Towards the Holy Grail: A Short History of Guitar Methods

BY GRAHAM WADE | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

The quest for the perfect guitar method began in the 16th century with the vihuela books of Luis Milán, Luis de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra (as well as a few others). Aided by progress in the art of printing, these players began the exploration of what academics now call “methodology,” defined as “a system of methods in various fields.” They began the quest for the guitaristic Holy Grail, a system whereby a plucked chordophone such as the guitar could be learned by eager students of varying abilities. The early books, especially Milán’s El Maestro (ca. 1535), were not short of direct instruction, but fundamentally they were anthologies of appropriate pieces to be studied by learners in a reasonably progressive fashion.

Historically, the field broadened whereby all kinds of methods were published. In particular we remember Gaspar Sanz and his Instruccion de música sobre la guitarra española (Zaragoza, 1674), but many other books of guitar music proliferated. Just skimming the surface, one should also mention Francesco Corbetta, Giovanni Battista Granata, Robert de Visée, Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, Ludovico Roncalli, Francesc Guerau, and Santiago de Murcia—just a few of the hard-working gentlemen in the 17th century who immortalized their music in exquisite publications. 

Gaspar Sanz’ Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española

From there, it is but a short hop to the early 19th century, where the methodology of the guitar expanded in a hundred varied flowerings. The great names of the age are etched on our fingers and in the hearts of most classical guitarists—Ferdinando Carulli, Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Dionisio Aguado, Luigi Legnani, Matteo Carcassi, and so on; maestros whose compositions often feature a multitude of studies both easy and difficult, and who were eager to advance the art of pedagogy. 

 In 1953, I started lessons with a teacher who used the Carcassi method (though fortunately he was not an adherent of Carcassi’s right-hand technique, with little finger on the soundboard!). Such music lasts forever in the mind and remains perennially fresh. I have inflicted many of Carcassi’s beginner pieces on succeeding generations of eager novices, hopefully contributing something of lasting value to their musical awareness and the development of their fingers.

As we progress forward historically, we come across the enigma of FranciscoTárrega, a great teacher by all accounts, but one who never systematized his methods within a single publication. The Tárrega gospel was brought into the glare of the 20th century by teachers such as Pascual Roch and Emilio Pujol, who published influential methods sufficient to keep students active for most of their apprenticeships.

Mario Rodriguez Arenas’ La Escuela de la Guitarra

Another in the Tárrega tradition was Argentine guitarist-teacher Mario Rodríguez Arenas, whose seven-volume La Escuela de la Guitarra was published in 1923. Arenas stated that his primary aim was to “facilitate the study of the guitar, noble instrument of interpretation of the national poetry.” Arenas had not been guided by the concept of founding “a national theory or a school,” but rather attempted to “organize all the lessons progressively in order to avoid the difficulties in the apprenticeship, which only provide discouragement.” His work was “based on the school of the late and unforgettable Francisco Tárrega.” 

Such was the extent of La Escuela that a booklet accompanying the work set out the intended plan of study from the first year to the grade of profesor superior seven years later. How many teachers and pupils elected to follow the seven-year course throughout all its details will never be known. What is certain is that to lose the booklet deprived you of precise navigation through the seven years of prescribed study. La Escuela relied heavily in the latter stages on repertoire popular in the early 20th century—Tárrega, Sor, and Aguado—while the first year included Aguado, Carulli, Carcassi, Napoléon Coste, and Antonio Cano.

The traditional guitar method habitually follows a particular approach—that of the anthology of progressive exercises, pieces, and studies, a Gradus ad Parnassum, where the pupil is instructed what to play but not necessarily how to play it, whether technically or interpretively (that is left to the actual teacher). 

Another example of this approach, again in ambitious terms, also from Argentina, is the extensive Method of Julio Sagreras, first published around 1922. Here, six volumes lead up to the seventh, the Técnica Superior. In the original preface, Sagreras addresses the teachers (Los Maestros), explaining how many students he has encountered in his 30 years of teaching began with first studies “not well-arranged in order of difficulty.” He assures his public that his approach has “been practiced with success with all the students who, knowing nothing, began their studies with me.”

The problems that arise with the use of the extended Gradus ad Parnassum method, the complete range of instruction from the beginner to the advanced, are considerable. Roch and Arenas tend to select teaching material from a small area of guitar composition while Sagreras supplies many of his own exercises to add the spice of variety.

Emilio Pujol Escuela’s Razonada de la Guitarra

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring Gradus ad Parnassum-type of guitar method ever published was Emilio Pujol’s Escuela Razonada de la Guitarra (1934), in four volumes with a preface by Manuel de Falla. Book One gives a history of the guitar, but the other three books take the pupil from the first lesson involving posture and position of right and left hands up to a detailed consideration of every nuance of guitar technique and a multiplicity of studies from Pujol himself. Naturally, many Tárrega exercises are included, as he is regarded as “the spiritual phoenix of the guitar” on whose principles the book is founded. 

Laurindo Almeida’s Guitar Tutor: An Up-to-Date Classic Guitar Method

Pujol’s Escuela is surely the greatest demonstration of methodology so far applied to the guitar. It remains of perpetual value, with progressive exercises ranging from the very simple to the virtuosic, covering in practical terms all necessary techniques in great detail.

