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.
When I was a student we never discused this, and it’s only now, when I’m 66 I enjoy very much to explore the full range from #1 to #10. I remember we talked a lot about the (very) different registers of the guitar, and I’m looking forward to your next article.
Oddly, I only started playing with more dynamic range when it was pointed out to me that frorte really meant strong and piano meant soft. Naturally, strong often includes playing loudly, but somehow I always respond to strong but have remember to play loud. I have seen a few scores where the dynamic is marked loud rather than forte.
Similarly, allegro means lively, not fast.
Play even louder then you think you can
Keep your hands relaxed
I always tell my chamber music partner that they have to say in each rehearsal minimum ONE time that I am playing too loud :-)
And I have a nice true story about playing with a mic in the opera: The conductor stopped, asked for the sound engineer telling him the guitar was too loud and this guy just said: The mic was never switched on!
So seeing the mic made the conductor believe he heard the guitar more forte !!!
This article is just what I need to remind me to push for #10. I will print it out and post it in my practice room.
Thanks Simon. My last mentor was the late John Sutherland. He was always, always telling me “LOUDER” as I played . I didn’t get it at the time, but later I understood. I played so loud at times it was ugly, but he knew what he was doing. Reserves he called it…reserves, same as tempo….” your goal is to be able to play anything you can at 120 BPM. That way, you have reserves when the time comes to slow it down. Same with dynamics. John was a real stickl
er about dynamics….dynamics were everything…
Simon would you suggest a piece/s that exemplify all the different “volumes” and their contrasts? Thanks
Yes I think many of the 20th and 21st Century pieces have very specific uses of dynamics. Works by Leo Brouwer, Roland Dyens, Phillip Houghton, William Walton (Bagatelles), Benjamin Britten (Nocturnal), and Luciano Berio (Sequenza) are all good examples of specifically chosen dynamic contrasts.
Music that doesn’t have so many instructions in the score include Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music. Often the composers would assume a certain stylistic knowledge from the player instead of dictating all of the dynamic markings on the score.
Is it best to use the rest stroke to play loud eg #10? Thanks
Yes, I think rest stroke with the fingers, rest stroke with the thumb, and rasgueado would all be good techniques to push your instrument to its limit.
There are many topics you mentioned that I haven’t giving much thought to. Thank you very much for making me more aware about overlooked aspects.
I started guitar playing folk to a room full of teens. 50 years later, having switched to a classical guitar, my instructor complained that I was overdriving the strings into buzz & distortion territory. One suggestion was to switch to a high tension string. As I practiced I found that a lighter touch was more relaxed, faster. The exploration continues.
Juan-Carlos asked about pieces with a wide dynamic range. Try Carcassi’s #7. Focus on the dynamics rather than speed.
One other thought: I was given an exercise of emphasizing a single note in an arpeggio. Then moving the emphasis through the arpeggio. This helps on focus on dynamics.
Excellent article, Simon.
Two things come to mind:
1) Get someone to give you feedback on the acoustic of the performance space:
When I lived near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, I played a number of solo concerts in the Viterbo College recital hall. One of the hallmarks of the space was that you, the performer on stage, could hear the subtle and delicate sounds of a ppp passage. Unfortunately, the audience couldn’t. After one of my performances, a fellow musician made me aware that while the audience could SEE that I was playing in those soft passages, they could scarcely HEAR what I was playing.
In short, establish the volume range that the performance space will support, and determine the graduations of your sound palette from there.
2) What Simon has said about volume could also be said, albeit to a lesser extent, about speed, i.e., tempo.
When I was studying lute with Toyohiko Satoh at the Royal Conservatory back in the 80’s, I brought in a Weiss gigue I’d been working on, and my main goal for that week (not his goal for me, I hasten to add) had been working to play it as fast as I could. And I succeeded! In fact, one of my fellow students came in to Satoh’s studio as I was finishing the piece, a student for whom there seemed to be no limits on velocity, and the student commented that he had ‘had no idea I could play that fast’. So Satoh’s reaction took me by surprise. “Yes, it was pretty fast, but not when compared to what a violinist can do. And look at what you had to sacrifice in the way of subtlety and expressiveness to achieve that velocity.”
In short, all things are relative.
Thanks for the comment, Timothy. Great story from your studies with Satoh!
Dave B (CGC team)
You mean your guitar doesn’t go up to #11!
I’ve always played too loudly, it seems:) My original teacher insisted that every piece be played fff & extremely slowly, until it was mastered, & today I still do that – I’ve destroyed my nails many times & need new strings every 3 or 4 weeks!
I”m so glad to hear of guitarists interested in playing loud. I haven’t heard much any louder than mezzo-piano recently. Especially when it comes to concerto playing we need to push the envelope. I recently saw a performance of the Aranjuez Concerto and the performer fooled with his amplification so much I felt lie I was watching Jeff Beck. I think most guitarists play with a mezzo-piano as their forte because it’s safe. To play a true forte requires very accurate left hand placement and gives you the feeling of always playing “on the edge”.
I play and practice much like you Noelle Castro. I feel it’s much easier to play piano once you play loud, it’s much harder to do the opposite.
Two things I think guitarists should consider; playing at the node point gives you a louder sound than where most guitarists go, which is to the bridge. And we should consider pushing the strings more “into” the instrument.
