For Diego Barber, amplification anxiety engendered a sense of vertigo. The Spanish guitarist, originally from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and now based in New York City, performs his stylistic paella of classical, flamenco, and jazz with drums, bass, and other instruments. “I’m happy now,” he says, “but until very recently, my live concerts were like a coin toss—heads, the sound was marvelous, and tails, the sound was horrid.”
“Things happen sometimes that can be heartbreaking,” agrees celebrated Cuban-born guitarist Manuel Barrueco. “When the amplification is great, it’s fantastic for the player. You have more dynamics, you feel like you can be heard, and it widens the range for expression. It’s horrible when you have bad amplification. Even with the most expressive instrument in the world, the amplification becomes an extension of your instrument. To feel that the audience is hearing a sound that is of less quality than you can make, it’s very disturbing as you’re playing.”
Electric guitarists commonly favor amplification that intentionally colors the tone, choosing amps that vary greatly in character, and often deploying effects that further process the sound. But for nylon-string guitarists (and most steel-string players), the goal of amplification almost inevitably is to produce a sound that reflects the natural output of the instrument. And while the consensus among classical guitarists is clearly that performing sans amplification is preferred, the realities of today’s performance spaces and audience expectations frequently necessitate the judicious use of sound reinforcement.
“There is something very human, natural, and fundamentally beautiful in hearing a musical instrument played in its raw state,” observes Xuefei Yang, one of the world’s finest classical guitarists and the first internationally recognized Chinese guitarist on the global stage. “If the acoustic character of the venue allows, unamplified is always my preferred way to perform. However, we live in the real world, and are often required to play to large numbers of people in venues that are not ideal for the instrument. Performing should be about the audience experience, and if tasteful amplification can help, then so be it.”
“One amplifies to be not just heard but understood,” affirms Benjamin Verdery, renowned for his innovative and eclectic approach to nylon-string guitar. “I recently premiered a fabulous new quintet by Bryce Dessner with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Bryce wrote the guitar part in so-called Nashville tuning, where the 6–3 strings are tuned an octave higher, so it would cut through the quartet and have its own quality, hence the name, Quintet for High Strings. On the same concert we played the famous Boccherini Quintet no. 4 in D major, Fandango. You could argue that, in both pieces, the guitar would be heard and not need to be amplified. I would generally agree, but still I think some amplification is better not just for the audience, but for your fellow musicians. They feel they can play out and not hold back, and when you’re playing a passage it’s not just heard, but understood and comprehensible.”
“The classical guitar is just not designed to project to a huge concert hall,” remarks Ed Tetreault, manager of the Recording Arts & Sciences department of the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, whose extensive experience in audio recording and sound reinforcement includes working with many of the world’s leading guitarists. “The challenge becomes how to present the instrument as it’s meant to be presented, in a space that it wasn’t meant to be performed in. There’s a tie-in between the way we record and the way we should amplify. I think in terms of perspective—what kind of perspective am I presenting to the listener? Your goal is a natural experience, like you want your audience to not know that it was amplified.”
Nearly every classical guitarist can tell horror stories about amplification, including Barrueco. “I did the premiere of Spectral Canticle, a Toru Takemitsu concerto for violin, guitar, and orchestra, written for myself and Frank Peter Zimmermann, and conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. The piece begins with an introduction by the orchestra, and the amplification was run by this genius who decided we were going to have speakers everywhere, so when the guitar came in it was very loudly amplified. It was a knife through my heart; it ruined the intent of the piece and therefore the piece in general. Because of that experience, I learned a few things about amplification, and that hasn’t happened again since.”
The first step classical guitarists can take is to become knowledgeable and take control, as much as possible, of their amplification. This often involves different strategies when touring compared to performing closer to home.
Yang’s rider, which her agent sends to each venue before every concert, outlines the amplification she wants—and suggests equipment. “We agree to use the [sound system] at more established venues, and other venues rent specific equipment,” she says. “For local venues, I have my own basic kit that gives a decent sound. I meet the engineer the day of the concert, and soundcheck consists of playing, listening, and making adjustments as we work together to find the sound I am looking for.”