In the second half of the 20th century, attempts were made to move away from traditional “methodology.” In particular, the Spanish heritage—with its reliance on the authority of a central personality, harking back to an even more august quasi-mythological personage (e.g., Tárrega)—was replaced by a more pragmatic, flexible development of the pupil’s potential talent. The desire to be comprehensive within a method was discarded, replaced by a less ambitious set of pedagogical objectives.


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One of the milestones of the new approach was Laurindo Almeida’s Guitar Tutor: An Up-to-Date Classic Guitar Method (Belwin-Mills, 1957). The book was organized into three courses, covering explanation of a) the guitar’s background, holding position, right and left hands, etc., b) keys, scales, and chords, and c) effects such as harmonics and tremolo. The rest of the publication included some of Almeida’s solos. 

Almeida’s Guitar Tutor was one of the first serious publications to leave the purity of the traditional approach and delve into matters appropriate to players “who earn their living by studio employment in which a working knowledge of modern popular harmonic is basic.” One aspect of this was that chord symbols, hitherto absent from guitar methods, are fully explained. Almeida’s fusion of classical guitar principles with contemporary harmony opened up new territory. 

In 1959, Aaron Shearer’s Classic Guitar Technique was published in two volumes. Its title was unusual, as it implied concentration on the nuts and bolts of playing technique rather than the “spiritual” aspects of the guitarist’s art that were so significant in the early ideological statements of the Tárrega tradition.

Shearer explained his method as “the result of a desire to present a basic and orderly approach to the development of classic guitar technique.” In his opinion, students were missing “the development of a basic guitar technique,” passing on to difficult pieces far more quickly than was prudent, and “instituting deeply engrained habits of frequent hesitation and creating great harm to themselves in terms of uncontrolled tension.” 

Paramount in Shearer’s work was “the cultivation of a deliberate and tranquil approach towards practice.” The anxiety to play pieces was not considered productive during the period of building technique. The role of tension (and its opposite) in the formation of technique, as well as an adequate attitude to the problems of daily practice, were key concepts. The old adage “practice makes perfect” was always misleading. The vicious circle of bad practicing leads to tension, which carries on to the build-up of more faults, which are again practiced into the system. 

Few authors of contemporary guitar methods can be said to establish a “school,” defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “disciples or imitators or followers of philosopher, artist, etc., band or succession of persons devoted to some cause or principle or agreeing in typical characteristics.” There is no “school” of Segovia, nor of Presti, Bream, Williams, Díaz, or Yepes. The powerful concept of the “School of Tárrega” has been dispelled by the wide diversity of techniques developed by leading players from the late 1940s onwards. 

However, the Uruguayan virtuoso and teacher Abel Carlevaro created his own Escuela de la Guitarra through a book of that title and related publications containing exercises and analyses of technical problems. To do this, Carlevaro evolved a unique vocabulary that encompassed his entire physical and technical approach to the instrument. 

Abel Carlevaro’s Escuela de la Guitarra

Between 1969 and 1974 he began introducing his concept of fijación (fixation) and “displacement of the left hand on the fingerboard.” In 1979, his book Escuela de la Guitarra was published as a systematic attempt “to answer the complex problems related to instrumental technique and the re-creative process of making music.” The book is a dissertation exploring the basic premise that “technique is in the final analysis a series of mental associations.” Without correct assimilation of “mental associations,” technical problems will multiply. 

Carlevaro approached his primary concepts with infinite detail. The complexity of the language, resembling a personal type of jargon, may sometimes puzzle or repel. Yet he succeeded in bringing a new intelligence into the realm of technical studies. 

All of us as guitarists stand on the shoulders of previous generations. Since the late 1970s, where are we now? 

Fortunately the tradition of the ambitious, all-embracing method is still alive and vibrant. The most recent example of this is Stanley Yates’s monumental Classical Guitar Technique from Foundation to Virtuosity, Parts 1 & 2 (Classical Guitar Study Editions, 2016). Part 1 covers “Foundation,” Part 2 “Mastery and Virtuosity.” Yates’ book is indeed a phenomenal achievement, a worthy successor to the great methodological authors of the guitar. The richness of its pages must be experienced to be appreciated for, as Angelo Gilardino points out in a foreword, “With this work, Stanley Yates goes beyond the traditional concept of the guitar method or the guitar technique treatise.” 

In the same breath it would be appropriate to mention another giant achievement, The Bible of Classical Guitar Technique by the German maestro Hubert Käppel (AMA Verlag, 2016). In this huge compendium, technical formulae of every kind imaginable are woven together with appropriate textual comment.

Over the decades I have attempted to purchase just about every guitar method and technical manual published. I regret that not all of them can be highlighted in this article. The range is indeed massive and with the help of one method or another, or a mixture of approaches, many pupils who receive good personal teaching do achieve the progression from beginner to professional standard. 

The mysterious processes of Gradus ad Parnassum, that step-by-step journey which leads the guitar student from the first lesson to the heights of musical creativity, remain a challenge and a duty to thousands of enthusiastic pedagogues. There is always more to be done, more to be learned, more to be achieved. But with so many signposts on the way, surely the route of the pilgrimage has been made easier than ever before. What we have to do is discover the golden key to progress, whatever appeals or suits us best, and persevere to the utmost of our individual abilities.

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Here are studies from three of the methods mentioned above: