CLASSICAL PLECTRUM STRINGING FOR THE GUITAR FAMILY
This letter discusses a type of tuning that came into being during one of those periods in history when 4-stringed plucked instruments reigned supreme in the world of music. And while Plectrum tuning isn’t commonly heard today, looking at this arrangement of notes can easily lead to the conclusion that this tuning may hold the greatest potential of all 4-string arrangements for pure melody play. It is the culmination of almost a century of development, and one we feel still holds great promise for today’s 4-string players as well.The Banjo is thought of today as a Bluegrass folk instrument of the Appalachians or as a rhythm instrument for Dixieland Jazz. But the way the instrument was played during the pinnacle of its popularity has been largely forgotten. The idea of a Banjo as an instrument of high art seems difficult to imagine. Yet during the Romantic era of classical composition, it was the Banjo that was the pre-eminent stringed instrument, maintaining that position for almost a century. The rise in popularity began as the Banjo started to move out of strictly reel and jig music from the American South, and expanded into an instrument for Marches and Ragtime. It then became a Parlour instrument, accepted as a serious vehicle for advanced composition by “high society” in the U.S. While that era, and the beautiful music then heard in Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall and smaller concert venues is largely unknown and seldom heard today, the banjos dominance at that point was so widespread and complete that other stringed instruments such as the guitar, for example, were relegated to secondary, “fringe” positions. There are some similarities between Banjo history and the history of the Ukulele. King Kalakaua and the Hawaiian royalty adopted the little instruments of the Portuguese immigrants to their islands, and with their patronage, those instruments became wildly popular all throughout society. We know the rest of that story.While the banjo migrated to the Americas from Africa and the Caribbean, it then went to another group of islands in the 1840s in the hands of American minstrels. Those were the British islands. The Prince of Wales, (the future Edward VII) studied under the American minstrel player, James Bohee. He became a fair player and a patron of banjo performances. The Banjo then became wildly popular throughout all of British society. Very briefly, here’s the rest of the story of the finest era of classical composition for a 4-stringed, plucked instrument.Banjo clubs, like Ukulele clubs today, sprung up everywhere. Some of the oldest British clubs are in existence to this day. Of course the banjo was still popular in America, having moved out of its rural Southern base and into all parts of the country, and all parts of society. Compositions in Ragtime and a more classical, Romantic era style began to be written for it on both sides of the Atlantic. While Chopin, for example, may not have written for the Banjo, the instrument had its own group of famous composers. Three of the best known Americans were Frank Converse, A.D. Cammeyer (who moved to England) and Frank Bradbury. In England, Emile Grimshaw and Joe Morley were among the best known writers. It began its most popular era as a 5-string instrument and was played fingerstyle – in those days with gut strings. The “Classic” Banjo tuning was g’ c g b d’. This is the same as 4-string Plectrum tuning, but with an additional high drone 5th string. But the 5th string was usually not an essential part of the classical music. There was even a bridge arrangement with a beveled edge that allowed the 5th string to be moved out of the way. So as it’s popularity increased, the instrument also began to evolve. The true Plectrum Banjo made its appearance around the end of the 19th century. It was a 4-string Banjo that had simply dropped the drone string of the Classic instrument completely, was usually played with steel strings and in addition had a longer scale. And to give even greater clarity and concert hall projection to this solo instrumental style, it was often played with a Plectrum, or pick. To give you a feel for both the compositions and playing style, here is a video of Rob MacKillop playing two Plectrum compositions, one by Alfred Cammeyer and another by Arthur Black. There are two important things to note about this music - we’ll discuss one now and one later. First, notice how the 4th string acts as a bass note, contrasting with the melody lines played on the other three strings. This is typical of much guitar composition, where bass notes are generally played on the 5th & 6th strings with melody played on the other four. To achieve this, note the effect of the two ways that Plectrum tuning varies from Linear tuning. To begin with, the 1st string is dropped a note. This eliminates troubles found in Linear tunings where the 1st string can sound weak, shrill, is at high tension or often some combination of these. The lowered 1st string is the same arrangement that the “Ukulele” had when it first came to Hawaii from Portugal and it was done for the same reason. In those days