John Williams Interview
on topics of particular relevance and interest to classical guitarists, such as string selection, his known dislike of guitar competitions, his ambivalent relationship with Segovia, the impact of his technical prowess on a generation of young players, his views on guitar pedagogy, and his love of the Bach Chaconne, which many regard as his signature piece, such is the authority he has stamped on it with superlative concert performances and recordings.
John Williams needs no introduction to classical guitarists, or indeed fine music lovers the world over; since his debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1958, he has attained enormous popularity with his voluminous recordings in both the classical repertoire and with his rock group, Sky. John was in Australia touring with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for performances of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Concerto and Nourlangie, a new work for guitar, strings and percussion by Peter Sculthorpe. During this visit, Austin Prichard-Levy talked at length to John on topics of particular relevance and interest to classical guitarists, such as string selection, his known dislike of guitar competitions, his ambivalent relationship with Segovia, the impact of his technical prowess on a generation of young players, his views on guitar pedagogy, and his love of the Bach Chaconne, which many regard as his signature piece, such is the authority he has stamped on it with superlative concert performances and recordings.
AP-L: John, to begin with a prosaic, nonetheless very interesting question for a lot of guitarists, what strings do you currently use on your Smallman?
JW: At the moment, I’m using D’Addario trebles and basses, although the top string is a little heavier than the standard top string they make – I got them to thicken it up a bit. The biggest problem I find is getting the basses right; I often find that with Augustine Reds, for example, the 5th string is a little bit thin, whereas the D’Addario has more body without the brittleness that comes from going up to a higher tension string. Another problem is squeaks – no matter how you rationalize it, they’re always there although they can be minimized by both the player and the string manufacturer. I like D’Addario’s polished and semi-polished strings, although I haven’t tried the ones put out by LaBella. The polished string is a flat wound string, but the secret is in the winding and there seems to be a number of new approaches around to this.
A-P-L: What is your opinion of guitar competitions? Do you think they are good for developing young players, and do you support them?
JW: No, basically I don’t like or approve of competitions on any instrument. I don’t think music can be evaluated like a race – I know that’s an obvious thing to say and that there are many ifs and buts involved, because they do help some artists and concentrate the public’s attention on music. But I particularly don’t like the way many guitar competitions are run, the confusing way points are awarded differently in each round of a competition, and especially the over-exploitation of the “Big Winner” and the competitive values that puts on players and the activity of guitar playing itself. Winning is a matter of taste in most cases, and there are often many other equally deserving competitors other than just the First Prize recipient. I feel it would be fairer to have a select group of finalists, each of whom receives the same award and status.
I have served on juries in the past, but these days I refuse to take part, and I feel it is important to take that stand otherwise your reservations have no meaning. Having said all that, I know it happens anyway and sometimes there is sponsorship involved which does help the general public interest and support. But it still doesn’t need to be a cut and dried thing, where each finalist is ranked as precisely as 1,2,3. I think it is those competitive values that are wrong, not the celebration of excellence in music as such. I have talked about the idea of setting up a competition where this other approach is used, but nothing definite has emerged from it yet; it may take some time to develop.
AP-L: So would you support a competition here in Australia if it were organized along the lines you have indicated rather than the usual prize system?
JW: (laughs) Well, that’s like when a politician gets asked whether they will support something if x,y and z happens. Let’s wait and see if it occurs first!
AP-L:Julian Bream has remarked in A Life on the Road that he was glad he came onto the guitar scene in the 1950’s because it gave him the time to develop a proper musical personality without the pressure to achieve quickly that exists today. Do you feel the same way? Would you feel as confident starting out today as you might have been in the late 50’s and early 60’s?
JW: I don’t remember that from his book, but it’s a very good point. There’s no doubt that it is true, and Julian has achieved that development magnificently, and I think coming somewhat in his footsteps in England also made it a little easier for me. I suppose both of us have found it less pressured in the UK by being the leading players there and while Julian and I have different attitudes about some things, we are close friends and both of us feel the same about allowing musical abilities to develop at their own pace; to some extent that’s a another justification for expressing reservations about competitions.
AP-L: To many players, you are an icon of the guitar, due to the power of your technique and playing style. Has it ever bothered you that a generation of young players have sought merely to emulate your technical prowess and perhaps have neglected discovering their own musical identity in the process?
