Written by Rob Watson 

As a teacher of style of guitar that could be thought of as somewhat ‘niche’, I’ve found myself in the position of educating my students about the history of the classical guitar and its most notable pieces and performers. Nearly everyone has an idea of what “Spanish Guitar’, or even what a nylon string guitar sounds like, even if they don’t ‘consciously’ know it. It could be they heard ‘Spanish Romance’ on TV, a ‘Malaguena’ also on TV or in a movie, or even the Gipsy Kings version of ‘Hotel California.’ Now that you have the ‘sound’ in your ear, now it’s time to explore the style and hear the true masters of classical guitar playing the most important pieces in the genre. We will be exploring the recordings and videos of five classical guitarists: Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams, Manuel Barrueco, and David Russell. 

Guitarist: Andres Segovia
Album: The Art of Segovia 

Andres Segovia (1893-1987) is the root of the modern-era classical guitarist tree. He was the first to popularize the nylon string Spanish guitar as a solo instrument fit for a full concert hall, thus turning the guitar into an instrument on the level of the solo piano.

This album features many of the greatest classical guitar pieces, like “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and Capricho Arabe (F. Tarrega). Segovia’s tone and expressiveness is unmatched, and served as the template for every classical guitarist that followed him. 

Guitarist: Julian Bream
Album: Julian Bream plays Granados and Albeniz

Julian Bream (1933-2020) is, along with John Willams the leader of the next generation of guitarists after Segovia. Bream brought to the table an impeccable sense of form and structure, while never losing the passion or the general parameters of interpretation set by Segovia. A personal favorite, you can never doubt Bream’s commitment or authenticity to what he’s playing. Here Bream expertly plays two of the most important Spanish Composers of the late 19th – 20th century. 

Here’s a video of Bream performing Joaqun Malats (trans. Tarrega) 

Guitarist: John Williams
Album: The Four Lute Suites (JS Bach) 

The other most important guitarist in the generation after Segovia, John Williams (b. 1941 ) was a child prodigy, with his father Len being a well respected guitar teacher in London. Williams more directly rebelled against the playing style of Segovia, opting for a less romantic and more rhythmically precise and driving style.

I rate it as a masterpiece of balancing a more ‘linear’ Bach interpretation along with solid tone and phrasing. This album set me on a course of being primarily interested with playing Bach as opposed to literally any other composer. 

Guitarist: Manuel Barrueco
Villa Lobos:

Guitarist: Manuel Barrueco
Bach Partita #2:

The Cuban virtuoso Manuel Barrueco (b. 1952) is one of the key classical guitarists in the generation after Williams and Bream. He brought a level of perfection and precision to the Classical Guitar which literally had never been seen before. Along with his friend, David Russell, they set the bar higher and brought the guitar closer to the level of perfection seen in the best concert pianists. 

Guitarist: David Russell 
Bach Partita #2:

The Scottish guitarist David Russell (b. 1953) took the classical guitar world by storm in the 1980’s with incredibly clean playing while also maintaining the proper ‘Spanish’ feel, not unlike is friend Barrueco. Of particular note is how well Russell plays Baroque music; its hard not feel like you’re hearing harpsichord with all the expressive qualities of a guitar, no small feat given the incredible technical difficulty.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the music. 

— Rob Watson