Plectrum Guitar

I have an interest in the Plectrum Guitar, which is often associated with jazz but in fact has a much wider repertoire and practice. One could fancifully trace it back to the vihuela penola of 16th-century Spain, or ‘Latin’ and Moorish guitars of the medieval period, but for most people the work of Eddie Lang would be a good starting place. This wonderful website http://www.eddielang.com/el_home.html provides an overview of his work.

The Masters Of The Plectrum Guitar from Mel Bay Publications,

has a wealth of material in it, including some items by Eddie Lang.

Harry Volpe (1904-1995)

The work of Harry Volpe has got my interest of late. An Italian-American, Volpe rose to become one of the leading guitarists of the 1930s and 40s, and teacher to Joe Pass, Sal Salvador, Al Caiola, and many other jazz guitar luminaries. More info HERE. His compositions from the late 1930s reveal classical music traits amongst jazz harmonic twists. Try for instance this very beautiful solo guitar piece from the aforementioned Mel Bay book, the lyrical My Cherished Prelude:

And his Modern Etude (1938):

In a classical music vein:

Midnight Clear. This was the first video I made on the day the Loar guitar arrived.
Unfortunately my recording techniques were not up to scratch, so the sound is weak. If I get time, I’ll do it again.

The video, ”Romantic” at the top of this page is also by Volpe.

Later, Volpe would become more associated with swing guitar, and was famously photographed playing with the great Django Reinhardt:

Mel Bay


Although associated with music publishing, Mel Bay (1913-1997) was a brilliant jazz guitar player and fine arranger. Here is his version of Sweet Lorraine, which I perform in a slightly melancholic way. It is also available in Masters Of The Plectrum Guitar (Mel Bay Publications). The video starts with the aforementioned, Romance, by Harry Volpe. Sweet Lorraine starts at 1’35”.

The pop song, Mighty Lak’ A Rose, was actually written in 1901, but became a hit in the 1940s. Here is Mel Bay’s arrangement:

Carl Kress

Carl Kress was one of the greatest guitarists of the 1940s, and teacher to Joe Pass, and many other notable jazz guitarists. His solo works are wonderful explorations of harmony and melody, uniting jazz and classical aesthetics, and well worth studying by today’s guitarists. There is a little bit about him on this wiki page. He used a tuning based on the tenor banjo, which he played early in his career, notably with the great Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The pieces I play here are in standard tuning, and can all be found in the Mel Bay “Masters Of The Plectrum Guitar” book.

George M. Smith

Here’s the beautiful Estrellita by the Mexican composer, Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-48), arranged by 20th-Century Fox and Paramount house guitarist, George M. Smith.

Al Hendrickson

This is a beautiful guitar solo by Hendrickson, but I recorded it the day after this guitar arrived. I had put flatwound strings on, but they cut the volume in half. I might record it again later.

Plectrum Guitar tutor books – in my possession 

Guitar Tutor in Theory and Practice – Ivor Mairants
Play The Plectrum Guitar – Ivor Mairants
Perfect Picking Technique – Ivor Mairants
Complete Course in Jazz Guitar Volume 1 – Mickey Baker
Complete Course in Jazz Guitar Volume II – Mickey Baker
25 Graded Pieces for Plectrum Guitar – Compiled by Adrian Ingram (see below)
A Modern Method For Guitar, Complete 3 Volumes – William Leavitt
Guitar Method – George Van Eps

Plectrum Guitar

My preference is for an acoustic, non-cutaway archtop, such as the type created by Lloyd Loar (wiki link) for Gibson back in the twenties, such as the L5 (wiki link) . A new company called Loar have set out to recreate this guitar at different price points. I have the current flagship Loar LH-700, and  can’t fault it for its price.

Here is Eddie Lang’s L5

In 1946 Django Reinhardt used an L5 fitted with a DeArmond pickup for his tour with Duke Ellington.

Tutor Book for Plectrum-Style Guitar

If you are interested in this style of guitar playing, you could do a lot worse than get hold of A Modern Method For Guitar by William Leavitt from Berklee Press. Initially in three volumes, you can now purchase all three in one Complete volume. It has no TAB, but teaches you to read standard notation from simple to advanced levels. I believe all guitarists should be equally proficient in reading both TAB and Standard Notation. The harmonic language and techniques used in the book will prepare you well for this style.

UK Plectrum Guitar Examination Syllabus

Trinity College in London have nine levels of examinations in Plectrum Guitar, from Initial Grade to Grade 8. You can download their current syllabus from HERE. The repertoire ranges from jazz and classical items (some from classical guitar books) to pop and rock.

Adrian Ingram, famous jazz guitar player, has compiled a useful book, ‘25 Graded Pieces For Plectrum Guitar‘, with many of the pieces being used for the Trinity-Guildhall exams:

Two pieces by Adrian Ingram from this book:

Here are mp3 files of all the pieces in the book, recorded using my Loar LH-700:

Just a quick reminder that I teach this style of guitar either privately or via Skype. If interested, read this page first.