JW: Well, if it’s like that, then it’s a pity! I know that that is the case to a point, but if one doesn’t develop one’s own musical personality, that’s a major problem facing any player. I guess I have been lucky to an extent, because having a well formed technique from an early age I haven’t really had to think too hard about it, but it has always been at the service of musical goals rather than an end in itself for me, and it should be that way with all musicians. I suppose it is part of the history of the guitar that guitarists have been obsessed both with technique and also the technical aspects of the instrument.
I often notice students preoccupied with fingerings and not notes, much less sounds, and yet at the same time finding it difficult to immediately locate C sharp on the 4th string, say. Of course, if students do see me as Mr. Technique, then that can also reflect negatively on me too, because Mr. Technique isn’t usually also Mr. Music! But in the last five years or six years, there has been a very great acceleration in the awareness of some very basic musical facts by guitarists, and that’s a topic I would like to talk more about because so much is changing for the better.
Another thing I’ve noticed in master classes, is that players will come on and play the most difficult solo works from memory, and yet if you give them a part to play in one of the easier Haydn String Quartets, as I often do, they’re lost in no time, and have a very poor sense of ensemble or timing. Guitarists are among the worst sight-readers I’ve come across. Julian Bream and I are both dead average sight-readers by orchestral standards, but among guitarists, we are outstanding! This is an area of the guitar that has been poorly taught up until recently.
AP-L: That leads almost directly to my next question – in your opinion, is the guitar an intrinsically harder instrument to play than the major classical instruments, the piano and violin, given that there is a relative shortage of established virtuosos?
JW: The answer is no, on two counts. No instrument is more difficult than another, because we have to establish by what standards we are making the judgment. Even if we take all three instruments playing the same piece, say the Bach G Minor fiddle fugue, it won’t help because if we compare it to the Liszt B Minor Piano Sonata, is it more or less difficult? Obviously, on the guitar the Liszt is going to be impossible, so we have to look at the total repertoire available to each instrument. Yet a 6 month old baby could probably hammer out a middle C on a piano whereas it couldn’t do that on a guitar until it was a few years old, but that doesn’t make it a candidate to play Chopin and Liszt!
The second point, regarding a true comparison involving note preparation, is also no. In basic respects, note preparation on the guitar is no harder than the fiddle, maybe even easier, but there may be certain aspects that are harder playing certain types of music. Personally, I don’t think that fingering or sight-reading is any harder on the guitar than on the violin. Some people don’t find holding down notes on the guitar very difficult at all, because they have great natural strength in their hands.
A-P-L: You obviously are one of those people…
JW: Funnily enough, I’m not! But that may be because I don’t practise a lot. Contrary to popular belief, I do practise, but not in vast amounts. If I practised five hours a day, I’d have stronger hands, but I don’t. Obviously some chord shapes are difficult to get because of the position and angle on the neck, but learning the first scale on the violin is also very awkward to do. Frankly, I think it’s a big cop-out on the part of guitarists; deliberate or not, its still a cop-out. So in summary, guitarists are bad technicians, bad sight-readers, bad at playing ensemble, bad listeners and don’t know their instrument as well as they should.
These things are all changing, as I have indicated, but still apply regarding sight-reading, as any student at a music college knows. I have been giving master classes in ensemble at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and the Royal College of Music in London for just that reason. It’s the history of the instrument that has given us this awful legacy, but we are learning from it and we are changing it. The guitar, in my opinion, is also becoming a more acceptable concert instrument because we are making the change.
Up till now, those works which allow the guitar to play in a chamber ensemble, such as the Bocherini Quintet, are a relative rarity and always make allowances for the guitar. As it is, a guitar student will often spend six months just learning the guitar part in order to play it at the end of year recital, which is ridiculous! The whole point of chamber music is its accessibility, and any student string player would be able to sight-read a dozen Mozart or Haydn Quartets before deciding which one to learn.
Here in Australia and elsewhere, as I have indicated, this is changing, particularly in Melbourne with Jochen Schubert, and Tim Kain in Canberra and previously in Manchester, as well as Trinity College and Paco Pena’s summer school in Spain. The answer at all levels is quite simple, irrespective of the standard, is to use existing chamber ensemble for other instruments from the enormous catalogue of music available; for example, the renaissance consort repertoire, the Terpsichore dances, the Mozart and Haydn Quartets, all in single line form. Most of the parts are playable directly, except perhaps for the viola clef, but even that is no great job to transcribe. In the cello part, it isn’t very often that you have to play its lowest note, C, but that isn’t a real problem.