the Ukulele was a melody instrument often known as the Machete or Braguinha. The lowered 1st in both instances gives a stronger, smoother high note, allows more normal tension, and the slightly larger girth, along with that normal tension, gives it a better feel all at the same time. But the second variation is what allows the “guitar-style” element to come to the fore; that is that the 4th string is now also dropped a note. Since there is now a 5 step interval between the Plectrum 4th and the Plectrum 3rd strings, the difference in tone is more pronounced than with a Linear tuning. That one step separates the bass enough from the other three strings so that it can truly act as a counterpoint and not just the deepest of 4 equally spaced notes. If you are at all fond of classical music, and would like to hear it as it once was composed for the 4-string Banjo, then we would highly recommend a beautiful album of (even more polished) songs by Maestro MacKillop: “Recital: The Art of the Banjo: 1910-1930”. Incredibly, and very generously, Rob is now offering the entire album for free on a site he created devoted to Banjo history. His commentary on the internet page where this work is offered is worth a read in and of itself:https://rmbanjo.com/recordings/**************************************************But what of this tuning on guitar family instruments - more specifically the 4-string guitar family. To begin with, there was a steel strung Plectrum Guitar - Martin and National both produced them in the 1920s & ‘30s. Like the steel strung Tenor Guitar, they allowed Banjo players a chance to get a bit more “guitar sound” by playing the fretboard, scale and tuning they knew. Thus the Plectrum Guitar had a longer scale than the Tenor, longer even than a Classical Guitar.But until recently with the Tenor, these instruments were never made for classical strings, and a change from Steel to Classical almost always requires changes in design for more than just bracing. First. and most importantly, shorter scales are needed. But also the body can be more compact. While there is no reason not to have an over sized soundbox, there is another body that handles the required notes with no problem.What we’re referring to is an instrument a bit larger than the Ukuleles. We, for example, make what we call Classical Tenor Guitars. And there are manufactured instruments of similar size and scale now as well. They have 4 classical strings on a Parlour Guitar sized body. These Parlour bodies are smaller than modern sized classical guitar bodies, but in the 19th century Romantic era of Lacôte & Hauser, this was a standard guitar body. While apparently no Plectrums were made with this sized body, Tenor Guitars were more popular in this size than in the big bodies. These bodies usually have a resonance of around c, so in other words that note, unlike on the smaller Ukulele bodies, remains clear and vibrant. Typical Steel-Strung Tenor Guitar tuning also begins with this note. It’s a 5ths tuning: c g d’ a’. There’s no problem with this 5ths tuning on a Parlour body from the standpoint of acoustics, but you do run into a problem doing it with classical strings; steel strings, after all are a very different animal. Because of the wide spacing of a 5ths tuning, the a’ note is very high, and because of the longer scale, it becomes very thin. As such, with classical strings, it’s both weak and subject to breakage. The c g b d’arrangement of the Plectrum tuning, however, accesses the full depth of these bodies with the c note, and in finishing with only a d’ note instead of an a’ takes away issues with sound, durability or feel on a classical 1st string.*************************************************And now, how about playing this music on the standard Ukuleles? A traditional Plectrum tuning of c g b d’ has notes that are too low to be fully resonant on any Ukulele. If, however, you are playing this tuning in the classical style, as a vehicle for solo instrumentals, then there is no reason not to “tune up” to where the arrangement rings out clearly on the smaller wood-bodied instruments and simply play the intervals. However early on in this letter we mentioned there were two things to note about this tuning. We first discussed the deeper bass note. But one element in Plectrum composition can pose a significant problem with the more advanced classical pieces on standard Ukuleles.Go back and take a look at Rob’s video again and see where he’s playing. A lot of the time he’s well up the scale on the very longest of the Banjo necks. Ukulele design is decidedly of the short-neck variety: by design on the smaller instruments - on the larger ones we’ve always felt it was simply a case of following the proportions of earlier forms without much thought given to the limitations it places on play. But let’s take a look now at how this guitar-like sound can be achieved even on a “short-neck” instrument. Let’s start with the available Plectrum sheet music.