 For more on the early plectrum guitar, zip along to the Jazz Age Guitar, – a wonderful site by Christopher Billiau

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19 thoughts on “Plectrum Guitar”

    • Anonymous said:

      I was remembering my childhood growing in Johnstown Pa when my older Joe ( Pass ) went to N.Y.to study with Harry Volpe Joe had to be around 13 at the time. Jusr a memory from my youth.

  1. Thanks for this page, really enjoy your posts.

  2. Richard Kress said:

    Mr MacKillop,
    My name is Richard Kress. I am Carl Kress’ son and I teach at Berklee College in Boston, MA. My girl friend Barbara started searching the current “internet status” of Carl and George Barnes.

    Initially, we were driving about New Hampshire listening to “Guitars, Anyone?” an old duo album. Though I listen frequently to Dad’s music and to a CD sent to my mother by Mitzi Mottola, Tony’s wife, some years ago, I decided to listen intently again to these wonderful “beginnings”. . .

    I was not aware of your beautiful work until this day and am now wondering if we might get in touch and talk further.

    Rick Kress (rkress@berklee.edu) 617-747-8413
    Associate Professor
    Berklee College of Music
    Boston, MA 02215

  3. I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the archtop and probably built up a reputation in High School for dropping in to one music shop that had a George Benson archtop guitar just so I could play on it; I’m wondering, do you know if anyone has recorded anything with Benedetto’s Renaissance gut-strung archtops?

    • Apparently that guitar is not for real gut strings, just regular nylon. They used the word gut in the name to hark back to the days of gut strings, a kind of homage. I had to sit through a long boring video about it once, before they revealed that. Quite annoying. They seemed to be of the opinion that gut strings are not available today, but they very much are. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t know of anyone who has recorded it with gut strings. Too bad – I’d like to give it a go!

  4. Hi, Rob…I’m Alexandra Barnes Leh, George Barnes’ daughter, and am a writer-producer in Los Angeles. I’ve recently launched The George Barnes Legacy Collection — http://georgebarneslegacy.com — for which I produced a video featuring one of Carl’s compositions, “Praise Be!” The performance is from their 1963 Town Hall concert album — and the photos were taken by my mother Evelyn, when my dad and Carl played a New York City nightclub in 1962. I just ran into your site and thought you’d appreciate this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceyyCtAQTF0&feature=player_embedded (I notice Carl’s son Rick posted above — not sure he’s seen this, but I’ll make sure he does). All my best, Alexandra

    • Dear Alexandra, I am delighted to hear from you. Your father was an astonishing guitar player – one of the greats. Thanks for the video link, and for the work you are doing in bringing this work to our attention.

      If you can get in touch, please tell him I replied to his invitation to talk further, but have heard nothing from him.

      It is fantastic that you have started a website devoted to your dad’s work. Well done!

      Best wishes,
      Rob

  5. Great page, I have a loar archtop and have been trying different strings, what kind are you using.? I went through all the Mel Bay plectrum books as a teenager and then switched to fingerstyle but your playing is wonderful and it rekindles an interest in that style for me. Thanks

    • Hi Tim. Glad you like these recordings. I can’t remember what I used on the Loar. I’m not very good at choosing strings, I tend to just take the first thing I see in a shop. I eventually sold the Loar, as I wanted to save up for an expensive acoustic archtop. I bought an Eastman, but sold it soon after as it was too bright. The search continues.

      I think the plectrum style has a lot to offer players – some great repertoire there! Get stuck in!

      • Hello Rob,

        Have you found something new in your quest for a good acoustic archtop? I myself can’t find anything on the market but the loar in my budget (Vintage Gibsons or Daniel Slaman guitars are way too pricey :()
        It’s a shame that Eastman doe not have a mid-30’s L5 inspired model in its catalog 🙂

      • Hi Josselin,

        Nothing yet. I tried an Eastman 805CE. Good guitar but not quite what I’m after. One day! The Loar is OK. If it’s in your budget, it’s probably the best choice. Good luck!

      • Indeed, but I’m quite afraid of their QC issues as I can’t test the guitar before buying (in France, the sole option seems to buy on Thomann…)
        So, because I’m ok to spend a little more money, I continue to search for alternatives 🙂

  6. uri ben-gal said:

    Hello,
    Beautiful playing!
    Do you know if the tunes in the Masters of Plectrum Guitar are available on a single CD /
    Thanks.
    Uri Ben-Gal
    Ottawa

  7. In 1962-63 I took lessons from Carl Kress at a music studio in Amityville, NY. It was a perfect time, as I had been learning the instrument for four or five years and Carl was simply a level or three above any of my former teachers. I remember him being on TV (Ed Sullivan? Perry Como?) during the time that I took lessons from him. I also remember that whatever song I wanted to learn, he could play it, and in any key. More than 50 years later that still amazes me.

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