“Once I became convinced that an amplification system is an extension of the instrument, I made sure to have my own equipment,” Barrueco explains. “I have one that I take for touring, and it’s very good, but not as good as the one I can use around Baltimore, or anywhere I can go within driving distance.”
Verdery reaches out to concert venues to determine what equipment they have and alert them to his needs. “If you are playing with an ensemble, it is especially helpful to send the sound people recordings of the piece. More often than not, I have had great sound people who really know how to troubleshoot and get a clear beautiful sound both in the room and in the monitors. But the more they can know up front about your instrumentation, your equipment, and your music, the more time you save.”
Barber tries to control as much as possible while acknowledging the professionalism of sound engineers. “I try to ensure that not just my sound, but the sound of the amplification is as similar as possible in every concert, and that is so difficult. The room is different, the sound changes, it may be humid or dry—because of course, the classical guitar is basically like a human being, affected by humidity, affected by anything. I carry everything with me and don’t ask for a thing. I don’t risk using a DI [direct input] box that is not mine, or a cable different from mine.”
“I’ve worked with several different guitarists, and they all have their own approach, so I usually defer to them and their preferences,” says Tetreault. “I worked with Sharon Isbin when she came to Baltimore, for example, and she definitely had her own idea of what the setup should be and exactly how it should be configured. The common approach is to put a couple of speakers behind the guitarist, at varying angles, pointed in toward the performer and pointed out toward the audience. That can work really well, and that was kind of her setup. I spoke with her ahead of time, and I used high-fidelity studio monitors for that concert, not standard PA speakers, trying to get the most accurate representation of the guitar that I possibly could.”
In The Unorthodox Guitar: A Guide to Alternative Performance Practice (Oxford University Press, 2017), Mike Frengel details various strategies for guitar amplification in performance. (The book is also a treasure trove of alternative approaches to both acoustic and electric guitar performance.) Commonly used methods include using a high-quality microphone with a studio monitor; an acoustic guitar amplifier using a pickup in the guitar, often blended with a microphone; or sending the guitar’s signal through a mixing console to the house main speakers, sometimes in combination with one of the other two approaches.
Tetreault suggests the most natural approach is to have a single speaker right next to the guitarist. “Typically, when people do live sound, they tend to think more in terms of coverage—like, how do I cover every seat in the house—but that kind of mentality usually detracts. A good example is the guitar concerto with orchestra. I’ve seen it where you have the guitarist next to the conductor, and speakers on sticks way on the outside of the orchestra, and it sounds disorienting. You need a lot less amplification than you think you do. There’s the term sound reinforcement: We want to reinforce the natural ability of that instrument as cleanly as possible, and we want our listeners to localize the sound of the guitar from where it’s coming from.”
The unamplified acoustic guitar or instrument amp is a point source, projecting sound from a precise, clearly defined location, producing a realistic sound for the audience. Frengel points out, however, that a potential drawback of the point-source approach to concert design is that the listener’s position in relation to the stage can greatly affect the balance. Instrument amps and single monitors are highly directional and will thus sound different to listeners in front than those to the sides. The house system can both make the sound from the stage louder and distribute it evenly to the audience.
One challenge, of course, is that guitarists are unable to hear themselves from the audience’s perspective. Barber expresses the wish of most performing classical guitarists. “One thing I dream about, which is impossible, is to have a cable long enough that I can go where the audience would be and listen to myself play. Because although I’ve had my friends play my guitar with my setup, in order to try to listen, they don’t have my same sound.”
Verdery mentions that one of the advantages of a pickup-based system is its potential to reduce feedback. “When I did the International Guitar Night tour, we had two nylon-string guitars and two steel-string guitars. We used a combination of mics and electro-acoustic guitars. If any of us used just a mic, it might have been problematic.”
SMALL AMPLIFICATION ARSENALS
“I encourage all of my students to have some sort of amplification for their classical guitars,” says Verdery. “Meaning they should have a microphone they know works for them and their guitar, a low stand for it, and some sort of trustworthy amp that they can transport. Being young professionals, they get asked to play in chamber music settings where they need to cut through or should be able to if needed. Of course, it depends what is called for in the music.”
