The boy who ran away to play guitar.

Posted on May 28th, 2020 by shineuser

It’s a hot summer day in Eastern Spain. The scent of figs fills the air, cicadas buzz. Somewhere a church bell clangs. A few plucked guitar notes can be heard drifting from a shady plaça corner.

Let’s consider the interesting twists and turns in the life of Francisco Tárrega. Perhaps it’s more legend than truth, but the “father of classical guitar” seemed to have followed a fated path in his pursuit of his chosen instrument.

Paul Sieffert The guitar player, 1925 oil on canvas

Even from a young age, Francisco Tárrega knew what he wanted. And more than anything, it was to play the guitar. Let’s imagine him as a small boy, sneaking in to play on his fathers treasured instrument while dad worked as a watchman at the local convent. Or listening avidly while his father played Flamenco. His ear tuned to the chords and notes. It was clear that he had an aptitude for the stringed instrument right from the beginning.

Growing up during the Romantic era, the young Francisco began his adventurous life running away from home. This independent streak resulted in a series of incidents which were to influence his whole life!

Little did he know on that hot summer day as he escaped the clutches of his nanny, what was to follow. Indeed as he ran, the cicadas calling, dust puffing up from his feet, he chanced to look back (at her maybe), and fell into an irrigation canal. His flight to boyhood freedom stalled. Through luck or fate, his future path was cemented.

Tárregas eyes were injured so badly in the fall that his father decided that Francisco was to become a musician. A career in which you didn’t need your eyes. And it was settled. The entire family was uprooted from Tárregas birth town of  Villarreal, schlepped across the river Mijares to Castellón de la Plana, so that he could attend music classes.

Indeed the first two of his music professors were themselves blind. A life’s journey was set in motion. Francisco Tárrega began to learn the piano and guitar.

When he was ten years old, the famous Spanish concert guitarist Julián Arcas heard Tárrega play and recognising his talent, begged his father to allow him to accompany him to Barcelona, so that he could tutor the boy. His father reluctantly agreed.

In Barcelona, Francisco was set to continue his study of both the piano and the guitar, but it wasn’t long before the unwatched youngster had run away a second time. Loose on the streets of Barcelona. He was soon found playing his little guitar in coffee houses and restaurants, and taken back under the wing of his father.

Despite his father’s great sacrifices to set him straight and on the path of formal piano playing, Francisco’s fingers itched to play the guitar, and three years later, ran away for a third time at the mere age of thirteen, joining a group of Gypsies in Valencia where he improved his flamenco skills and perhaps his life skills too.

“Gypsies” Josep Benlliure Gil Canyamelar, Valencia, 1855 –1937

Nevertheless his dogged old Dad came to find him and dragged him home, only for Tárrega to run a fourth and last time! All for the love of guitar! Back to Valencia where by this time his playing had become proficient enough for him to start earning. For a time, he played with other musicians at local engagements to earn money, but eventually he returned home to help his family, who had found themselves in dire financial straits.

Perhaps Tárrega was feeling responsible for his family, or maybe just finally grown up. Whatever the case, he was able to repay his family’s dedication and worked hard playing the piano and guitar in various villages to aid them. By 1874 and at 22 years of age, his luck changed again.

Francisco entered the Madrid conservatory under the sponsorship of a wealthy merchant named Antonio Canesa who had happened upon his playing by chance at a rural casino in the village of Burriano. He brought along with him a recently purchased guitar, made in Seville by Antonio de Torres. Oddly enough it was the self same guitarist Julián Arcas who had encouraged Torres to pursue making guitars as his full time profession. It seems that the guitar was so well made, and it’s sound so suited Tárrega that he rarely played on any other type. This guitar both inspired his music and influenced his style.

At the conservatory, Tárrega studied composition under Emilio Arrieta who convinced him to focus on guitar and abandon the idea of a career with the piano. Despite the current views (and those of his father) that the guitar was only an instrument to accompany singers, and the piano was most popular throughout Europe, Tárrega did not take much convincing. Playing the guitar was something that he had loved since he had been a small child.

Francisco Tárrega

By the late 1870s Tárrega was set up as a professional music teacher and musician and taught (most famous amongst them) Emilio PujolMiguel Llobet, and Daniel Fortea, thus passing on his knowledge and all the while fine tuning his work through rigorous study and practice. Soon he was composing his own music and touring the country, giving regular performances. Even transcribing important piano works into pieces for guitar.

His frequent concerts resulted in the meeting of his future wife as well as one of his most famous compositions, “Lagrima” or The Teardrop, which was written when he was touring in London, miserable and homesick for Spain. Upon returning to his homeland in 1880, he was married and eventually settled in Barcelona, not too far from where he had grown up.

