Guitars in England

 

We have been generously loaned a guitar for practicing while we are here in the UK, but didn’t realize that it would be a fine handmade instrument, carefully crafted from local woods. The luthier, Les Backshall, has built forty guitars in the last decade or so and is now making ukeleles for his grandchildren (lucky kids!).

The top of this guitar is European Spruce, common in modern guitars as well as earlier instruments such as lutes and vihuelas. However, unlike most classical guitars which have backs and sides made of Rosewood (either Indian or Brazilian), the backs and sides of this guitar are made of Yew (taxus baccata). This yew is a tree that figures importantly in English history. Yew needles and seeds are also toxic to humans which has led to many references to it in mythology (think Druids – this is England!).

 

The Yew tree is indigenous to England. A slow growing conifer, it has a beautiful, distinctive grain and bright sound. It is perhaps similar to Maple, which is what one usually finds on the backs and sides of early nineteenth-century guitars, including ours. We came across a very old Yew at the Oxford Botanical Garden on a visit there last week.

Yew was a much favored wood for the making of longbows and lutes. It conjures images of King Arthur and traveling bards. As we’ve wandered castle ruins and cathedrals these past few weeks, adventure tales of Medieval England come to mind.

 

Old Technology to the Rescue!

UPDATE (January 2020): Using an archery arm guard worked for a while, but then we noticed a good bit of noise from the guard rubbing against the guitar. It didn’t seem to matter how much we padded it, it made a creaking sound which was unacceptable. As it turns out, someone else had thought of this and made an arm guard that does not make noise: we found the Luva Arm Guard for Guitarists [Armauflage fur Gitarristen] to be a perfect solution. It is more expensive than the archery arm guard (about $35 plus shipping), but works well. We recommend it. You might consider ordering a size smaller  if you intend to wear it under your shirt sleeves, otherwise it can fit over a shirt with long sleeves. It is made in Brazil by Matepis Produtos Musicais (email matepis@matepis.com.br) or order from Switzerland: guitarwebshop.com/LUVA-Unterarmauflage-fuer-Gitarristen which was a little less expensive.

ORIGINAL POST (2019): The problem is that pressing the right forearm into the edge of the guitar can cause injury and exacerbate repetitive overuse of the forearm muscles.  In answer to this problem there have been a couple different products created and marketed.  They each have their own limitations.  These products also have an eye to protecting the guitar’s finish.  I have rediscovered a new use for an older product that is readily available, cheaper than the other options, provides superior protection for the arm, and also can protect the guitar’s finish.

One of the devices marketed to deal with this problem is the guitar arm rest.  Some guitars even have them built on.  It provides a rounded surface to rest the arm against rather than the sharp edge of the instrument. While I will admit that this is an improvement, it still means that you will be putting pressure on your forearm in the same vulnerable, possibly already injured, spot.  You will be putting that pressure on a rounded ½ inch edge rather than a pointy edge.  These items seem to affix to the guitar using either suction cups or a screw/grip mechanism.  I have never had good luck with suction cups-they always come loose.  The screw/grip mechanism on the one I looked at could not accommodate a guitar less than 3 ½ inches deep.  Because I play little 19th-century guitars, that would not work.

The other device I have seen is a padded sleeve to cushion your arm from the edge of the guitar.  Again, while that is an improvement, it merely cushions the pressure a bit.  One will still be putting pressure, though somewhat more diffusely, against the same vulnerable, possibly injured, area of the forearm.

I was sharing my thoughts on the shortcomings of these devices with my wife, Tamara.  I told her that what I wanted was something on my forearm with boning to spread the pressure over a much greater area, rather than just have it against the same spot, albeit more diffusely.  (Boning is the technique of sewing a series of stiff rods into a garment to provide support or stiffness.  Historically, the rod was a piece of whale bone, but it could be metal or plastic as well.) She asked why I didn’t just use my old archery forearm guard?  It has boning and you can wear it under your long sleeve shirt.  This was a great idea, I thought.  I dug out my old arm guard, put it on, pulled the long sleeve shirt over it, and started to play.