Barber’s approach involves an amplifier, special cable, and a microphone in the body of the guitar blended with a pickup placed under the bridge. His two guitars are made by Paco Santiago Marín and the amplification system is by Stephan Schlemper. “It’s really amazing. Schlemper’s workshop is in his home; you go to his house outside of Bremen, Germany, on a Friday, stay in the guest room, and leave on Sunday with everything assembled. It’s a pretty expensive system, so it has to be a good guitar, but he also makes a tiny hole in the guitar for the pickup, which can be an issue.”
Barrueco utilizes a Meyer UPM-1P monitor when traveling with his wife and manager, Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, but prefers the Genelec 8050 studio monitor for performances closer to home. “We used to travel with an older Genelec, but sometimes we wouldn’t know until we got to the concert if it still worked. The Meyer monitor fits in a cabin bag and can be taken on board an airplane. I use a KM-84 Neumann microphone and we have a small preamp, a Symetrix SX202, but they don’t make it any more.”
Tetreault has found success with a wide variety of monitors that have a natural, flat response, including the Genelec monitors that Barrueco prefers, and espouses the QSC K2-series speakers as an affordable alternative. He also recommends the Sennheiser MKH-40 microphone both for recording and amplification. “Another great experience was in a small recital, in a pretty reverberant space, but it did need a bit of amplification, so we set up a Fishman Loudbox acoustic amplifier right next to the guitarist. Afterwards we got comments like, ‘Geez, you know, we saw the amplifier up there but why wasn’t it turned on?’ That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for, because you know you got it right when you get that kind of reaction from the audience.”
Guitarists who use a monitor or the house system will usually benefit from the use of a DI box, which—among other things—allows extended cable runs with less risk of interference. Guitarists using a pickup system will also generally benefit from using a DI or other sound-processing pedals to help make the sound less brittle and more natural-sounding.
L.R. Baggs, a luthier who pioneered acoustic and classical guitar pickups more than two decades ago, offers the Anthem SL Classical pickup system, which blends a feedback-resistant mic and pickup, and the Lyric Classical, which uses an internal mic and preamplifier. The pickups are commonly used with one of their popular DI boxes. L.R. Baggs has expanded its lineup with the attractive Align Series. This suite of acoustic guitar pedals—originally four, now expanded to six—includes the Session for compression and saturation, Equalizer, the remarkably natural-sounding Reverb, Chorus, Delay, and Active DI. All can be used individually or, to outstanding effect, aligned in a pedal board. Tetreault mentions Fishman’s Aura suite of pedals, which boast sonic imaging to produce a more vivid and natural sound. Verdery touts the K&K Sound Trinity Pro System, which he installed in his new Garrett Lee guitar.
Tetreault recommends blending a microphone and pickup. “I’m usually doing a percentage of about 70 percent microphone and 30 percent pickup. The Loudbox allows you to blend like that; it has both a mic input and a high impedance input for the pickup. For a minimalist setup, you can use a clamp-on microphone. The DPA dvote Core 4099 for guitar is great.” Another high-quality clamp-on microphone is the K&K Meridian.
Luthier Kenny Hill recommends the Barbera Soloist pickup system, which he installs in his Crossover guitars. He also touts the Henriksen Bud amplifier, a relatively affordable, professional gigging amp with the unusual distinction of sounding natural for nylon, acoustic, and electric guitars (especially archtops). “The Henriksen Bud works perfectly for my setup,” says Hill. “Between my guitar, the Barbera, and the Bud there is no feedback and a simple and user-friendly EQ that seems to be able to make a very accurate sound of the guitar I’m playing. This truly is sound reinforcement, not just ‘pump up the volume.’”
The list of high-quality, acoustic guitar amplifiers suitable for classical guitar is vast, and growing. In addition to the Fishman Loudbox, affordable, natural-sounding amps are offered by Fender, AER, Schertler, and Genzler, among many others.
“It’s a fallacy to think there is a ‘true’ sound of guitar—the sound we hear is shaped significantly by our surroundings,” Yang concludes. “Different people, professionals included, have different tastes in term of volumes and tone, and acoustics can change when a large hall is filled with people, so it can be tricky to find a balance. I pay more attention to the sound these days when playing in large halls, as it is a big factor affecting the audience’s appreciation of a performance.”