The Evolution of Fingerstyle Guitar by Laurence Juber

Book cover - LJ holding guitar
The Evolution of Fingerstyle Guitar

In the world of music, Laurence Juber has done just about everything. After achieving his dream of becoming a session musician in London he was chosen by Paul McCartney to play lead guitar in Wings, a position he held until the band folded, and in which he earned his first Grammy. For many people that would constitute a career but for LJ, as his fans know him, it was just chapter one. He then moved to the USA, met the love of his life in New York, and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a first call guitarist for television and movies (yes, he even played the James Bond theme in one). He also recorded for two of the other Beatles, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, as well as many top bands and soloists. At the same time he reinvented himself as a world-class fingerstyle guitarist, one in the rarefied altitudes that only the likes of Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor currently inhabit. He has contributed a large amount of  music to the fingerstyle repertoire including his amazing transcriptions of Beatles songs, as well as his own compositions that rival those of the classical guitar masters. His magnificent arrangement of The Pink Panther on the guitar tribute album to Henry Mancini, “Pink Guitar”, garnered LJ his second Grammy. Having written for the stage (3 musicals co-written with his wife Hope), television, and movies, there seemed to be little that LJ has not accomplished. And now he has produced a new book that outlines The Evolution of Fingerstyle Guitar.

The book contains a code with which you can download the album of 20 songs played by LJ. Their dates of composition range from 1507 to 1920 and most if not all of the composers will be familiar to classical guitarists. Just making the selection is quite an accomplishment since guitar-like instruments (its “ancestors”) are known to have been in use since at least 4,000 years ago. So where to begin? Here we start with music for the lute, which came to Europe from the Middle East in the form of the oud (derived from Arabic al’ud) which in its Westernized version became “a lute.” Lutes came in various sizes with different numbers of strings and tunings. LJ has gathered a trove of great pictures of lutes being played by humans and angels, as well as a woodcut of the first composer, Josquin des Pres, whose music is around the earliest time that “ancient music” begins to appeal to modern ears. On the same page (p.8) is the “score” for this piece, notable because it is in tablature. In fact tablature was the normal method of writing lute music (notational purists take note!), and rather than “notated”, lute music was “entabulated”. LJ has transcribed all of the lute tablatures to notation (and vice versa) himself, and I can attest to the concentration and patience on top of the education required for this process. The scores of all 20 selected compositions are presented in both notation and tablature.

Even at this early point in the book you will notice that LJ has placed great care in finding pictures of the composers, reproductions of the original music, artwork that features instruments from each period, as well as variants of the instruments mentioned in the text. Far from a simple anthology of music this book provides a fascinating journey through the process that ended up with the guitar as we know it. Beyond that, it illustrates how the diversity of modern instruments and interest in different tunings is older than even the guitar itself. Of course LJ is a proponent of different tunings, seen in his books of arrangements and compositions as well as his excellent DVD on DADGAD in particular. (I will be reviewing his latest book of DADGAD compositions and arrangements soon.)

The very next piece, by Luis de Milán, we see the lute’s guitar-like relative the vihuela, which has more of the guitar’s shape and less of the gourd-like body of the oud. A third instrument, the viola da gamba, looks somewhat like the modern cello but is really a bowed vihuela and like its unbowed version its music is entabulated as well. (In fact, Bach’s Sixth “Cello Suite” was actually written for the Baroque version of the viola da gamba.) All of the music here reflects the variety and fecundity of imagination of the Renaissance, and this section ends with John Dowland’s Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard (a personal favourite as one of the first pieces I learned on classical guitar).

So what is the difference between fingerstyle and classical guitar history? Until the 20th century, not much. It took the virtuosity of Andrés Segovia (1893 – 1987) to bring the guitar into the classical concert halls. In his early years, Segovia relied on transcriptions of Bach (especially lute and cello music) to a large degree. He also revived the work of many of the composers in LJ’s collection, especially Sor and Tarrega. Realizing this, LJ has brought us some of the lesser-known works of these composers which maintain the same level of excellence. Even with a well-known piece such as the Bourée by Bach we are given food for thought.

The Bach Bourée in E minor is another standard in the classical repertoire, taken from the Lute Suite BWV 996. For all the nit-pickers in the crowd, there is a difference between LJ’s score and the Urtext version edited by Rosalyn Tureck, one of the finest Bach experts of all time. Specifically, for the 4th beat of bar 8 on page 48 Tureck has low B in the bass rather than a repeated D# (which does in fact fill out the triad). What is more interesting though is that LJ’s fingering of this page differs from that of Sharon Isbin (guitar professor at Juillard) in that same Urtext edition. LJ’s fingering reminds me of Paul McCartney’s fingering in Blackbird, which Sir Paul confirmed (in a Bass Player interview from October 2005) was the inspiration for that song. LJ tells me that he learned that Lute Suite long before Blackbird was composed. He also made an excellent distinction between classical and fingerstyle guitar: whereas classical guitar focuses on the distinct separation of individual lines, fingerstyle players and composers are more concerned with sustain and comfort (this last an important component for concert artists who play for hours at a time). With the predominance of steel strings in fingerstyle, as opposed to nylon strings in classical guitar, the ringing sustain gives fingerstyle a unique and brilliant sound.

This book is a “triple treat”: a fine history of the fingerstyle/classical guitar with beautiful pictures and graphics; a great set of 20 scores with tab to learn; and a code to download all of the pieces in the book or to play them on the Hal Leonard site using their Playback+ player. This player allows you to set the speed, pitch, stereo balance, and looping points to really learn each piece. (The audio CD of these pieces is available as Touchstones – The Evolution of Fingerstyle Guitar, in case you have a friend who does not play the guitar.) This set excels in each of these areas, and for players it should find a home on your music stands for the months ahead. Even guitarists who use a pick solely will be fascinated (and perhaps converted) by the history of their instrument, while those who do not play will find this an extraordinarily attractive and interesting book and set of songs to download.

I highly recommend this book package for anyone interested in the history of the guitar as well as the changing sound of its music over centuries.