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The difference was immediately obvious.  The boning distributes the pressure over a much greater area, reducing injury.  Whereas a sleeve or arm rest would essentially distribute the pressure over an area ½ inch by the width of one’s arm, the boning distributes the pressure over a rectangle that is 2 ½ inches by 6 ½ inches, and runs the length of one’s forearm.  This result in a huge pressure reduction on the forearm.  By having the sleeve of your shirt over it, the top of the guitar is also protected from the guard. Another advantage to the use of a boned archery arm guard is that they are readily available and cheap.  The hunting outfitter Cabelas has them for under $9.00 and they are available in black. Here is a link: https://www.cabelas.com/product/hunting/archery/releases-release-aids/arm-guards-finger-tabs-gloves/pc/104791680/c/104693580/sc/104529780/i/103864680/omp-strap-arm-gurad/2180762.uts?slotId=10.  Be sure to get one with boning, many do not have it and, unfortunately, the product descriptions do not mention boning as present or absent in the design.  You have to look at the picture to see if it is boned like the one pictured in this post or on the included link.

As a guitarist who loves music and instruments that have not changed essentially in a couple hundred years, I find it congruous that the old technology of the boned archery arm guard can be re-purposed to relieve a problem of which we’re now becoming aware.  I also find it heartening that this old solution is readily available for a fraction of the cost of the newer devices. I make no claim of being the first to think of this.  I have just come upon it recently, seen good possibilities, and have tried to spread the word.  Good luck.

Recent Musica Antiqua concert included the Serenade pour Guitarre, Flute, et Cor, Op. 3 by Christian Dickhut (fl. 1812).

2019 Musica Antiqua

Dickhut Serenade was played by Tamara Caulkins (guitar, second from left), Hal Ott (flute, third from left), Jeff Snedeker (horn, furthest right).

Neil Caulkins (guitarist) on far left played Fantaisie by Carulli with Hal Ott (flute), and Trois Nocturnes for cello and guitar by Bürgmuller with John Michel (cello).

Neil and Tamara also played the Allegro Moderato, Op. 21 by Benigne Henry for two guitars.

Photo taken at Central Washington University, Music building.

MUSICA ANTIQUA CONCERT January 11, 2019 at 7:00 pm in the CWU Music Department Recital Hall in Ellensburg, WA, and January 12, 2019 at 7:00 pm in the Fire On Main gallery in Soap Lake, WA.

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An evening of early 19th-century chamber music including the guitar.  Neil and Tamara Caulkins will be joined by Hal Ott (flute), Jeff Snedeker (horn), and John Michel (cello) for performances of works by Henry, Dickhut, Burgmuller, and Carulli. Admission to the Ellensburg performance is free, and to the performance in Soap Lake is by donation.

Caulkins Guitar Duo to Perform Nineteenth-Century Guitar Duets as part of NW Guitar Festival, April 6th.

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Tamara and Neil will perform the following program on period instruments on April 6th, in Spokane WA as part of the NW Guitar Festival.  For more information, go to https://northwestguitarfestival.org/.

Tamara & Neil Caulkins

19th Century Classical Guitar Duets

 

Allegro Moderato, Op. 21                               (Benigne) Henry (fl. 1818)

Andantino

Polaca

 

Duet # Three, Op. 34                                         Antoine de Lhoyer (1768-1852)

            Allegreto Moderato

            Andante Sostenuto

            Rondo Allegro

 

Caprice                                                                A.H. Varlet (fl. 1821)

 

Mr. and Mrs. Caulkins’ playing has been described as “altogether exciting!” (by Fanfare, New Jersey), “a striking debut album” (by Guitar Review, New York), and as A well-matched team(by Guitar International, Wiltshire, England). Their scholarly publications have been published in the US, England, Japan, and Germany. They studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid, Spain and hold Master of Music degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The duo has commissioned several new works for two guitars including Three Cherokee Legends by Sarah Pierce, Kootenai East, Op. 56 by Michael E. Young, Pentamerisms by Michael Daugherty, and Water Leaves by Bruce Reiprich.

They are currently bringing the nineteenth-century repertoire to life through research in archival sources and a study of historically informed performance practices. Neil plays a replica, built by Scot Tremblay, of a seven string guitar made in Mirecourt, France in 1840, and Tamara plays an original anonymous French instrument from about 1825.