intended to be used senza-maestro, but rather as didactic material to be used by teachers.

The six sections deal with various aspects of guitar technique, comprising of short preludes presented in each key according to the circle-of-fifths. They are:

I. Traité de Modulations Majeurs et Mineurs.

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Castro music page from Section I.

As we can see, each key is presented with a simple scale, a cadence of the principal chords of the scale, and a short arpeggio study on these chords.

II. Premières Exercices. Each key is given in three short examples called Phrases Harmoniques of one line each, intended to familiarize the student with chord inversions and various arpeggio patterns.

III. Premières Etudes. Short three-stave studies in each key intended to familiarize the students with major and minor modulations.

IV. Secondes Etudes. An expansion of the previous section, dealing with more complex rhythmic patterns.

V. Accompaniments of diatonic scales, ascending and descending. Each scale degree is accompanied by the appropriate chord, presented in a variety of arpeggio patterns.

VI. Dernières Etudes. Each study is a one page Rondeau which give a full exposition of the traditional modulations of the given key, once again presented in a variety of arpeggio and rhythmical patterns.

It seems that the Castro method, not generally known or acknowledged by either his contemporaries or today’s scholars, was a precursor of many pedagogical ideas which form the basis of the methodology of writers such as Carulli and Carcassi.

The structure of the book implies that the material could be presented to the student as supplementary material to any particular method book. It could be studied in a serial sequence, i.e., each section following another. It could also be studied in parallel, i.e., all studies from all six sections relating to a given key, could be studied together, before proceeding to the next key. This was, in fact, the methodology employed by the majority of guitar methods to follow.

Dionisio Aguado’s Colección de Estudios.

Coleccion de Estudios title page

The year 1820 saw the appearance in Madrid of the first guitar method written and published by Dionisio Aguado, his Colección de Estudios. This small book was to change forever the nature of guitar pedagogy, although at the time of its publication it did not receive much notice. In this book, Aguado lays the basis for a new approach to guitar pedagogy, entirely different from anything published until then in Europe. The reasons for writing this book, Aguado tells us, were these:

Las gracias interesantes de que es capaz la Guitarra, la sensación tan grata qua causa á las personas de gusto, cuando se toca bien, y el deseo de que se hagan progresos en su conocimiento, son las causas que me han movido a formar esta colección de estudios que presento al público.

(The interesting graces of which the guitar is capable, and the so gratifying sensation it gives people of taste, when it is played well, and their desire to make progress in its knowledge, are the reasons which motivated me to make this collection of studies and present it to the public.)

Aguado continues with an unusual description of the process of designing his pedagogical approach. His idea is not only to present the material, but also to convince the user to follow a specific regime of study. The success of the enterprise thus depends not only on what one learns, but also on how one goes about it. The 46 studies are presented gradually, the easier ones first. Yet, Aguado is well aware of the fact that difficult studies are given quite early in the process of study. He does not apologize. He proposes that it is a good idea, from the beginning of study, to present obstacles which the student must overcome, as they will serve as the proper disposition to overcome even greater difficulties. According to Aguado, this is the only way to train the hands so they can manifest all that can be executed on the guitar.

In the first part of the book, Aguado sets out to describe the instrument and its properties succinctly and clearly. He aims at establishing a fixed glossary or terminology regarding the instrument, in view of insuring that his doctrine is understood exactly.

In discussing the strings, Aguado allows that a guitar may be mounted with single strings—sencilla—or with double-strung courses—doble. Double-strung guitars were still common in Spain as late as the mid-nineteenth century. Aguado prefers the single stringing because:

1.ª Es muy dificil que resulten perfectamente unisonas dos cuerdas pisadas en todos los trastes : 2.ª Siendo dificultoso dominar una cuerda sola, lo es mucho mas dominar dos á un tiempo con la yema del dedo de la mano izquierda.

(It is very difficult to find two strings which are perfectly in unison when stopped in all the frets. It is difficult to control a single string, and it is much more difficult to control two of them at the same time with the tip of the left-hand finger.)

The sitting position per Aguado, is similar to Moretti’s flamenco-like posture with some differences. The guitar is set on the outer side of the right thigh and secured with the weight of the right arm, removing the need to use the LH in holding the instrument. Aguado specifies a precise angle at which the neck should be inclined —45°— explaining that the angle, in addition to correctly placing the left hand thumb at the bottom part of the neck, keeping the elbow close to the body and maintaining the fingers parallel to the fret, facilitates using the left hand little finger on the sixth string. The 45° angle and the arm position precludes the use of the left hand thumb and Aguado does not mention it one way or another. The right hand be inclined towards the rosette and follow the line of its arm, no apoyando de manera ninguna de sus dedos sobre la tapa.

In the next paragraph, Aguado presents his opinion regarding the question of nails or no nails. Already in this book of 1820, he presents a clear and detailed exposition of the diagonal flesh/nail slide which became the cornerstone of guitar technique today.