I’m not suggesting that we should start hearing Mozart Quartets for four guitars at the Opera House, but this music is invaluable in developing all the skills I have been talking about. Another thing is that it also helps to widen the guitarist’s musical horizons. Fernando Sor’s music is pleasant enough, and Carulli’s, but if you play even an early Haydn Quartet, brother, you know you’re playing great music! Most of guitarists I meet who play in competitions still belong to the older school of guitar playing where ensemble work is rare, but a couple of the young ones, especially from Germany, are very good all-round musicians.
AP-L: What do you think about the problems of tone production for guitarists?
JW: I think it’s an extension of what we’ve just been talking about because one of the effects of having a tradition of solo repertoire, which is often music which is difficult to play, is that more emphasis is often put by a teacher on getting through the notes rather than playing the real substance of each note, and that’s a reason why we don’t concentrate continually from the beginning on tone production. By Grade 4, 5 and 6, for example, you’ve got Villa Lobos Preludes, which are much too difficult for those levels, but we’re lumbered with that problem.
Take a major third on the top strings with a bass accompaniment, the type of thing you’ll find in any simple guitar piece by Giuliani. If you hear a guitarist play it, it will sound fairly dull by comparison with how a string trio would play the same set of notes, where there would be much consideration of the phrasing and tone variation by each player. But because the guitarist finds such a thing superficially very easy to play, very often their approach to tone production is also superficial, with little or no consideration given to voice matching and tonal contrasts, even though the guitar has special difficulties because each of the three top strings has a quite distinct sound, so it’s both a blessing and a curse.
AP-L: You have an enviable reputation as a very powerful player, one capable of getting the maximum volume from an instrument – what are your thoughts on volume as opposed to tone?
JW: Yes, it’s understandable that guitarists generally have an obsession with volume, because the guitar is a quiet instrument, but I think that many guitarists confuse loudness with fullness; they should seek a focus in their sound rather than simply trying to fill a room – the thing about fullness of sound is that it also louder because of the extra body on the note. It’s the range of dynamics and tone in music that make it interesting to the ear, not volume per se. One thing that I loved about one of my two old Fleta guitars, was the ability it gave one to express that wide range of sound. I’ve always had strong nails, so that has helped too, but the reality is that the dynamic range that the guitar has is much less than the range, which actually carries in a concert hall.
AP-L: Does this explain your use of amplification, despite your obvious ability to produce a full, strong sound?
JW: I feel that subtle amplification overcomes most of these problems, but it seems ironic that many makers are now aiming directly at producing much louder instruments. I feel that the wide range of options available today for amplifying the guitar means that you can focus on the warm, intimate sounds of the guitar even in a large auditorium. The end result will be musically much more satisfying than trying just to produce a large, possibly unmusical, sound output, even if it is totally natural.
I know that to some critics any form of amplification is musical heresy, but I think that we have to go one step further. The guitar played in a large hall is not heard at its loveliest for most people in that hall; ideally, the guitar should not be played in a large hall if we want to experience the full range of its tone, because it doesn’t sound the same at a distance of 20 meters or more. This is because it’s a partly percussive instrument, and the percussive aspects carry more than its other dynamic and tonal qualities, so what we’re hearing is not really a true guitar sound. So it’s not whether you can hear a guitar at the back of the Sydney Opera House, but what you hear that counts. I find that amplification helps in that regard, but obviously it has to be well done.
AP-L: You made a switch some years ago to Greg Smallman’s guitars. Can you tell us about that and your reasons for it, because I think it shocked a lot of people that you gave up playing Fletas after so long?
JW: I first met Greg when he was still making guitars with Pete Biffen ten or twelve years ago, and they showed me a couple of their guitars which were okay but not great. I played my Fleta for them, and showed them the sort of sound I was getting from it. Later, Greg got in contact again and said he wanted to come and have another chat about guitars. In the course of that conversation, Greg told me that he loved the sound of the Fleta, but wanted to know what aspects of its sound I would like to improve on, assuming that were possible. I thought that was a great attitude, because it wasn’t just some smart arse trying to say, “Look, here’s a great guitar, try it. Often I have found that after trying out a new guitar at the request of a maker, you give them your opinion, pointing out weak spots as well as good things, and they just start arguing with you, trying to persuade you that it really is a better guitar than it is!
