“But you’re using a classical guitar!”

This is an actual quote that was said to me following a set I played some months ago. I just played the opening set at the Sellersville Theater and went to the merch table to, hopefully, sell some merchandise (CDs, download cards, etc.). A listener who had heard my performance for the first time (as did most of the audience) came up to me, grinning and looking rather energized, hopefully as a result of my solo set.

2/17 @ East Brunswick Public Library

Matt preforms solo – 12/7/14

He extends his hand and introduces himself, then shakes my hand vigorously, still grinning. He proceeds to tell me “Your playing totally knocked me out — it was great.” He tells me how much he enjoyed my arrangement of the Lennon & McCartney song All My Loving and mentions several other musical moments in my set that he thought were impressive. He’s not unique, by any means. The majority of my listeners tend to play guitar, most non-professionally, and are always picking off details of my technique, asking questions and requesting advice. (They usually buy CDs, as well.)

Of course, I answer his questions and express my appreciation. Then my newly-found fan says “But you’re using a classical guitar.” Our spirited exchange comes to an abrupt halt — he almost seems disappointed after saying this, as if my using a classical-style instrument is some sort of caveat regarding the music. Is it easier than playing a steel-string guitar? Is what I played using this guitar somehow less valuable in terms of the music? Is there some sort of bias the average guitar fan/player has against a classical guitar if they play steel strings?

From my perspective there is no difference. In fact, as I tell this fellow, I learned my fingerstyle technique on a steel-string acoustic guitar, my late-1980s Lowden. I also toured and performed for several years with a Wechter Pathmaker and/or a Seagull Mini-jumbo, both of which were steel-string guitars. I only began using a classical-style instrument as a result of an endorsement while I was recording my first release, In This Single Moment, in 1999. At that time, it was not a primary instrument, but a guitar I utilized for a different tonal color. In fact, I played it with a pick for a great deal of the music on that album. The guitar, by the short-lived company Fina, was part of a two-guitar deal, which included a steel-string acoustic (which was the guitar I initially asked for). I began using the classical instrument from time to time on solo gigs and did enjoy playing it. Quite honestly, at that time I would usually just grab a guitar case on the way out the door to a gig and play whatever I took.

The Godin LaPatrie that I’ve been using for over seven years was actually an interim instrument. I was working in a guitar/flute duo with Katherine Barbato at that time and I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the sound of my Lowden with her flute. I decided to get a Godin Multiac (one of their fantastic, solid-body-like acoustic-electric guitars) with nylon strings to facilitate a better blend in our sound. However, when I contacted my rep at Godin he informed me the bulk of the Multiacs had been shipped to Europe and I’d have a two-week wait before more were built. As I had less than one week to get the guitar and get used to it he suggested the LaPatrie as a temporary guitar — he promised to notify me when the Multiacs were back in stock. That was about 7 1/2 years ago — he did call about two weeks later. I told him I was pleased with the LaPatrie and that I’d hold off for the time being.

Matt Richards solo at The Grand, Wilmington DE

Matt performs solo for the Summer Salon outdoor series at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington DE on 7/25/12.

Well, time has passed and the LaPatrie is now my go-to guitar for solo work — not because of its classical identity. It’s a great guitar that has never come up short. I’ve adapted to the classical setup easily and feel the guitar serves my needs in a solo context. Unlike some other solo guitarists, I don’t utilize altered tunings during a set (or at all, for that matter). so the re-tuning is never an issue. Interestingly, Peppino D’Agostino, Phil Keaggy and Larry Coryell, all of whom I either opened for or performed with, saw no difference in my not using steel strings.

Nevertheless, getting back to that listener and others who find it amazing that I play a classical-style guitar — I explain my preference for this guitar, its playability and its sound and hope I make my point that it’s the music that is most important. Of course, some listeners get it, some don’t.

It’s quite possible that a few months from now I’ll be playing another guitar on my dates and it may, quite possibly, not be a classical-style instrument. If it plays well and sounds great it will work for me. As long as I can make good music.

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