A Guide to Playing the Baroque Guitar

Article excerpt


A Guide to Playing the Baroque Guitar. By James Tyler. (Publications of the Early Music Institute.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. [160 p. ISBN 9780253222893. $34.95.] Music examples, tablatures, music anthology, bibliography, index.

A few years ago I was presenting a paper at a conference in which one of the figures was of an Italian tablature for the chitarrone juxtaposed with the transcription into modern notation. While I thought this would be clear to members of a musically literate audience, they were confused by the tablature. Later, I presented another figure of an Italian guitar rasgueado tablature with a detailed description of how it worked; again, the audience seemed perplexed by the notation. A week later when I presented a similar lecture on tablature to my section of class guitar, the reaction was diametrically opposite-they were able to begin performing from the tablature almost immediately! Why was it that a room of educated academics would be puzzled by tablature, yet guitarists with little or no formal training understood it immediately and were playing from the notation within an hour? Despite a tablature's seeming visual complexity, it is basically a direct representation of where to place fingers on the fret board. Also, while the guitar is one of the most popular instruments, it is one of the few in which the vast majority of its aficionados cannot read standard notation but are often adept at reading tablatures. A Google search for guitar music will retrieve an endless list of tablatures of popular songs transcribed by amateur guitarists. Surprisingly, there is little difference between the lute and guitar tablatures from the 1500s to 1700s and a modern day "tab" or chord chart. To non-guitarists, however, lute tablatures and alfabeto tablatures often look like they are missing the secret decoder ring needed to translate the various lines, numbers, letters, and dots-this is where James Tyler's Guide to Playing the Baroque Guitar is so adept. While the book doesn't betray the scholarly origins found in other of Tyler's works, such as The Early Guitar: A History and Handbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) and The Guitar and its Music: From the Renaissance to the Classical Era (coauthored with James Tyler [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002]), this text is a practical guide to the baroque guitar rather than a comprehensive historical and organological study of the instrument. One of the strengths of the book is that it avoids going too deeply into the material in a manner that might confuse the reader. While Tyler does include a basic historical narrative on the various tunings, repertoire, and composers of the baroque guitar, he rarely indulges in elaborate footnotes or details that could easily overwhelm someone wishing to actually play the instrument. Therefore, readers, especially musicologists or students who are looking for an extensive musicological study of the baroque guitar, would benefit greatly from reading Tyler's other texts in tandem with this book. This book was written for the practicing musician and for scholars looking at the practical aspects of performance practice that are not always as apparent in purely musicological texts.

A Guide to Playing the Baroque Guitar is organized into two main parts: "The Basics" and "An Anthology of Music for Baroque Guitar." Because each chapter is rarely more than a few pages long, performers can quickly reference them as they begin to play from tablatures. While this makes for accessible instruction, it can also be less ideal if one is looking for more depth. Specifically, the chapters frequently provide instruction on performance practices; however, sources are often not cited. This becomes troublesome for those using this book for a paper on baroque guitar performance practices, as they would find themselves unable to trace Tyler's primary sources.

Tyler begins part 1 by discussing all of the practical aspects of the baroque guitar: the instrument, tunings, tablatures, performance practices, and technique. …


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