The Seccion II is subtitled De las propiedades de la Guitarra como Instrumento músico. This is basic music theory as applied to the guitar. In the course of its exposition, Aguado arrives at developing a new system of fingerboard harmony, based on the notion that the guitar is a chromatic instrument. The process of reasoning is minutely analyzed, progressing from basic intervals, through the various unisons found in adjacent and distant strings.

The system is a curious design of scale patterns which depend on the position of the tonic chord of the key in primary position, i.e. tonic-third-fifth-tonic, when the tonic note of the key is found alternately on the sixth, fifth and fourth strings. This allows one, if one can remember all the 13 rules which govern it, to create moveable scale and chord patterns which can be moved chromatically up and down the fingerboard. Aguado eventually modified the system in his later teachings. Still, the idea remained as the basis for a firm belief in the chromatic nature of the guitar, an idea that finds another champion in the figure of Fernando Sor. Guitar pedagogy was never the same again.

The practical part of the book is devoted to the 46 studies. This part of the book opens with a lengthy discussion on the aesthetics of music and a full description of Aguado’s system of study. Besides the necessary attention for the correct placing of the fingers of both hands, he says, one must follow these rules:

1. The studies must be learned in the sequence in which they are given.

2. One must never take the next study until the previous one has been fully mastered, ensuring that each individual note is given its full rhythmic value, maintaining the fingers relaxed and firm.

3. In those studies which are not given a tempo indication, one should try to play them, as much as possible, in a lively tempo.

4. In scale patterns in thirds, one must make sure that both notes of the third are played equally, and sound simultaneously and not successively one after the other.

Each study is fully fingered for the left hand. Right hand fingering is included in a separate, detailed verbal explanation.

Aguado's 1825 Escuela

 1825 Escuela title page

Five years later, In 1825, Aguado published in Madrid a new and improved version of his Escuela de Guitarra.

We need to appreciate the true contribution to guitar pedagogy of this monumental work, if we want to obtain a realistic understanding of the development of our discipline. Short of a presentation of its entire content, let me give you a brief description.

The first part is subtitled Teórico-Práctica. It is divided into three sections dealing respectively with the guitar in general, elementary music theory applied to the guitar, and a detailed discussion of guitar construction, the personal qualities required of the player and in the location where the guitar is to be played.

The material covered in this part is certainly based on the 1820 book and much of the earlier text is repeated verbatim, including the discussion of nails, hand and finger action, quality of sound and so forth. Yet, its treatment is entirely different. Perhaps the most noticeable change in Aguado’s technique from 1820 to 1825, has to do with the sitting position. The following picture demonstrates the new idea:

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Sitting positing from Aguado's Escuela

Clearly, this position places the guitar to the right, an aspect which greatly facilitates left hand movements.

The section on music theory is extensive, covering 181 paragraphs, i.e., about 40% of the total text. This scope of discussion of the subject has never been tried in a guitar method before Aguado’s Escuela, and for that matter, since. The material covered begins with scales and their structure and continues with basic music symbology, scale degrees and intervals, the circle-of-fifths, major and minor modes and their relationships, rhythmic values and their notation, and dynamic markings. Indeed, this section could be well taken as a basic text of beginning music theory, regardless of the instrument.

The third section is devoted to a minute examination of Aguado’s own guitar made for him by Juan Muñoa, which he considered as the optimal instrument. This examination, obviously made with an intimate knowledge with its design, allows Aguado to formulate some general rules defining what a good guitar should be. The first item that strikes the eye is the description of the bridge. There are two kinds. The most common is a piece of rectangular wood with holes. The other kind is the type of bridge we know today. Aguado says that it is de invencion moderna. In a later book, Aguado actually claims that this bridge design was made by himself, clearly placing the invention several years before it was used by Antonio Torres.

Next comes the discussion on the qualities of the player himself. One must have hands of normal size and without any deformity. Large hands are advantageous for the left hand, but present problems for the right. One should have two guitars. One with hard action for practice and one with softer action for performance. One must know how to tune the guitar, and to handle scordatura tunings as required. It is important to select the proper hall for performance. The best is a long rectangular hall of median size, with high ceiling which ought to be clear and with a good guitar, a player who has the proper qualities and the right hall, success is guaranteed.

The second part is subtitled simply Práctica. It is divided into four sections dealing, respectively, with elementary technique, chords, intervals and inversions, 30 studies and a short section on musical expression in which Aguado describes the manner of improvisation applicable to music of his time. Most of the 46 studies of the Coleccion have been repeated here. Some have been judged to be unnecessary and dropped. Some of the earlier studies now appear as simple exercises at the end of the section of elementary lessons, while other appear at the section of 30 studies. In both instances, the sequence have been changed, the musical orthography re-written “con el objeto de manifestar en el escrito la mayor exactitude de la ejecution.” Some of the studies have undergone minor textual changes.

