Jason Vieaux Picks Out a New Guitar At the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus — a gothic cathedral in Cleveland — classical guitarist Jason Vieaux recently chose a new guitar. It's a crash course in how a musician selects an instrument.
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Jason Vieaux Picks Out a New Guitar

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Jason Vieaux Picks Out a New Guitar

Jason Vieaux Picks Out a New Guitar

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Just about every four years, classical guitarist Jason Vieaux starts a quest for a new instrument. We decided to join him on that quest to launch our new series, Musicians At Work. So for the next 15 minutes or so, you're going to find out how one musician selects the tool of his trade.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

ELLIOTT: We met Jason Vieaux at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, a gothic cathedral in Cleveland where Vieaux makes most of his recordings. He's here to do a little comparison between the guitar he's been playing, which we'll call guitar A, and another one that has captured his ear.

Mr. JASON VIEAUX (Classical Guitarist): The one I have right now right here is a new one. We'll call it guitar B, I suppose. And I was really interested in this guitar because the particular design has two tops, essentially, a spruce top, which I prefer, I prefer spruce-top guitars to cedar. You know, there's a greater clarity and it's a more interesting sound to me. But cedar, you know, is power. You get a lot of power with a good cedar guitar, so this has both. It's some kind of, you know, crazy hybrid.

ELLIOTT: So tell me a little bit about the relationship that you as a musician have with your instrument.

Mr. VIEAUX: It's more of a practical one. I mean I don't personalize them or anything. I'm off, I'm usually frustrated by them if anything, like trying to get them to do what I want to do. You know, you hit these walls where you ask it to do something and it doesn't, and, you know, it just sort of says I don't do that, you know.

ELLIOTT: For example?

Mr. VIEAUX: Well, the volume thing is one thing often, but also a color pallet is very, very important to me.

ELLIOTT: Can you illustrate for me what you're talking about with the color on this guitar?

Mr. VIEAUX: Sure.

(Soundbite of guitar strumming)

Mr. VIEAUX: Well, a good, let me see, a good example I can use is a Ponce(ph) sonata.

(Soundbite of guitar strumming)

Mr. VIEAUX: The first movement of Fonatina Meridional(ph), for example, a compo(ph). Your first section will have two themes in it, typically, in sonata form. So the first one...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VIEAUX: So I want that to sound like it has energy, you know, and so I like having, you know, like this color...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VIEAUX: I mean, you're gonna use articulation, like short notes and stuff like that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VIEAUX: But then the second theme, the one that contrasts with it, you know, is, it sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VIEAUX: So you see where I'm playing it with my right hand, the part along the string where I strike is what produces different colors, and some guitars respond better to that, and then some don't, and the ones that don't I really don't have much time for.

ELLIOTT: So it sounds like you're ready to find this new guitar and see if you like it.

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah, see if it's, I mean I already like it. But see, sometimes what the guitar gives you, the player, back can be often different from what is actually happening, you know, 10, 20, 30 rows away, so it's important to me that it's the guitar that sounds best, you know, at least in my hands, for the audience.

ELLIOTT: So you're here today in this church. Tell me exactly what you're gonna do to put this one through the test.

Mr. VIEAUX: Okay. Well, we're gonna, I brought, you know, a colleague, Robert Gruca, along with me. He's a concert guitarist as well. And you wanna hear a, you know, a good player, a really strong concert guitarist play these instruments, too, because that's the only way you get a chance to really hear, you know, what it can do. He and I have each prepared, like, a few snippets of pieces, and you wanna play something quickly and right away pick up the next guitar so you get the comparison, you know, side-by-side. So...

ELLIOTT: So you're gonna have guitar A and guitar B...

Mr. VIEAUX: I've got 'em on either side of me.

ELLIOTT: ...he's gonna sit in your chair...

Mr. VIEAUX: Uh huh.

ELLIOTT: ...and he's gonna play each of 'em, and you're gonna stand out in the pews and listen?

