Let’s get one thing straight… the classical guitar is not a loud instrument.
A trumpet is loud, a taiko drum is loud, the crosstown bus outside my window is loud, but the elegant classical guitar is not. You can, however, create drama, excitement, surprise, and grandeur on the guitar and that is what we are going to talk about here.
It’s all relative
Forte means loud. But when a guitar plays forte it is playing in the range of piano (soft) for a violin. When a violin plays forte it is playing in the mezzo forte (medium loud) range of a trumpet. When a trumpet plays forte… you cover your ears.
So within this relative scale our guitar operates in the ppp (pianississimo) to the mf (mezzo forte) at best.
What can we do within this limited range? Quite a lot, actually. What we are after is not a true forte but rather the illusion of one. The key to this illusion is going to be using our limited but nuanced dynamic range to its full extent.
On a scale from 1 to 10
Italian dynamic markings aside, let’s now think of our dynamic range on a scale from one to ten. One is barely perceivable and ten is so loud that it makes the guitar distort (buzz and rattle). These two markers are our extremes, and I challenge you, right now, to go and play these extremes.
What you may find is that you have rarely (if ever) used these two extremes. So, we are already making some headway.
Next, your challenge is to find eight different gradations between these two extremes. It is more challenging than you might think, and to actually recall these different dynamic levels accurately is even more challenging still.
Imagine, though, if you had a one page piece with ten different dynamic levels and they were executed with precision. That would make for a very engaging rendition just on a dynamic level alone.
One thing I have never said as a teacher
It is almost comical at this point, but never EVER in my teaching experience have I asked a student to play a quieter.
If we are talking about our scale of 1 to 10 I would say that most students play from 3 to 6. This has the effect of a piece sounding very flat. If you start to explore the outer reaches of your instruments dynamic range you will find that not only was the “loud” you were looking for there all the time, but you are now opening up an expressive palette that will enhance your performances considerably.
Enhancing the illusion
To make the illusion of loud even more effective we need to explore the quieter end of the spectrum too.
Playing at a 1 or 2 is so soft that the audience is drawn in to your playing. This kind of playing can be sublime when used judiciously in a good acoustic. It will also make your 8 to 10 range seem epic in comparison.
Pretty all the time is pretty ugly
A word that is often associated with the classical guitar is “beautiful”. Its true, we live in a world of beautiful sounds. However, to live in this world all the time not only gets monotonous but it also takes away from the most beautiful of moments.
The guitar can make harsh, aggressive sounds. It can be brittle and bright. These sounds will all make the “beautiful” sounds more enchanting.
If you undertook my challenge and found your #10 dynamic level then you would have pushed your guitar to its limit and the sound took on a different quality. Make sure you use this sound when you need it, and don’t shy away from an “ugly” sound when it is called for.
The dynamic of ff (fortissimo) to me is not only an indication of a loud volume it is emotionally loud. Big. Dramatic. Engage your whole body and don’t be shy.
The last thing I will say about this is that every time I have worked with a student on getting a bigger sound it takes about five iterations to start even getting in the ball park.
louder I say. No Louder. Louder! LOUDER! LOOOUUUDDDEER!!!!
At this point I would say the student is reaching an 8 or 9. If you push for a loud sound, imagine I am behind you…
Play to our strengths
Finally I will say that trying to be loud on the classical guitar is a little bit like taking a row-boat in the open ocean. It will work, but it is not really designed to for it.
We have nuance as one of our strengths. So use it.
Fine control of dynamic gradations coupled with tonal variations, vibrato, and expressive tempo variations combine to make our instrument outstanding. If you are the guitarist to use these elements thoughtfully, you too will stand out and enchant your listeners.
What is your experience with playing loud on the classical guitar?
Share in the comments below.