The first 22 lessons are designed as single line pieces, usually not more than one or two staves, entirely limited to the first four frets. Notice here that Aguado does not use the concept of positions. All the 22 lessons are written on the lower register of the instrument, requiring only the use of the right hand thumb. They begin with simple binary rhythms in half- and quarter-notes and progressing through dotted figurations, triplets and sextolets, double-dotting, syncopes and notated staccato. The choice of keys is entirely arbitrary. This is indeed a sparse and somewhat ascetic regime for beginning students, but without doubt, the type of sight-reading drill which would instill a secure and positive rhythmic sense.

The following 62 lessons are still restricted to the first 4 frets, but now they contain 2, 3 and 4 parts. Here Aguado presents an aspect of playing only hinted at in the Colección. This is the idea of Acordes Simultaneos. Aguado explains:

Si las notas de un acorde son todas de un mismo valor, debiendose ejecutar todas á un mismo tiempo, la simultaneidad es absoluta; y á esto llamo acorde simultaneo. Hablando con propiedad, el acorde ha de constar por lo meno de tres sonidos, ó de dos intervales, sin embargo, atendiendo á la facilidad de la ejecution, consideraré tambien como acorde la union de dos voces.

(If the notes of a chord are of the same value, they must be executed at the same time, in absolute simultaneity, and that is what I call a simultaneous chord. Properly speaking, a chord should contain at least three notes, or two intervals. However, considering the facility in execution, I will consider as a chord also two notes together)

Thus, Aguado established the concept of the non-arpeggiation of blocked chords, a concept which has become one of his major teachings, repeated many times in later books, and consistently ignored by guitarists until our days.

The next 41 lessons are devoted to advanced technique, a matter Aguado identified with action beyond the 4th fret. As we mentioned above, Aguado does not divide the fingerboard into positions, treating it as one linear unit so determined by its chromatic nature. To deal with the matter of unison repetitions of a given sound on various strings, Aguado invented a complex system of notation, which circumvents the idea of division by positions. This is the system of equivalent sounds (equísonos). The idea is simple: the first unison of the open first string, is found on the second string at the fifth fret. This is the first equivalent sound. The same note is found once again on the third string at the 9th fret. This would be the second equivalent sound. And so forth.

The chapter on ornaments opens with legati, among which Aguado describes the arrastre, a technical device not heretofore described in Western European guitar methods. It continues with the usual appogiaturas, trills and mordants but then introduces several new sonorities to the palette of the instrument. Sonidos Apagados are what we usually refer to, in guitar parlance, as pizzicato. The effect can be accomplished either by lifting the left hand finger from the string, or by touching the vibrating string with a finger of the left hand. One could also apply the external edge of the palm to all the string, an effect which produces un sonido oscuro. The chapter ends with a description of several special effect such as Tambora, campanelas and imitation of the bassoon. The chapter on harmonics claims to be the most extensive discussion of the matter ever to be published.

Natural harmonics are the same as those described by other writers before. Artificial harmonics are described in detail, and the claim is made that this mode of playing was invented by de Fossa. Yet a third manner of producing harmonics, which may have been invented by de Fossa is a technique similar to that used by bowed-string players. A string is stopped at a given fret with the first finger, and by extending the 4th along the string, one can touch-off harmonic notes at a distance of 5 frets away, producing the double-octave harmonic of the stopped note.

The Seccion Segunda of the book open with an unusual method of teaching fingerboard harmony.

A brief introduction to intervals and to their inversions establishing the difference between consonant and dissonant chords, is followed by a thorough explanation of chord inversions. Aguado then explains his idea of chord positions. Each chord is susceptible of five positions on the fingerboard. Three of which, those that contain six notes with the tonic on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings are called complete, while other possible chords, are usually partial chords with the tonic on the 5th and 4th strings. These formations, once they begin to use the full barré, become moveable up and down the finger board. To summarize all possible chord formations, Aguado designed a circle-of-positions table, which shows at a glance how each chord progresses along the finger board.

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Circle of chord formations from Aguado's Escuela

The circle is read counter clock-wise. For example, the C Major Chord, found at the 3 o’clock position, begins at position C and continues through positions D, E, A, and B. Aguado’s aim is not to teach chord formations by rote, but rather to establish an underlying logic to fingerboard harmony. The assumption is that once the logic is understood, one would not need to memorize hundreds of different chord formations.

The same approach is applied not only to major and minor chords, but also to all possible dissonant chords such as the dominant seventh, diminished seventh and the augmented sixth. Aguado’s system of scales now have a more systematic and logical presentation, entirely bypassing the circle-of-fifths. Each scale is based on one of the previously defined chord formations. Hence, scales can derive not only from major and minor chords, but also from dominant seventh chords, an idea which allows Aguado to elaborate on cadential improvisation. Being based on moveable chord formations, the scale patterns themselves are moveable chromatically up and down the fingerboard. The music following this exposition, is now accompanied by a detailed indication of the chord name on which the passage is built, and its position in the circle. One may surmise that the intention was to simplify sight-reading, although Aguado does not say so directly. If one knows the structure of the system, one could form the correct finger formation for each chord and scale patterns without reference to the specific notes given. The section closes with a discussion of arpeggios which extend beyond any fixed position.