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah. I'll walk around. I'll sit in the center. I'll sit far away. I'll sit close. I'll sit to the side, and then I'm gonna do the same. You know, just, I'm gonna do the same because we're gonna achieve two things here by even recording the process so that for, you know, just, we can hear how the guitar record in front of a microphone and compare it to the guitar I was playing before and made recordings on before.

ELLIOTT: And this is where you record?

Mr. VIEAUX: And this is where I record, so there's no better place to do it.

ELLIOTT: Bob Gruca takes a seat at the front of the church, between the two guitars. Jason Vieaux steps back into the pews, along with his record producer, Alan Bise.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah, then switch. Now he'll switch to, let's see. He just played guitar A, now he's gonna play the same Schubert example on guitar B.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Vieaux and Bise compare first impressions.

Mr. VIEAUX: Guitar A does not suffer, you know, as much as I thought it might at this distance. You know, I thought B was gonna, like, clobber it.

Mr. ALAN BISE (Vieaux's Producer): But what I hear though is, B, the new guitar, is much more effortless sounding.

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah.

Mr. BISE: It gets out into the hall with a certain amount of richness and ease. Where guitar A feels somewhat forced in the sound to get out here. It's beautiful, it's a beautiful sound.

Mr. VIEAUX: It's a bit clearer though, don't you...

Mr. BISE: It's a bit clearer. Yeah, guitar B, because of the richness in the depth and the sound, is a little muddier in the lower mid-range area than guitar A. It's a trade-off.

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah, and there's always a trade-off.

Mr. BISE: I was gonna ask if Bob has something with more of a forte in it.

Mr. VIEAUX: Oh, I know which one. Play the rha-da-da-diddle-da-daddle-duh-rha-da-da-rha-da-da in the Rodrigo Invocation And Dance. That's got some big, like, we wanna hear a big six string chord on it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Vieaux was introduced to this new guitar by Armin Kelly, one of the major classical guitar dealers in the country. He's based in Cleveland, too. So Vieaux gets an opportunity to try out a lot of guitars.

Mr. VIEAUX: But Amin also knows my tastes and what I'm looking for, 'cause, you know, when you have somebody that you purchase your instruments from, you know, regularly, you know, you say things, you know, you kind of vent your frustrations about it. It doesn't do that, I'm looking for this, you know, why can't we have this? You know, you try to imagine the things that you want so when he gets something in from one of these luthiers that, you know, he feels I would be really interested in, he calls me up, and that's just what he did with this. He's like, you gotta try this guitar.

Mr. ARMIN KELLY (Classical Guitar Dealer): As I recall, I called you and you were leaving the next day or two days later so it was a real sort of race to get this guitar to you.

Mr. BISE: Because you had other people interested in it?

Mr. KELLY: I had other people interested in it, sort of knocking down the door trying to get to this guitar. So actually you came and visited me, I was at a guitar convention, and visited me about twelve o'clock at night and played until about three o'clock in my hotel room. He really got quite silly that night, in his enthusiasm. It will do this? And my goodness, look at this, it will do this and it will even do this.

Mr. VIEAUX: And at that point, I've gotta protect what's mine.

ELLIOTT: So what are you listening for that will tell you you're ready to go to guitar B, for either performance or recording?

Mr. VIEAUX: Well, the clarity between voices, like does it sound muddy or can you really hear the two voices independently of each other? So that thing. But we are looking for dynamic range. Can I play softly and yet still very clear? And then how loud can we get it without rattling the bass strings, you know?

(Soundbite of guitar chord)

Mr. VIEAUX: That's an example of like overplaying the instrument. You know, I like to push it. I probably push too much, I probably ask too much of the upper dynamic range, you know, so I'm always testing that to see how far it will go.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think you ask too much?

Mr. VIEAUX: Well, it's a guitar and sometimes I want to make it sound like a cello.

ELLIOTT: Next, Jason Vieaux takes the test chair himself and picks up trusty guitar A. He plays a selection from his recent CD called Sevilla.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Then the same selection on guitar B.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: The difference might be hard to hear over the radio, listen again. Guitar A.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Guitar B.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BISE: Very interesting.

ELLIOTT: Producer Alan Bise hears the subtle difference.