*************************************************What is today called “Classic Banjo” sheet music is available from several sources. In England, the Clifford Essex Company has scores of individual titles available for Classic compositions and a number for Plectrum as well. In addition “The Banjo & How to Play It” is a complete method for the Classic style. Finally, and most importantly an expanded and updated version of Emile Grimshaw’s “Plectrum Playing for Modern Banjoists”, in tab and standard notation with 4 accompanying CDs has just been re-issued by the Clifford Essex. Find it here:Plectrum Playing for Modern BanjoistsThere is also the classic book for Classic Banjo written by one of its great composers, Frank Bradbury himself. It was one of the first titles in the now immense Mel Bay catalog. As it mentions in the notes: “The technique described here is radically different from that found in other books about the 5-string banjo, and no tablature is used. No plastic or metal picks are used on the right-hand fingers, nor are the fingernails used, but rather the bare fingertips. The hand positions recommended by Mr. Bradbury are not unlike those of a classical guitarist.” Find it here:Mel Bay’s Banjo Method: C Tuning - Concert StyleAnd while no tablature is provided, once again Rob MacKillop presents an aide for those following this method, a series of selected audio tracks to hear how the exercises are played. And find that here:https://rmbanjo.com/bradbury/So how can this music be used in the Ukulele family? First, the problem of “up the neck” composition is not one you’ll always be faced with. Listen to many of the Bradbury Method examples and you can hear they don’t go up the neck as far or as often as with the more virtuosic pieces that Rob plays in his “Recital”. Still, if you’re looking to play the more advanced classical tunes, then a larger Ukulele and a cutaway would both be more appropriate, and a cutaway on a Classical Tenor Guitar gets you almost back into the available neck of the Plectrum Banjo itself.For those pieces in the “Classic” 5-string tuning - g’ c g b d’ - just do away with the drone string notes or move them onto the principal strings; remember that a number of the compositions won’t even have the 5th string being played to begin with.And now let’s look at some other sources for Plectrum tuning music.**************************************************First, you can also go to the original classical Ukulele repertoire, the Machete compositions (the “Original Ukulele Method” can be downloaded from the Tips archive on the Open Tuning page). You can look at Plectrum tuning as simply a variant of the original Machete tuning. The Portuguese played the Machete as a melody instrument, and when tuned to fixed notes they were d’ g’ b’ d”(modern Banjo tuning - minus the 5th string - an octave up). The d’ note was as low as you would want to go and keep things clear on those old Machetes, but the modern Soprano is a bit bigger instrument. Most Sopranos today have enough depth of resonance for a c’ note. So for those instruments, if you’re looking for a bit deeper sound, the “octave up Plectrum” set-up, with a c’ note on the 4th string instead of a d’ will give it to you. You get that deeper resonant 4th, combined with a stronger balanced 1st string and a mid-range that is brighter and clearer than a linear set-up would give. And of course none of these Machete classical compositions are written to go up the short neck.But Ukulele players should not only look to Banjo pieces when playing this form. They should look to guitar compositions as well. The bass note counterpoint that is so limited with 4-string Linear playing now rounds into form with the Plectrum arrangement. “Guitar Music” adapted to the Ukulele may become the primary repertoire of many who adopt this tuning. Finally, we don’t want to leave with the impression that Plectrum tuning is strictly for instrumental playing. It can be chorded for vocal accompaniment, chord melody, or any other use. In whatever way it is played, you can expect that “guitar-like” profile to come through, and with larger instruments especially, access to the entire range of voices you would have from a fine classical guitar. You’ll have the tremolo, vibrato, the sustain, the clear notes up the neck, the orchestral effects, the delicate light notes and most importantly, that interplay between bass and treble. *************************************************One final comment on this set-up and its appeal. You notice Rob’s “Recital” includes pieces from 1910 to 1930. It was about this time that the 6-string guitar began to once again move back into the forefront. Eddie Freeman designed his “Special” tuning that could have kept the Tenor Guitar as instrument of choice for big band rhythm work, but it came too late - after too many players had already moved from 4 strings to 6. In concert halls the bigger bodied Torres guitar designs helped make up the gap in projection the Banjo had. And then came that Segovia fellow. Armed with the Torres style designs, he brought out of the guitar the elements that the Spanish Flamenco players had largely ignored, elements where the Banjo is limited. Segovia’s playing brought out the variety in tone and colour that a drum-head steel strung instrument can only imitate in pale fashion. And the warmth the sound can often have is not the