Monday, December 21, 2009

Vahdah Olcott - Bickford, 'The Grand Lady of the Guitar', on Alternate Tunings

Practitioners of American finger-style guitar very often use alternate tunings, that is, tune the guitar strings to pitches other than what is known as standard tuning (EADGBE). Alternate tunings can be realized by changing one string or all six. In fact, in current times, alternate tunings could arguably be considered the standard for contemporary finger-style guitarists, but, that is a much larger topic for a much larger discussion.

I have been reading up on Vahdah Olcott - Bickford, The Grand Lady of the Guitar, who was active and one of America's premier virtuoso guitarists in the early 20th century. She belonged to a progressive classic guitar movement which was interested in pushing the boundaries of solo guitar music, always looking for and composing "modern" and more "progressive" material, working to move beyond the standard material of the time: Sor, Giuliani, Carulli, Carcassi, etc. This movement predates and was influential in the development of what we now call American finger-style guitar. Vahdah was well respected, ferociously independent, somewhat eccentric, and had "sex appeal". This was all considered a dangerous combination in the day but she very much symbolized the new emerging "modern" woman. By all accounts, she rocked, and was very well respected as a player, composer, and pedagogue.

So, in this light, I want to share with you an excerpt from her method book, published in 1921, where she disparages the use of alternate tunings on the guitar. It is quite amusing today given how the use of alternate tunings, and American finger-style guitar for that matter, has evolved. I love this stuff.

As quoted from The Olcott-Bickford Guitar Method, published by Oliver Ditson Company, 1921. My comments are in parenthesis.

"Many publications of no musical value are on the market with the guitar so tuned as to cause the open strings to form a G, A, C or E major chord, which, while it simplifies the fingering of the left hand, greatly limits the instrument. The best known (guitar solos published which utilize an alternate tuning), and at the same time, perhaps the most atrocious, musically, are "The Spanish Fandango" in the G tuning (DGDGBD) and "Sebastopol" in the E Major tuning (EBEG#BE)." (These pieces are often considered the main forerunners of what we now call American finger-style guitar). "Musically they are in the same class as "Granny Does Your Doggy Bite?" or "Chopsticks" the universally known piano "classics," their only claim to distinction being that they can be mastered and performed with the same facility, in an equally short period of time as the above mentioned gems of piano literature. The standard of knowledge as to the possibilities of the piano being so well known, such performances are left for babies and the unmusical, and thus cast no reflection on the piano, while in the case of the guitar, it's possibilities are so little known by the masses, that the performance of such musical atrocities under the guise of "guitar solos," serves to belittle the instrument itself in the eyes, not only of musicians, but of those who have even heard enough music to know what music is."

Maybe she has a point.

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