In the following year, 1826, Aguado traveled to Paris, where he was to remain until 1838. Soon after his arrival, two new editions of the Escuela were published by him in that city, both printed for him by a Parisian printer. The first was a Spanish language second, corrected and augmented edition, and almost simultaneously with it, a French language version of the same, translated by François de Fossa.

The Spanish version was obviously intended for the Spanish and, perhaps, also the South-American market, as it carries on the title page the address of the Madrid shop of Muñoa. Its full text and music is almost identical with that of the ’825 Madrid edition. Several important changes were nevertheless made, and a full analysis would help us understand the process of adaptation Aguado was forced to make by moving to Paris.

Fernando Sor’s Méthode

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Title page of Sor's Méthode.

In 1830, within four years of his return to Paris in 1826, Fernando Sor published his own guitar method. In spite of its title, this is not a guitar method. It is a Manifesto, an attempt to codify pedagogical theory in relation to applied technique. It is a book of ideas which are presented in a hodgepodge of fanciful exaggerations and obvious contradictions. It is often difficult to understand from it what exactly were Sor’s ideas about the guitar and its technique. Regardless of the enormous differences between them, all the books so far examined had one pedagogical aspect in common: they meant to prescribe a particular regime of study. Their promise was that if the student follows that regime, success is guaranteed. This book is different. There are some exercises in Sor’s book which could be quite useful in any program of study, but there is no plan or sequence of lessons. His idea of what a method should be, is expressed by himself in no uncertain terms:

A method is a treatise of reasoned principles on which the rules which guide the operation must be based.

In other words, a method does not have to contain instructions or rules for practical operations. It is enough that it expresses the author’s philosophical principles and it is in other contexts where actual musical instruction is to take place.

A brief description of this book is in order, precisely because it was called a “method” and because generations of guitarists have attached to it a certain aura of veneration. Perhaps the best description of what Sor’s book was, is contained in a mid-nineteenth century version of it, arranged and published by his pupil Napoleon Coste. In the Introduction to this book, Coste says:

Depuis Robert de Visée, peu d’artistes se distinguèrent dans ce genre de composition. Aussi lorsque Sor parut près de deux siècles plus tard, causa-t-il une vive sensation dans le monde musicale. Il étonna et ravis par le charme et la nouveauté de ses créations qui resteront comme des modèles de science et du gout. Les succés de ce grand artiste ne le mirent point á l’abri de la critique envieuse. Les tracasseries qu’il eut á essuyer de la part d’ignorants confrères qui ne le comprenaient pas, lui aigrirent l’esprit et ce fut sous ces fácheuses impressions qu’il écrivit le texte de sa Méthode dans lequel il paraissait bien plus préoccupé de repousser les attaques dont il croyait être l’objet et de rendre guerre pour guerre, que de développer se préceptes et de les mettre á la portée de tous.

(Since Robert de Visée, few artists distinguished in this kind of composition. When Sor appeared near two centuries later, he caused a lively excitement in the musical world. He astonished and enraptured by the charm and the novelty of his creations which will stay as models of science and of taste. The successes of this great artist did not shelter him from envious criticism. The aggravations that he had to suffer on the part of ignorant colleagues who did not understand him, soured his spirit and it was under these troublesome impressions that he wrote the text of his Method in which he seemed much more preoccupied in repulsing the attacks of which he believed to be the object and of returning war for war, than in developing his precepts and in putting them at the reach of all.)

This is the opinion of a disciple, a friend and an admirer to whom Sor dedicated one of his major works, his Op. 63, Souvenir de Roussie for two guitars. His views are expressed with sorrow and understanding. He is certainly not hostile to Sor and to his memory. When viewed in this light we are in a better position to appreciate the extreme pain under which the Sor method was written, and perhaps guess at some of the reasons for the exaggerations and contradictions.

Sor begins his discussion by stating that his purpose is to discuss his own personal technique and the reasons which brought him to adopt it. As to his approach to music applied to the guitar, he regards the guitar strictly as an harmonic instrument and therefore, the correct rules of harmony should be applied to it. He makes a continuous reference to his published compositions and in particular, to his cycles of 24 lessons, 24 studies and 24 exercises. The actual book opens with a chapter on the qualities of a good guitar. In contrast to Aguado’s merely verbal discussion of the matter, Sor goes into a detailed discussion, accompanied by precise drawings, of several aspects of guitar construction. Like Aguado, he mentions the guitar makers mostly favored by him, such as Panormo, Schroeder, Alonzo, Pagés, Benedid, Martinez and Lacôte.

It is clear that the book is not directed at the general public, but rather at professional musicians. While he does not say so outright, one cannot doubt that he addresses a particular group of musicians, i.e., guitar teachers. His purpose is not so much to sell them merchandise, such as the large number of his own compositions which he began to publish himself at about that time. He wants to convince and to persuade, he even seems to proselytize, trying at the same time to camouflage the fact.