strong suit of a Banjo either, even the gut strung instruments. And so now we feel it is entirely appropriate to look at this Banjo form on a classical strung wood bodied vehicle. True, there will be occasions where the percussive nature of the Banjo may be better suited to a particular composition. But on the whole, the melodic nature of most of this Classic work will adapt itself wonderfully to the sound of classical strings and wood. And those Ukulele players who have been looking for guitar style play with 4-strings now have their vehicle as well. *************************************************Update Fall 2016!We now have Plectrum sets available for the entire range of Ukuleles. Their uses are all discussed below.Plectrum Set Reviews:Most Plectrum Sets are offered as dedicated sets on the Plectrum Set page. However to try out this tuning, all Plectrum sets can also be purchased as an Add-On option, purchased from the Linear Set page. Should you go with the Add-on purchase, you effectively have three different set-ups. You have the 4 standard Linear strings - change only the 1st string and you have an Open tuning set-up. Then change the 4th string as well and you have your Plectrum set. Extra Light Gauge Plectrum SetThis is a Plectrum String set designed for smaller Ukuleles. We decided to maintain the clear character generally found in this style of tuning, and have gone to a polished single wound 4th for the Plectrum arrangement instead of a plain string. The 4-3 wound-plain transition, while often difficult with linear set-ups, works really well with this set, in part because of the overall light gauges used to begin with, but also because there is an “extra step up”, so to speak, between a Plectrum 4th and a Plectrum 3rd, giving the plain 3rd a brighter sound and therefore a better blend and transition with a wound 4th string. Plectrum playing is often solo playing, and solo players can also take this set-up and use it to great effect on the Concert & Tenor Ukuleles. The bass note on a Concert, for example, would be around a b flat and you’d be around an a on a Tenor. The sound on those instruments will be brighter and clearer than the Linear sets that are often used on those respective instruments, but the Plectrum arrangement keeps them from veering into the territory of “harsh” or “weak”. There is no dedicated set for this arrangement. It is only offered only as an Add-on, and is found on the Linear Set page. Light Gauge Plectrum SetThis set also has a single polished wound 4th with three matched plain string trebles. It is a set that gives a depth that will be ideally suited to most modern standard Tenor Ukuleles. A fixed note tuning would likely be g d’ f#’ a’. As you can see, the 4th string and 1st string are the same as those of a Linear C tuning - a popular set-up for many on the Tenor today. The 2nd & 3rd are a step up from Linear C, giving a clearer midrange and the separation from the 4th string that allows greater counterpoint for the bass notes. Heavy Medium Gauge Plectrum SetThis set moves to polished wound strings on both the 4th & 3rd strings with matched plain trebles. This set allows the standard Plectrum tuning on our Classical Tenor Guitar. We have found that for classical stringing in general, the 23” scale of the steel strung Tenor Guitar doesn’t offer ideal performance if you are building as we generally do - with light construction that allows optimal performance at Medium to Light tensions. Therefore most of those tuning to the standard Plectrum notes will prefer this set on the longer scale of our new model Classical Tenor Guitars.Those who have an instrument with a 23” scale can still use this set, but tensions will be light, and again, as Plectrum playing is so often solo playing, folks with those instruments will likely want to tune up - likely ending up with a bass note of around a d, the same note you’d have with a Chicago style Linear tuning.However, this set will can also provide an ideal range of notes for a soloist on the standard Baritone Ukulele. Tuning would likely be firm on a 20” scale at e b d# f# but if you feel your instrument has the depth to maintain clarity on the 4th string, then it can often be relaxed a half step. Light Heavy Gauge Plectrum SetThis set also has a pair of polished wound strings combined with two plain trebles. And this set also allows the standard Plectrum tuning on a Classical Tenor Guitar. On one of our designs this tension would be very firm if tuned to fixed notes - it might be better tuned down a bit. However those with a 23” scale will likely prefer these gauges for a standard tuning. As with a Light Heavy Gauge Linear set, the tension on the 23” scale will have the firmness required of a large sized manufactured instrument without being overly taut. “Overly taut” for example, is what happens when Baritone strings are long enough to be put on these instruments. Classical Guitar strings, on the other hand are too loose. Couple the ideal tension with the greater clarity of “Light Heavy” gauges versus a true Heavy Gauge set, and then if you own one of the new “Nui” style Classical Tenor Guitars, we can’t recommend these strings highly enough.