Andy Saphir tunes his session radar into the warm sound of acoustic nylon string ballad.
this month I’ve decided to write not just a solo but a ‘condensed song’. I’ve imagined a scenario where I need to play for a moody ballad. I don’t just have to come up with a solo; this time the producer has asked me to accompany the whole thing. We’ve heard the demo, which has been played on piano, but he wants a sparser vibe, and guitar based one at that. So it’s up to me to come up with all the appropriate parts. I’m in the fortunate position here of being in my ‘make believe’ situation where all my ideas are met with approval!
Now the first thing that occurs to me is a gentle, fingerstyle approach and I’ve decided to opt for a nylon-string guitar. The reason for this is it’s a different sound to the more widely used steel-string, and therefore brings a fresh quality compared to the other songs on our imaginary album. Also, the mellow timbre of nylon strings can lend a really emotive sound when paired with a ballad style song in a minor key. Nylon strings also make me feel like going for a ‘pseudo classical’ kind of approach, which means playing with a style that the general public (this is not for classical buffs, remember) would perceive as ‘classical’ guitar music. These approaches could be musical and technical, and include the use of fingerpicking to create a melody; the style of vibrato, the ‘spreading’ of certain block chords with the picking hand; certain fingerpicking patterns and chord voicings, and the general use of dynamics in the picking hand.
Although having a good grasp of fingerstyle would be beneficial to playing this tune, you don’t need to be a trained classical guitarist; I’m definitely not, but as a guitarist who enjoys playing fingerstyle I do ‘mess around’ with playing classical pieces on a nylon-string guitar, so I am familiar with the instrument and used to the feel of it.
If you’ve never played nylon-string before, it’s worth getting your hands on one so you can explore the sound textures that it offers. In addition, listen to recordings of both the classical repertoire, and also popular artists that employ nylon-string guitar in their recordings - for instance, Sting and his fantastic guitarist Dominic Miller. Listening is a prerequisite in order to absorb idiosyncrasies
Although having a good grasp of fingerstyle would be beneficial to playing this tune, you don’t need to be a trained classical guitarist.
adopted by the players in any style of music - especially if you’ve been hired to play a song in that particular style.
Our tune is in the key of A minor and consists of an unaccompanied ‘chord melody’ style intro of 11 bars. Here it’s imperative to hold down the fretted shapes as much as possible, in order to let all the notes ring - just as you would with most fingerstyle pieces. An eight-bar ‘verse’ section follows, and this is the accompaniment to the ‘imaginary vocal’ at this point. This is also where the drums and bass enter the song to provide a fuller sound and a rhythmic propulsion to aid the guitar part. The final 11 bars is our guitar solo and this features various musical and technical approaches that set out to (hopefully) capture the emotion that the nylon-string guitar can deliver.
Dominic Miller: longtime Sting six-stringer