There’s just one side of this interesting discussion I haven’t seen yet – one’s guitar. I am known as a very loud player, and when I play with my Guitar Orchestra, I am often the sole player on the tune, so I have to belt it out. I recently had the good fortune to buy a superb secondhand Kohno Spruce guitar that hadn’t been played for the two years it was in the shop, and judging by its condition hadn’t really been played at all in the 19 years of its life. When I played it alongside my teaching guitar, which gets worked hard every day, it was weak and feeble. My wife gave me one of those looks that said “And you spent HOW much on this thing?”
I’m well aware that guitars – especially spruce – take some considerable time to “open up”, and so I have been playing my “new” guitar while teaching. It’s eight months down the line now, and I’d put the maximum volume at about double what it was, and the sustain and clarity are also much improved. I think one needs to play a guitar really loudly for some time before the guitar itself can give of its best. My guitar now shakes in my arms when I play the basses.
In the past, some of my students have tried my (cedar) teaching guitar and said “Isn’t it loud?”, but it wasn’t when I first had it.
I suspect you may need to play loudly every day for 6 months before you and the guitar have both developed!
Thanks for the comment, Derek! That’s a great point, and I suspect you’re right that some guitars will play more loudly—in fact some instruments have been built with the express interest of being able to “cut through” the mix with other, louder instruments. And the blooming period on a guitar top certainly can be a factor as well. Still, one will need to develop the technical side of playing more loudly, of having a bigger and fuller sound, and one’s guitar can only take one so far. Thanks again and Happy Holiday wishes to you!
Dave B (CGC team)
Thank you for this educated article. It is really the dynamic change that makes the human brain perceive if it as loud or not.The human brain is constructed to discover changes in what we perceive and to compare one perception to another. The challenge is to find a good way to practice and teach this.Since we are a bit conservative in our ways to hold on to old and familiar habits we tend to cling on to those even in music and rapid changes in some way, as for example, dynamics, are experienced as somewhat unsafe an dangerous.Hence we tend to avoid what´s uncomfortable in the matter of loosing control. We don´t want that, do we? This is really a great challenge, to keep control over your technique and interpretation while making sudden changes in musical expression.
thank you for the excellent article.on loudness when playing.
your remark: ”What we are after is not a true forte but rather the illusion of one” reminds me of the good classical painters.
they play in the same way with their dynamic color range as musiciens with their dynamics.
it is all relative to what comes before and what comes next.
i feel limited playing in my apartment but understand the need to explore all the dynamics to its full maximum.
very helpful, i will print your text as a reminder
I always my classical guitar with gusto. I love the way I can feel my guitar’s vibrations all over my own body especially in the low bass register. I have extra thick strings on my guitar so the bass is greatly enhanced. I guess the bass might be too extreme because my guitar’s soundboard and headstock end up sounding like a nest full of hornets and an occasional rattle snake shaking its tail when I pluck or strum with force. Even with the buzzes and rattles I love the enhanced bass with the thicker strings. And next time my neighbor thumps his fist against the shared apartment wall I’ll just play a wee bit louder!
Great article and an important topic. One of the first things we worked on and continue to work on are dynamics. My instructor was clear: the guitar has limits compared to the piano, so we have to be very deliberate on volume. As you play better, you will be able to play louder while controlling the tone. There is no mechanical device between us and the string–compared to on the piano (a complex key arrangement.) So it’s always a challenge. I listen to the great players and it’s amazing how much volume they can achieve while creating a beautiful sound.
I am a real beginner (been playing 4 months) and tried to execute Simon’s suggestion about the 10 volume levels.
Here is how I went about doing this.
I installed an app that measures volume on my iphone.
I plucked the G string as hard as I dared, and reached 70 db. Then I plucked as softly as I could and reached 20 db. So, I figured that the levels ought to be increments of 5 db (70-20=50\10=5).
Then I tried playing the levels from the softest to the loudest, alternating the index and major finger.
I did manage to execute each of the 10 levels without too much difficulty.
However, it is clear to me that executing a given randomly picked level will require a significant degree of practice to get it right consistently.
Any feedback on whether the above is a good method to execute Simon’s guidance would be most welcome.
Only that decibel is a log scale, not linear. How this affects one’s choice for “1-10” in the volume dynamic exercise depends on if one cares. It probably doesn’t matter, but you might keep that in mind.
I may be booed off the stage here, but I have a classical guitar with a pickup, and sometimes I can get mine to go to “eleven” when I plug it into my fender amp.
A factor in “playing loud” is confidence. I think many players play softly because they don’t have enough confidence in their playing. John Williams has said that he sees nothing wrong with amplifying when the venue requires it. There are great sounding alternatives for that today. The chase for volume from the instrument that is so prevalent seems to me to be misplaced. The guitar is loved by many because it can produce a beautiful sound full of richness, warmth, and nuance that many other instruments are not as good at doing. Once upon a time people thought the harpsichord was not loud enough, they turned it into the piano. For anyone who has heard music composed for the harpsichord played well on the harpsichord and played on a piano, you know that the piano cannot do what the harpsichord does, and vice versa. The guitar is a quiet instrument and ultimately even if we made it 25% louder – which is a big feat more volume from an instrument requires an exponential increase in energy, and even at 25% louder – about double the energy it would still be a quiet instrument. Learn to play more dynamically and if you have a situation where you need lots more volume look at how to do quality sounding amplification
Also keep in mind that double top guitars resonate more strongly, so more forte for less effort. This may allow for more subtle playing, although some maintain that it loses subtlety perhaps because the dynamics are skewed towards the loud end. Although one can play gently to get a soft tone, it may tend to be too gentle and therefore seem “weak”. It’s hard to say. I’ve had doubletop for over a year and love its dynamic range.