A first Book of Guitar Solos, by John Gavall. Published by Oxford University Press. 1975
This was a curious book to arrive through the letter box. (My joiner has widened it.)
A first Book of Guitar Solos was published in 1975, and 43 years after the event, a brand-new copy arrives for review. It does not say “revised and reprinted” so I am concluding this is the original book, if not a first edition.
I don’t know John Gavall, or know much about him. He made a TV programme for the BBC called “Take One Guitar” in 1955, and wrote a book called “Play the guitar: A self-tutor” in 1957. He was active in the time the classical guitar was beginning to make itself known and the likes of Julien Bream were emerging. This book doesn’t enlighten us; there is no biography. There is also no foreword or introduction; all we have are the notes before us on the page.
The classical guitar world has changed since 1975. The standards have risen to wonderful heights, great technique with nuanced articulation is becoming the norm, and teachers are generally far better players and more informed (thanks to the internet) than they were back then. This book therefore is in danger of being seen as an un-needed anachronism. Can the 30 pieces contained herein save it?
The opening piece, “The Dream”, is by John himself. It’s a pleasant 1st-position study in A minor. There’s no tempo, dynamics, fingering or guidance and perhaps it was John’s hope that the teacher would illuminate the darkness. The standard of player required would be about Grade one, which is already somewhat higher than the early guitar student gets asked to perform solo. The second piece is also by John and his “Drone Tune” demands the player holds down a low “G” whilst the other fingers explore a very pretty tune. If the first piece was on the edge of fitting the description A first Book of Guitar Solos then this one is well beyond it. The left-hand stretching places this closer to Grade two.
There are several unaccompanied traditional melodies of Scottish and German origin; the challenge of being able to play melodically is under-rated, so these inclusions are valuable. A couple of them do have accompaniments which raise the difficulty, an example being the 25th piece in A major, which has some tricky position changes and either unspecified barre-requirements or else demands the inclusion of an outstretched little-finger.
John also includes some Carcassi, Carulli and Sor with unstated provenance. Stripping away these references is not the current practise, but in the 1970s arrangers were bolder ; Segovia was one of several who re-fingered and edited. If we take the 30th piece as an example, nothing tells us it is Sor’s Opus 44, no. 3 study. Fernando published it with all the fingering necessary to execute an effective performance ; John Gavall allows his house-style to over-rule this and fingering is removed. I’m not even sure it’s relevant to opine on this thinking, such is the age of the material, but it does present an opportunity…
It’s not at all a bad book. It’s a pretty useful collection to have sitting on the shelves and to dip into if we wish our students to control legato and articulation. Perhaps the house-style is its biggest selling-point. The total absence of any performance indications presents the teacher with a chance to utilise this book to develop all kinds of articulated expression and the fonts and clear space around the material allow for the book to be used in just such a way. I daresay that most teachers would return to more authoritative anthologies for their 19th century repertoire, but John’s folk-tune arrangements and personal compositions are pleasing and there is still meat in this book to digest, despite its age.
There may be readers of this review who wonder why scrutiny of a 43-year-old book is necessary. The answer would be that Oxford University Press offered it for assessment ; they not only still publish it, but are clearly still keen to promote it. The problem perhaps is with the title. It’s not a first book of solos for any student of the guitar. But it is a valuable resource which can be harnessed to good effect by imaginative teachers. Astonishingly therefore, even after 43 years, I can recommend John Gavall’s book.