The actual content of this book seems to be constructed as a monologue in which the author dispenses commentaries on current guitar aesthetics. It is interesting to compare the table of contents of this book, with that of Aguado’s Escuela. If you disregard Aguado’s section on music theory, a subject Sor does not address at all, both books follow each other closely. The chapter titles are different, but the subject matter is similar. In many instances, Sor expresses exactly the same sentiments as Aguado’s. At other instances, as, for example, in the question of nails or flesh, Sor disagrees. One area where they seem to have much in common, is the idea of treating the fingerboard as one linear unit, not divided artificially by positions. Their conclusions are similar: since the fingerboard is constructed chromatically, one may well discard the circle-of fifths as an unnecessary anachronism. Indeed, like Aguado, Sor’s presentation of scales, based on the same idea of movable chord formations, follows a chromatic sequence, i.e., C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb and so forth. Particular attention is given to learning the fingerboard via the device of learning to play scales along the string. Examining Sor’s fingering for this, it becomes obvious that he was not in favor of guide fingers, but rather insisted on pivotal fingering.

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Scale excercise from Sor's Méthode.

Beside the matter of nail/flesh, there are few differences in hand and finger action between Sor and Aguado. Aguado was adamant on the question of supporting the right hand on the table while Sor allowed that in some occasions this could be useful. Aguado specified that the left arm should remain close to the body, while Sor developed a whole technique, to which he dedicated a full chapter in the book, in which the position of the elbow is determined by the musical texture. It is closer to the body when the fingers are arrayed parallel to the strings, and away from the body when the fingers are parallel to the frets. Both Sor and Aguado made extensive use of the annular finger in their music. There is a statement by Sor in this book that he prefers to use only three fingers of the right hand because the annular is too weak and besides, it does not lie in the proper alignment with the other three. His argument is accompanied by a geometric drawing of the flat hand and the alignment of its fingers in that position.

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Scale excercise from Sor's Méthode.

The argument appears convincing, except that it is based on the faulty notion that the fingers remain in that alignment even when the hand is curved into a playing position above the strings. It may have well remained so in Sor’s own hand, but human anatomy, a subject dear to his heart, allow for an infinite variety in hand construction between individuals. In any case, the argument is usually taken out of context to mean that Sor never used the annular. There are many pieces in Sor’s vast output which can be played with only three fingers and indeed are meant to be so played. On the other hand, there are many other pieces which simply cannot be performed without the annular. These are pieces which Sor himself is reported to have performed in public. In fact, the penultimate chapter in the book is devoted to the right hand annular and its use. In it Sor describes the conditions which require the use of that finger and explains the modifications in hand positions which he is forced to make in order to accommodate the annular.

This book is an important historical document which must be studied in detail by anyone who wishes to understand the music of this genius and his period. It could be used as the foundation for establishing a realistic regime of study of the instrument, and so it was many times since its publication. Even today, many ideas expressed originally by Sor, appear in contemporary guitar methods as new innovations, without so much as credit to him.

Aguado’s Nouvelle Méthode de Guitare, Op. 6

The mid-1830s were a productive period for Dionisio Aguado. With the invention of his Tripodion, it has become necessary not only to present it in public concerts, but also to sell the public on the idea, by providing a detailed explanation of its construction, its use and the advantages to be obtained. Circa 1835 Aguado published his Nouvelle Méthode de Guitare, Op. 6, a work which sports the drawing of the Tripodion on it title page. Pedagogically, the new book offer little that we have not already seen in the Coleccion and in the Escuela. This is an obvious simplification of the previous book, an attempt to relieve the tediousness of working through the Escuela.

The book is designed to allow the pupil to play pleasant short pieces almost from its very beginning. In its essence this book is an abridged version of the Escuela, a selection of those pieces and ideas which might not prove too much of a burden. Few new ideas are expressed here, and few new studies are presented.

Aguado’s Nuevo Método

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Title page of Aguado's Nuevo Método.

Aguado’s last method, the book with which are mostly familiar today, was published in Madrid in 1843. There are significant changes made in this book. As we noted earlier, Aguado’s 1825-26 books were written in close collaboration with François de Fossa. Further methods by Aguado published in the mid-1830s do not make any reference to de Fossa. And with the exception of the statement that de Fossa invented artificial harmonics, all references to de Fossa, including all the theoretical material which he contributed to the Escuela, have been removed the Nuevo Método as well.

Perhaps the best way to describe this book is to enumerate what material included in the previous books and excluded from this latest version. The most obvious omission is the removal of the section on single line exercises in the first four frets, which served Aguado as an introduction to rhythmic control. The complete section on music theory, one of the largest components of the Escuela, has been dropped. The section on chords has been moved to the back of the book. A new component, is an extended graphic depiction of various intervals as they appear on the fingerboard. The sections on scales and ornaments have been greatly enlarged, and a new section on improvisation has been added. As before, the various exercises and studies have been re-written and re-arranged.

