The Evolution of the Classical Guitar: Loudness vs. colour

About a year ago, a good friend of mine showed me a copy of the , by John Morrish, an illustrated historical account of the classical guitar. I was immediately drawn to the book’s visual wealth and layout, with large pictures of numerous guitars from the past, but also contending designs of today. I was very impressed by the book, not only because of the apparent quality of the work, but also because of significant value for any (aspiring) classical guitarist: knowing the differences in the design of guitars, the challenges faced by luthiers and players all over the world, whether they are playing flamenco or baroque, is exceptionally useful, both technically, as you get to appreciate design decisions and adjust your playing to the instrument at hand, but also æsthetically and artistically, as you delve deeper into what it means to create a beautiful sounding instrument. Besides the immediate value of learning about the various Spanish and International luthiers, some of them of legendary stature, the book presents several scientific and practical techniques and design decisions taken by the luthiers and players of the years to improve the guitar and their performances.

One of the aspects that I found most intriguing was the apparent compromise between loudness and colour/tonality. I spent some time discussing with my friend about the merits and disadvantages of the 1970’s Smallman-type guitars and their successors, instruments designed and manufactured so as to maximise their sonic output, versus the older, Spanish guitars that aimed to maintain the coloured, romantic sound typically associated with the guitar. I was particularly surprised by this development in design, not only as it seemed to compromise one of the fundamental qualities of the guitar, but also because it seemed to hinder the ability to perform as envisioned by a number of composers — something like a betrayal of the art in favour of practicaility. Yet, there are still some manufacturers that maintain the tradition. As it turns out, the Classical Guitar refers to more than one instrument these days.