Mr. BISE: You know what happens, Jay?

Mr. VIEAUX: What's that?

Mr. BISE: The ease of the playability of guitar B, it comes through musically.

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah, because I feel like I can do more things.

Mr. BISE: I hear very, very little production noise, either from the right hand, and only from the left hand in one little passage do I hear you actually moving around the guitar so much, which we've worked so hard to eliminate in recording, but it just doesn't exist here.

ELLIOTT: Vieaux likes what he hears and describes the distinct characteristics he values in each guitar.

Mr. VIEAUX: A is precise, translucent, bright, refined. It's very elegant, incredibly elegant guitar. B is warm, not only warm, but just, it's more exuberant. I think both guitars have like character and each have their own sort of personality. B is to A like, you know, the Odd Couple?


Mr. VIEAUX: Oscar is like B and Felix is the neat one, right, the clean one, right? And that's A. I think that's a pretty good analogy. You know, B is like, you know, a little bit more lusty and there's something, you know, about that, I suppose.

ELLIOTT: Jason Vieaux says sure, one guitar might sound a little better for baroque, another for Spanish compositions, but he's going to travel with just one instrument, that's why he wants a versatile guitar, one that he can use for performances and recording. His next CD will be a collection of Bach lute suites. It will be recorded right here in Cleveland's St. Stanislaus church. His producer and engineer will set up in the middle of the night when the streets of this working class neighborhood are quiet. Today, they do a mini-Bach session to hear how each guitar sounds recorded.

Mr. VIEAUX: I'm just gonna do a little bit of the fugue from 998.

Mr. BISE: Okay. And this is guitar A, Bach.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: What Jason will be looking for is that every line in this fugue is coming through very, very clearly. So he doesn't have to work so hard on the lower strings. It's very clear with this guitar A, although you hear the occasional flat buzz again, so hopefully with B it will be as clear without any buzzing.

Mr. VIEAUX: That's like Hill Street Blues.

(Soundbite of Hill Street Blues theme)

ELLIOTT: After that moment of nostalgia, he plays the same Bach passage on guitar B.

(Soundbite of music)

When he's done, Jason Vieaux steps back behind the altar into the church's sacristy which has been transformed into a recording studio control booth. He joins Alan Bise, his producer, and Bruce Egre, the owner of his record label. They listen back and hash it out.

Mr. BRUCE EGRE (Owner, Vieaux Records): Hardly anything was (unintelligible). Which is very exciting.

Mr. VIEAUX: And that is a big thing. Yeah, I mean, that's gonna cut recording time significantly.

Mr. EGRE: There's something about B, too, that's actually very relaxing to listen too. A is beautiful in it's own way, but there's a mellowness, there's a relaxation that I feel when I hear B, which, we want the listeners.

Mr. VIEAUX: Which, A doesn't, in a way, try, I think A doesn't try to do that. Its philosophy behind that guitar is that it's precise. It's an accurate, and uniform, too. I think it's meant to be uniform and even. Evenness is the calling card of that guitar, whereas B, you know, it sounds like other things. Like when a lower range sounds like a different instrument than like the higher, the soprano notes, or whatever. You know?

Mr. EGRE: Well, I would conclude for the Bach lute suites recordings in late summer that you start practicing with B all the time.

Mr. VIEAUX: That's fine. Absolutely.

ELLIOTT: So have I just witnessed that you've chosen B for your next recording?

Mr. VIEAUX: Yeah. I mean I don't say 100 percent.

ELLIOTT: You don't sound so sure.

Mr. VIEAUX: But it just seems like everything is sort of pointing to that. You know, it sounds great and it's only gonna get better, that's the thing, too.

ELLIOTT: Other guitarists might play a new guitar for a year or more before taking it on the road, waiting for it to get better. But not Jason Vieaux. He'll be playing guitar B tomorrow in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In case you were wondering, Vieaux requested that we refer to his guitars as A and B out of respect for the luthiers who made the instruments. You can see Jason Vieaux's new guitar and hear a performance at npr.org. Alice Winkler produced our story and Rob Byers recorded it. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. For NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.

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