But the most important and least obvious revision that has taken place here is the microscopic editing that has been applied to the text. There is an obviously conscious effort on Aguado’s part to distill the finest and most precise shade of meaning from statements which heretofore could have been taken ambiguously by his readers. He must have been well acquainted with the commercial success, even in Spain, of books such as Carulli’s and Carcassi’s. He would have thought, we tend to speculate, that his own books were far superior. Apparently, his response could not include, once again, a simplification of his thought processes, something he tried in France in the ’830s, an effort he could not identify with intellectually. As a proud Spaniard, he gave his countrymen more credit than he was prepared to accord the French. Hence, a Nuevo Método published at home in Madrid, would have to be perfectly clear and precise in its meaning. And indeed it is. Prior to his death in 1849, he wrote an extensive Apéndice, which was published by the executors of his estate a short time after his death.

The second half of the nineteenth century also saw the rise of several important Spanish virtuosi such as Antonio Cano, Tomás Damas and Julian Arcas. In their teaching activities, these players were content to use the Aguado Nuevo Método, which continued to be printed.

In 1907 a young Catalan guitarist named Domingo Prat emigrated to Argentina. He brought with him a few ideas regarding the politics of revolution, as well as a few ideas about a new revolution in guitar technique and pedagogy which was supposed to have originated with his teacher Francisco Tárrega and since then referred to as the School of Tárrega. In later years, Prat repudiated the idea that there was such a school and spoke loudly against it, preferring to promote his own ideas and his own publications instead. But in that first decade of the twentieth century in Argentina, the idea caught on like wild fire. Within a short time, every visiting Spanish guitarist brought new information about that mysterious oral tradition. There was nothing available in print. Local guitarists, not happy with the available local fare, were looking for every scrap of information about Tárrega they could glean from concerts by Llobet, Segovia, Josefina Robledo and others. Eventually, some of the available information was collected into a volume by Julio Sagreras, clearly stating that it is a compilation of data secured from various sources and later used as the basis for Sagreras own guitar method which is still in print. In 1921, one Pascual Roch published a three volume set of the “official” School of Tárrega, a publication which delighted some and enraged other disciples of Tárrega whose recollection of their master’s teaching was different from Roch’s.

Finally, it was to Emilio Pujol to set the stage for the first twentieth century serious methodology of the guitar. This monumental work was first published as an article in Lavignac’s Dictionnaire du Conservatoire. The article is the first comprehensive and scientific history of the instrument. Until the 1920s, historical information about the guitar was dispersed as ancillary notes and short sketches in guitar magazines, so-called dictionaries and guitar methods. Here was a serious attempt to describe the evolution of the guitar, beginning with the archeological iconography, continuing with the iconography contained in several well-known psalters, right through the whole gamut of renaissance, baroque and classical period sources up to the present time. The article terminates with a lengthy discussion of guitar technique, including detailed description of the sitting position, hand and finger action, scale playing, chordal theory, arpeggio patterns and all the usual elements one finds in a method. The information is heavily based on Aguado, freely borrowing several primal theories from him, such as the theory of equivalent sounds. Pujol even duplicates the Table of Equivalent sounds from Aguado’s book, as well as the system of graphic depiction of intervals contained in the Nuevo Método. The article served as the basis for Pujol’s Escuela Razonada, a magnum opus in four volumes, which were published during the author’s life time from 1933 to 1972.

The period after the Second World War, saw the establishment of Andrés Segovia as the undisputed master of the guitar world. Unfortunately, Segovia’s pedagogical efforts were limited to information he passed along to friends and disciples in the course of private conversations and in master-classes, principally in Sienna and in Santiago de Compostela. In 1930, Segovia published in Argentina a little booklet of fingered diatonic scales, which became one of the major mainstays of current pedagogy and in which Segovia published a scathing attack on the various promoters of the idea of the School of Tárrega. The only published “method” which bears Segovia’s name, is an embarrassing coffee-table type of book.

Several popular guitar methods were published in 1950s-70s. Another new phenomenon which we can observe, is the ever increased preoccupation of guitar educators with human anatomy. This phenomenon began in the 1940s with work of the Swiss guitarist-lutenist Herman Leeb, and continued with the work of theorists like Ekard Lind and Yosef Urshalmi, and exposed in several approaches published by Abel Carlevaro, Angelo Gilardino, Charles Duncan and Jorge Cardoso.

The relation between the physiology of the player and the way he produces sound waves, has been at the forefront of guitar pedagogy ever since Charles Doisy began to talk in 1801 about his left hand being heavier and stronger than his right. Many claims were made, particularly by those who have formulated new systems of talking about anatomy. Yet, no one was able to demonstrate that any particular system of anatomic doublespeak produces better players than any other.

The reason for this is simple: we are all different. Any system or formulation of principles, is, by its very nature, a rigid methodology which may apply to some with success, and totally fail with others. The wise and compassionate teacher can make the difference, regardless of what particular brand of pedagogical hogwash he happens to subscribe to.

