THE PLECTRUM GUITAR – AND HOW IT
DIFFERS FROM ITS RENOWNED CLASSICAL BROTHER
By Vera Ward.
The finger-style guitarist plucks the guitar strings with his fingernails. This enables him to pick out perfect four-string chords or perhaps a bass sting and higher string simultaneously but this cannot be achieved with the plectrum guitar as a plectrum plays one note at a time or glides over several strings in one action to form chords.
The picture enclosed shows a correct way of holding and using the plectrum. Plectra vary in thickness according to the style being played and the weight of the strings and of course, personal preference. Generally, a heavier or thicker plectrum is used for heavier strings and a fuller tone.
The method of chord rhythm playing dates back to the late 19th century. Early jazz bands used it as did all manner of ragtime and dance bands. It was particularly popular in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s when a good, solid rhythm was required. It superseded the banjo when dance/jazz bands changed to smoother, sweeter music in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
No greater exponent of this style has ever lived than Eddie Lang who unfortunately died in 1933 at 30. He played with the great stars of the day including Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and his lifetime partner, violinist Joe Venuti. Bing Crosby insisted on engaging Eddie to provide beautiful and spectacular accompaniment to his vocals. At these sessions, a certain style came to light. The frills and flourishes with chords and single-string notes, the runs and superb rhythm combined with immaculate tone, shows through on all his recordings.
Fortunately, several tuition books specifically on the plectrum guitar have been written. The Emile Grimshaw and Nick Lucas, now long out of print, are highly recommended. Failing this, A Tune a DayFor Guitar Book 1 and 2 by C. Paul Herfurth and Mel Bay’s Plectrum Guitar tutor books 1 and 2 will fit the bill.
I refer to the PLECTRUM GUITAR, NON ELECTRIC GUITAR variety made popular through the expertise of such luminaries as Nick Lucas, Emile Grimshaw, Louis Gallo, Ivor Mairants, Mel Bay, Eric Kershaw, to name just a few. These artistes were able to play arrangements on a much wider scale and included pieces by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Bach, and Handel.
One very special guitarist who excelled in the jazz style was Django Reinhardt, a Belgian gypsy whose jazz sting quintet in the 1930’s, raised the standard of plectrum guitar playing for all time. A festival is held in Samois Sur Seine each year, near where he died, to celebrate his music. An excellent T.V. film was made of the festival with hundreds playing guitars. It was wonderful to see young and old participating in together in Django’s own style.
I hope this gives some idea of how the plectrum guitar can be played. Its history does not go back as far as its classical brother but it can sound just as beautiful, and as time has shown us, provided many an expert exponent.