Under the patronage of wealthy widow, Conxa Martinez, Tárrega mellowed. No longer running to pursue his dreams, he relaxed into perfecting his art. His patronage allowed him and his family use of a house in Barcelona rumoured to be somewhere on c/ Gignas, where he would write the bulk of his most popular works. Later Conxa Martinez took him to Granada, where the guitarist conceived the theme for Recuerdos de la Alhambra. Tárrega continued to perform live, but he preferred to stay in his native country.

A few years before his untimely death, Tárrega made an important change in his playing. He cut his nails. To a classical guitarist playing on gut strings, the use of ones nails to pluck out the notes was all important. Used similarly to a plectrum on steel strings, the nails are used to play on Spanish or Classical nylon stringed guitars. No-one is quite sure of the reason for Tárregas choice and there appear to be various opinions, but the fact remains that this changed the style and more importantly, the sound of his playing forever. Callouses built up on his fingertips and with these he continued to play. Tárrega loved this new sound so much that he enforced nail trimming among all his students.

Sadly despite the earliest recordings of guitar documented in the 1900s, there are no recordings of Francisco Tárrega himself playing. His compositions have survived and indeed his genius continues to live on in the fingertips of guitarists the world over. The great Spanish guitarist is fondly remembered by contemporaries and students alike and his work has earned him tremendous acclaim not only in his homeland but also around the world as one of the most formidable musical champions of all time.


 You can find out more about this great guitarist on the following websites:
A last odd but interesting fact: An excerpt of one of Tarregas pieces has been used as part of a Nokia ringtone. Do you recognise it?

Are you interested in learning some of the pieces composed by Tárrega? Take an online guitar lesson with one of our fantastic and talented Spanish guitar teachers! Follow in Tárrega’s footsteps!

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Introduction to Banjo

Posted on May 12th, 2020 by shineuser

The banjo, a musical instrument of 4, 5, 6 or even 10 strings, is made up of a wooden ring about 35cm in diameter and covered by a patch that can be made of plastic (in its modern style) or leather (in its traditional version) ). Its sound is one of the most unmistakable and characteristic that exists.

The banjo was developed in the United States during the 19th century. Reminiscent of various instruments from Africa, the banjo developed into what we recognise today in the plantations of the American south and across the Caribbean, and even become an emblematic symbol of slavery. Although it was the African-American musicians who explored and played all its rhythmic possibilities, the banjo was created in a blended culture and it quickly became a characteristic instrument of American music.

During the 1800s and the booming plantation era of the Antebellum South, the instrument slowly filtered through the population. It became a widely used instrument in rural America. Grotesque representations of African culture sprang up during what has been labeled the “minstrel” era, where skits and songs performed by white musicians in “black face” popularised banjo playing.  So much so that there was even a “banjo craze” during the 1860s. Many of the white performers creating the minstrels shows were Irish and in turn this is how the banjo also became a characteristic instrument of Irish music. After some time, the banjo lost its “raunchy” associations with the minstrel shows, and the style of playing changed somewhat too.

The banjo has a fascinating history in America, you can read more about it on Wikipedia or online.

In many parts of Africa there are very similar instruments, from their construction to their sound.

The original, or first, version of the banjo has an opening at the rear (openback). In the 20th century, the design of the instrument was renewed with a wooden resonator that serves as a closure. The latter was called the bluegrass banjo, with greater volume and resonance than its first version.

A beautiful traditional banjo musician is Doc Watson playing “The Cuckoo bird”:

Currently, both types are still in force and choosing one or the other depends on the musical style being performed. Also today we can find a great variety of different instruments that were created from the original banjo, varying the length of the neck, the number of strings, and combining it with other instruments.

In 1890 the banjo became the leading musical instrument in traditional American music. In both country music and jazz, the banjo is the characteristic instrument. Even the Charleston and the Foxtrot use this instrument in some special variants.

The modern banjo has a variety of shapes in four or five string versions (also a six-string version, tuned and played just like a guitar!). The banjo is usually played with a quick strum, however it is also possible to find many styles.

If you are interested in how the modern banjo is played and sounds, don’t miss this video of The Dead South doing “In Hell I’ll be in good company”:

Its tuning is with friction pins or gears. Its strings are currently usually metallic creating those typical twanging notes, while those who prefer more melodious or traditional sounds choose nylon or leather strings.

Bill Keith, a five-string banjo player, made one of the greatest contributions to the stylistic development of the instrument. By varying other styles, he created what would later become known as the melodic or Keith style.

Here is a video of Bill Keith playing “Caravan”:

If you are interested in learning to play the banjo you can take classes with excellent teachers.
You can contact us to coordinate a first free trial class!

And if you have some tools at home, you can be encouraged to create your own banjo and experience its sound for yourself.

Here we leave you a link that guides you step by step to do it:


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