The salient feature of guitar pedagogy in our times, is that in addition to the efforts of the private teacher, so common in the nineteenth century and still prevalent today, the guitar had entered into academia. A college level course of study also require a college level method and approved examination material. In various countries, the problem was addressed by the formulation of an approved syllabus, drawing on available material. The idea continues to attract the attention of many educators, and in some countries, such as Canada, Germany, Italy and England, it even receives official ministerial sanction. There is no demonstrable proof that any particular syllabus is more effective than any other. There are many Canadian, German, Italian and English performers of high quality. In the USA, a country where the guitar is being taught in more than 500 institutions of higher learning and where there is no official, government-sanctioned syllabus, the system still produces many excellent performers, some of which have received international recognition.

Many important events occurred in the guitar world in the 140 years since the publication of Aguado’s last book. A considerable number of people have cast the power of their personality on the repertoire and on the musical formation of the younger generation. We must consider these developments from the point of view of our present study which is: the development of guitar pedagogy in its beginning, intermediary and advanced stages. We are not concerned here with applied technique, as it is applied on the concert stage by professional virtuosi. We are concerned, however, with the way these same virtuosi pass on the fruit of their knowledge and experience to others, when they assume onto themselves the cloak of The Teacher. Within the limitations of this point of view, we must observe that in spite of all the hype and bluster of several soi-disant innovators, nothing much have changed since 1849 in the way the guitar is being taught in the preparatory stages.

Much too often we hear these days arguments in support of the notion that guitar pedagogy today, is far superior in its conception than it ever was in the nineteenth century. For this reason, we are told, today’s performers are much better. As far as we can tell from available recordings, the earliest being those of Miguel Llobet dating from the 1920s, we do have today a group of young virtuosi who are far better equipped technically than their teachers and mentors were only a few decades ago. We do not, it must be observed, have any way of comparing the present generation of performers to those who passed away before the advent of mechanical sound recordings. Is John Williams a “better” guitarist than Giulio Regondi? Is Manuel Barrueco a more “musical” performer than Fernando Sor? Is Abel Carlevaro a “better” teacher than Ferdinando Carulli? We will never know, even if we could agree on the meaning of the words “better” and “musical.” The point of this, is that there has never been any demonstrated correlation between the wisdom of any given guitar method, with the success on the concert stage of those who used it in the course of their studies. Not in the nineteenth century and not now. Once a player reaches a certain critical mass, all the influences of the past: teachers, methods, concerts, master-classes etc., become just one element in the personal growth of the performer. They are as important as general education, emotional stability, personal happiness and physical well being, not to mention wealthy parents who can finance a concert career. In and of themselves, these aspects of a musical upbringing cannot be the sole determinant in the success or failure of a given performer. Often, we hear inflated claims by some teachers who boast of the responsibility for ensuring this or that young virtuoso’s rise to fame. In many cases the claims are justified. But then, we have heard of some incredible performers who have had no teachers at all, yet managed to rise to the peak. The names of Andrés Segovia and Benvenuto Terzi quickly come to mind. We also know of some excellent teachers who were blessed with infinite wisdom and compassion, as well as a thorough understanding of the matter of music, yet were not endowed with a similar quality of disciples. The opposite is also true: we know of some very mediocre teachers, there is one in every city, who somehow managed to turn out brilliant students. Their reputation is thus dependent not on what they teach and how, but on who they were lucky enough to hang on to.

There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about these phenomena. That is the way fortunes were made and lost during the last three centuries of guitar pedagogy, and that is the way it still is. The careful historian, in trying to learn what the master taught and how, must try to separate the wheat from the chaff in determining what is indeed new and revolutionary and what is the same dogmas cloaked in the blinding brilliance of pompous new terminologies.

It can be shown that in spite of these generalities, there were a few developments in music education, which simplified the process in some instances. But there is a qualitative difference: the newer pedagogies found new ways to talk about the guitar and its technique. These new ways of communication were necessary in order to adapt to a faster, changing world. But the actual, physical business of teaching a student to move a finger across a stretched string or placing another on the fingerboard, has changed little.

All of which leads us to think that the success of the process of passing information from teacher to student, in the final analysis, does not depend on any given method-book, pedagogical theory, government-approved syllabus or the blind adherence to this or that cult. It depends, as it always did, on a singular phenomenon which can never be exactly duplicated—the particular teacher-student combination and the unique interaction between them. All method writers, syllabus compilers and government inspectors have tried to insinuate themselves between teacher and student. The interference never improved the process. As Carulli told us already in 1819, there is no replacement for the wisdom and compassion of a living teacher.


This is the text of a lecture delivered in various venues, most recently at the 1998 GFA Festival in Montreal and the Cuernavaca Festival in Mexico last November, in a Spanish version translated by Melanie Plesch. The article is a brief synopsis of a major opus on the history of guitar methods which I wrote at the request of Ruggero Chiesa in 1986. It came about this way:

In the summer of 1986, I was invited by Francesco Gorio to give a lecture at the Vicenza Festival. My chosen subject then was about the Guitar in Russia. The text of the lecture was translated into Italian, and with a bit of coaching, I was able to deliver it in that language, even though my Italian speaking ability at the time was rather poor. (It still is. . . ) I know the lecture was understood, because the audience, mostly students, laughed in all the right places. It was a delightful week in which we spent many hours talking, mainly with Ruggero Chiesa. He accepted then my article on the subject of the Guitar in Russia for publication in il Fronimo and asked me if I would be interested in contributing a chapter on the history of guitar methods for a Manuale di Chitarra that he was preparing then for the Torino publishing house EDT.