Greg impressed me from the start because he was always willing to listen. I told him that I liked the resonance of his instruments, because I sometimes found the Fletas a little too percussive, especially on the top string. Soon after that I came back for a tour with SKY, and Greg came to the hotel to see Kevin Peek and I with two guitars. At that stage, Greg didn’t even presume that I might give up playing the Fleta, so he just wanted to get some comments. Kevin Peek loved one of the guitars, and has still got it. The other guitar was one Greg had fashioned out of some old pieces of wood that he had had lying around, and I particularly liked that guitar and ended up doing a couple of recordings on it; it had a rather stripy pattern in the soundboard. And that’s basically where our association started in earnest.
AP-L: Was Greg Smallman using the carbon fiber bracing then?
JW: No, just the grid strutting, but no carbon fiber at that stage. I feel that the loudness of Greg’s guitars is a by-product of their musical qualities rather than an end in itself. One of the main changes in the sound that Greg achieved which is an improvement on the Fleta, is that the sound doesn’t change as the volume of the sound increases or decreases. The Fleta always tended to emphasize a more percussive sound at higher volumes, which is a deficiency in the traditional design of the guitar generally, and it is fundamentally an unmusical thing. Of course all instrumental sounds change somewhat as they increase in volume, but with the guitar it is inordinate, like hearing distortion as you turn up the hi-fi. The bottom line is that as you drive the conventional guitar harder, say in the Bach Chaconne or Albeniz, you’re getting a lot more plonk and thwack, and a lot less truly musical sound.
I should say that I’ve seen many other guitars by good makers which were lovely instruments, but none of them solved this problem the way Greg has, and for me as a soloist and ensemble performer that has been a crucial consideration. I’ve had a number of guitars from Greg and the latest was sent to me last November, which is a great instrument. The thing about Greg, and I’m sure that I’m not doing him any disservice in saying this, is that he is always experimenting and learning further, such as getting to know the properties of woods with different weights. But what’s important is that he knows what he’s doing with it all and why he’s doing it.
I’ve also noticed that Greg has been very open about the lattice bracing and has given seminars on it; he’s not just keeping all the knowledge to himself, which I think is admirable, because guitars don’t last like a violin will. So the benefits of his work will be felt very widely in the end, which is great. I know some guitar makers who are incredibly secretive, but thankfully Greg is not one of them, and I think that’s reflected in his very enquiring mind, an openness and honesty about his successes and failure, and willingness to adapt and change.
Like any creative person, Greg sometimes has doubts about his latest guitars; for example, when I saw him in Brisbane last year, he showed me two new guitars, and we compared them to mine and Julian Byzantine’s. Greg felt that perhaps the sound of the new ones was a little too dark, but I think that’s a matter of taste, because Ben Verdery’s in New York is also like that, and he loves it. He’s been showing it around the guitar scene in the States and getting a very enthusiastic response to it, and finds it blends very well with his wife’s flute playing, whom he performs duets with.
As you know, Julian Bream and I have quite different musical personalities and therefore also taste in guitars, but he was enormously impressed by Greg’s guitars, especially the sustain and dynamic range, and the fact that they respond so well to even the faintest touch. I don’t think that this means we’ll be seeing Julian playing one next week in concert, but I know he was very taken with them.
AP-L: A lot of people feel that the Bach Chaconne has been almost a signature piece of yours over the years. How do you view it?
JW: Funnily enough, I do feel it very much as a guitar piece rather than just a piece that works well on the guitar. Apart from the fact that it is a tour de force of the virtuoso variation style, and therefore a logical choice for a soloist, I very much feel its Iberian origins, both as a dance form and its Spanish style harmonies, and that’s certainly very guitaristic in a sense. It’s also the only one of its kind that Bach wrote – the Goldberg Variations were a set of variations on a tune, whereas the Chaconne is kind of an extended 4 bar baroque blues! So in that sense, it has a fascinating and magnificent mixture of folk music and high art, and the popular element in it strengthens the piece rather than trivializes it.
