Classical guitar isn't exactly the most listened to or popular genre, but as guitarists, we know that actively listening to other genres and styles can definitely benefit our playing. It's time to start digging the classical guitar because it's the guitar in its highest artistic form. It's not stuffy or boring or intended for old people. If you've never considered listening to classical guitar before, it's well worth it. There is no denying the level of musicianship and technical proficiency needed to make the classical guitar work. There's no distortion, no effects, no amps.
But it can be difficult knowing where to start if you want to get into classical guitar. There are thousands of amazing classical guitarists out there, so this list outlines the veterans and pioneers of the instrument, which is a great place to start. These are the masters who made the instrument popular and established it as a legitimate classical instrument. The order in which this list is presented is more or less chronological, starting with the players who made it popular, and followed by the generations that kept its momentum going.
01. Andrs Segovia
As far as many are concerned, classical guitar wouldn't be what it is today without the innovation and influence of Andrs Segovia. Segovia was born in 1893, and at an early age, took a particular interest in the guitar, which at that time was mainly considered a folk and flamenco instrument, hardly on par with established classical instruments like the violin. Segovia debuted his first live concert at age 15 and went on to sell an astounding number of records and toured the world for the majority of the 20th century. Segovia lived his life attempting to achieve what he believed to be his vocational duty for the guitar: to expose the world to the guitar's beauty, to rid the guitar of its folk-instrument reputation, to build up an extensive quality repertoire, and to encourage formal teaching of the guitar on par with established classical instruments.
Segovia influenced all major contributors to the classical guitar movement. If you were to compare the genre to metal, Segovia would be Tony Iommi an innovator and creator of a unique style that paved the way for future guitarists.
As classical guitar study became more methodical and streamlined, Segovia seemed fall out of favor with younger players who may criticize his sloppiness and technique. But Segovia pushed the possibilities of what the guitar can achieve. The following video features a performance from the 1950's, when Segovia was a seasoned professional and was at the peak of his game.
Listen for: lyrical phrasing, warm sounds, and musicality
Video: "Variation On A Theme Of Mozart" (1:12 in video)
02. Julian Bream
Unlike most of the players on this list, Bream was one of the few players who operated, for the most part, outside of the Segovia circle. Inspired by jazz great Django Reinhardt, the British Bream studied several instruments as a child, and eventually toured the world for the better part of a century, playing a large role in the popularization of the instrument. In addition to guitar, Bream transcribed, performed, and recorded music for various traditional stringed instruments, such as the lute, baroque guitar, and vihuela, a cousin of the modern guitar. Bream was also one of the first to use nylon strings on the guitar.
Like Segovia, Bream's style is virtuosic in the sense that musicality seemed paramount over technique, but during Bream's earlier career, classical guitar technique wasn't as developed as it is today, thus his interpretations are quite expressive and unique to his British humor. Bream is the Hendrix of classical guitar.
Listen for: expression, tonal variety
Video: "Conde Claros" on Vihuela
03. John Williams
John Williams, not to be confused with the famous composer of the same name, is revered in the classical guitar community as a technical master. His technique is flawless and much of the modern classical guitar technique can be credited to him. His tone and interpretations may be perceived as colder and more mechanical, giving him a unique aesthetic.
Williams studied with Segovia at an early age, and eventually went on to gain international fame from touring and recording. Unlike the rest of these guys, William's career briefly stepped outside of classical guitar with projects like the 1970's fusion group, Sky, and collaborations with Pete Townsend of The Who.
The following video features the music of Paraguayan composer, Augustn Barrios, a composer that Williams popularized. Segovia disliked Barrios, most likely dismissing the South American music as too folky, but William's love for Barrios's music introduced yet another style to standard guitar rep. Some landmark albums to check out are From the Jungles of Paraguay: John Williams Plays Barrios, and his duet album with Julian Bream, Julian and John.
Listen for: technical precision, control
Video: "Vals Op 8. No. 4" by Barrios
04. Christopher Parkening
Christopher Parkening was America's first star classical guitarist. He began his studies with the famed Romeros at a young age and soon caught the attention of Segovia, who later claimed that Parkening was one of the best guitarists he had ever heard. Some considered him a prodigy. He landed a record deal at age 18 and recorded groundbreaking albums, such as Parkening Plays Bach and In The Spanish Style. Parkening went on to found the classical guitar department at the University of Southern California, gave 90 concerts per year by the time he was 20, and toured the world several times by the time he was 30, at which point he retired from professional touring. He is also a champion fly fisherman, if guitar wasn't enough.
Parkening has the least expansive catalog of these guitarists, a result of his pursuit of perfection. Extremely influenced by Segovia, his style seems like a tighter, cleaner and more evolved version of Segovia. His phrases are executed with precision, the utmost musicality, and legato usage. Parkening also is a heavy advocate of varying tonal colors through hand and nail placement. For example, he will shift his right hand toward the bridge to achieve a brassier ponticello tone, or shift closer to the neck for a warmer dolce sound.
Listen for: Tonal color changes, Segovia influence, cleanliness, and beautiful tones
Video: "Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring" by Johan Sebastian Bach
05. David Russell
A relatively younger player within this group, David Russell offers a significant output of technically impressive albums that contain a warm tonal presence and unique repertoire. Like Bream, Russell's pieces can sound rougher and reverberated, quite different from say, Parkening, but they are virtuosic nonetheless. Russell's career picked up later in his life; however his output is impressive, averaging a studio release nearly every year for the past 15 years.
Listen for: virtuosic speed, solid technique, and consistency in tone
Video: "Spatter The Dew" a traditional Irish piece
Other notable players to check out are Manuel Barrueco, Paul Galbraith, The Romero's, which include the famed Pepe and Angel Romero, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, which includes Scott Tennant, the author of Pumping Nylon, a revolutionary instructional book that became a standard in classical guitar teaching.
Of course, classical guitar isn't for everyone, but understanding the mechanics and musical possibilities of classical guitar can improve your playing and develop a discernable ear. These guitarists are all masters in their own right. After listening to them all, you'll notice huge differences in their styles, but that's what is so intriguing about classical guitar; there are a plethora of possibilities regarding interpretation, technique and individual style. So give it a shot if you haven't already. It may lead so some inspiration and ideas for your own playing.
By Zach Pino