At the end of September, 1986, I received this letter from Ruggero:

Caro Matanya,

Ti scrivo per avere una tua conferma sulla proposta di collaborazione per il libro della Casa Editrice EDT di Torino (la più importante in Italia nel settore dei libri con soggetto musicale), di cui ti avevo parlato a Vicenza. Questo manuale, che prenderà in esame la chitarra a sei corde (cioè lo strumento esistente dal 1780 circa ai nostri giorni) sarà suddiviso in quattro parti: 1. Organologia; 2. Metodi e trattati; 3. Notazione; 4. Diteggiatura. La prima parte sara affidata al liutaia Andrea Tacchi, la terza ad Angelo Gilardino, mentre io mi occuperò dell’ultima.

Mi farebbe piacere se tu ti potessi occupare della seconda parte, relativamente al periodo, che va dal 1780 alla fine dell’Ottocento. Per il Novecento ho pensato a Peter Danner al quale ho già scritto, sperando in una Sua risposta positiva. Come ho detto a Peter Danner, se facesse piacere a entrambi, potreste scrivere l’intero capitolo in collaborazione, per dargli una maggiore unità. Comunque, sarebbe preferibile mantenere un contatto fra di voi. Il capitolo dovra comprendere, complessivamente, non più di 100 pagine dattiloscritte con probabile data di consegna alla fine dell’anno 1987. Non posso dirti per il momento quale sarà il compenso: non certo molto ma ti posso assicurare che la EDT è una casa di grande prestigio. . .

(Dear Matanya,

I am writing with the aim of having your acknowledgement of my request of cooperation for the book of the publishing house EDT (the most important in Italy in the field of books with a musical subject) of which I spoke to you at Vicenza. This handbook, whose scope will be the six string guitar (that is to say the instrument existing from about 1780 to the present days), will be divided into four parts 1. Organology; 2. Methods and Treatises; 3. Notation; 4. Fingering. The first part will be entrusted to the luthier Andrea Tacchi, the third one to Angelo Gilardino, whilst I will take care of the last part.

I would be pleased if you would take care of the second part, for the period that goes from 1780 to the end of XIXth century. For the XXth century, I thought of Peter Danner, to whom I already wrote, hoping in a positive answer from him. As I told to Danner, if both of you like the idea, you could cooperate to write the whole chapter, thus giving it a complete unity. It would be however preferable that you and him keep in touch. This chapter should not extend beyond 100 typewritten pages and the deadline for its delivery will be the end of 1987. I cannot presently tell you how much the remuneration will be not be much certainly, but you may rest assured that EDT is a very prestigious house . . .) (Literal translation by Angelo Gilardino to whom I am grateful).

I was very keen on accepting this assignment, as the subject was one that I have spent much time on in previous years. I agreed to the proposal, based on the idea that I would be responsible for the history of guitar methods up to Tárrega, and Peter would take over from Tárrega to the present. Eventually I was assigned a size limit of some 30,000 words for my contribution. Some months later, I received a frantic phone call from Ruggero advising me that Peter Danner would not be able to contribute and would I please take over the entire chapter. I agreed, but also insisted that I would need a lot more space to be able to cover the time continuum in some detail. Eventually, all differences between us were cleared and contracts were signed. I was late with completing the task. Very late. But eventually I did submit a chapter of some 120,000 words, about double the size I was allotted. Then began a period of intense communications between myself, Ruggero and the EDT editor in charge. I was asked to abridge the chapter, something I was reluctant to do, but could see that I would have had to. I was also asked to change, or simply eliminate the conclusion, expressed in this synopsis, that nothing much have changed since 1849 in the way the guitar is being taught in the preparatory stages. It was important for Ruggero, and for EDT, to discuss several contemporary schools of guitar and portray them as innovative. This was not my idea and did not reflect my thinking at the time and I simply refused to yield. As a result, my contract was cancelled and the chapter was assigned to Mario dell’Ara. The EDT Manuale di Chitarra was eventually published in 1990.

13 years have passed since this unsuccesful collaboration. My collection of original guitar methods have grown much in the interim, and I have learned a great deal of new information from the several works on the subject published since then. Any new publication of mine on this subject, will have to be completely re-written and updated, something I will probably do in the near future. In the meantime, this is what I have to offer.

The present article, being in essence a spoken presentation, does not contain the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliography. The visual images presented are those of the transparencies I used during the lecture. Those who are interested in further details and cannot wait for the full publication of this thesis, are welcome to send me their specific queries which I would be happy to answer. Return to top


1. The cover depicted here is that of the 1816 second edition of the same book. With minor changes, it is basically the same book of 1799, a facsimile of which was published by Tecla Editions. Copy in the Bryant library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, call Nº MT582.F35. Return to text

Copyright © 1999 by Matanya Ophee. All Rights Reserved.


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