Also, although there are difficult sections in it, there are more difficult guitar pieces around. It’s a rewarding piece technically, because difficult parts sound like they’re worth it, which is not always the case with guitar music. From a musical point of view, it’s also very colorful because it doesn’t have the rigid formality of separate dance movements that you find in the normal baroque suite, but rather it moves along with a great variety in its melodic and rhythmic aspects, so its always a very enjoyable piece to play. I would cheerfully pick up the Chaconne almost any day of the week whether I’d practiced or not, because even if it wasn’t particularly clean, it would always sound good, and I’d never have a problem in deciding to include it in a concert program at the last minute, even if I haven’t played it in a while.
AP-L: Of all the prolific recordings you’ve done through your career, do you have any favorite albums you’ve recorded?
JW: Well, when it comes it solo records, not unnaturally I usually feel best about the ones I’ve done most recently, like the baroque album and the “Spirit of the Guitar.” That doesn’t mean I hate what 1 did in the sixties with Albeniz, but I feel I have done it better now on the Smallman; I will be re-recording more Spanish music in a couple more years like Granados’ Valses Poeticos. In some ways, the older records I feel fondest of are the collaborative efforts, like the Theodorakis with Maria Farandouri and the albums with Cleo Laine. Also, I still like the “Streets of London,” for sentimental reasons.
AP-L: Guitarists generally talk about their “influences”, the other guitarists or musicians who helped to shape their sound and style. Who were your main influences in that respect, aside from Segovia?
JW: I have always loved fiddle playing, so if anything I think 1 have been more influenced in some ways by violinists like Alan Loveday who was at the Royal College with me in the late 1950’s, especially in the baroque style of playing. I also learned a hell of a lot from Rafael Puyana, the harpsichordist, for things like Scarlatti, Bach and French music. Itzak Perlman is my favorite fiddle player, and I’ve done a record with him as well.
One thing I feel strongly is that it is the way someone plays is more important than whether it is “authentic” – for example, if you hear Heifetz or PerIman playing Bach, it could be argued that they are not playing in true baroque style, but their playing is far more enjoyable to listen to than a historically correct performance that is as dry as a bone. I think in regard to Baroque music it would be hard not to be impressed and influenced by some of the electrifying performances of baroque music that are around today, and the interpretation of baroque ornamentation has also advanced greatly compared to the boring stuff that was common years ago.
AP-L: Reading between the lines of your interview in George Clinton’s book on Segovia some years ago, there seemed to be an edge of tension between you and Segovia. Could you enlighten us on that?
JW: Yes, there always was really, and it has come out more as years have passed and I’ve felt a little more confident in talking about it. To be honest, I feel it has become necessary for me to become open about what my reservations with Segovia were. It’s all very well hiding behind respectful statements, but there was a personal gap between us that began in the mid-1950’s. Segovia had organized, or was involved in organizing, a guitar competition in Switzerland and asked me to compete in it. At the time, I would have been the logical winner, so it was an attractive idea. But my father was against it, partly because I was still at school and also because he felt I was still too young. My mother, however, supported the idea of my entering, so in the end it was really left to me to make the decision. As it turned out, 1 decided not to enter, and very soon after received an extremely angry phone call from Segovia, in which he abused me roundly in Spanish and called me all sorts of names of names.
Anyway, we all got over that one, but in the years that followed there always seemed to be an edge of tension when he was present for Summer School in Siena. Mostly, the players there like Alirio Diaz and myself would teach each other, because Segovia wasn’t always there a great deal, but when he did come, it often felt strained. As I’ve said on other occasions previously, he taught mainly by example – four bars here, four bars there, in which you were meant to imitate him – and I suppose that my training at the Royal College was giving me a more structured and structural approach to learning music, so it was sometimes hard to adapt to his very individual teaching style.
Having said all that, of course there were many positive aspects to Segovia and his influence on me as a guitarist and as a person. You couldn’t help being influenced by him and his sound when you were as close to it as I was. And he was extremely generous and usually very sweet tempered most of the time. But it would be wrong, especially now that he is gone, to assume that there were never any difficult moments between us, because occasionally there were, especially musically. As time passed, I found my interpretive approach becoming more direct, more linear, whereas Segovia’s was often shaped by the beautiful resonant qualities of his Hauser, which didn’t suit either my personality or musical inclinations in either solo or chamber music. Also, Segovia emerged during the age of the other great soloists like Kreisler and Heifetz, and some would argue that their period sound is dated, and it may be, but you can’t say its wrong, just different. But you can’t change the fact that it all began with Segovia and his sound. We wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for him.