Impossible Classical Guitar

There's a thread on the OG with "amazing" guitarists. I posted a bunch of classical folks. I started with a guy named Jorge Caballero, about whom more shortly. But when I was in high school, there was a guy new on the scene that seemed like he should have been a game changer. Like, Hendrix was in rock. Like really, maybe nothing would be the same. He was very controversial, and like lots of folks who are, there was a lot of flat out jealousy and denial that it was worth being able to do what he could do. Still is. But then he was there, he was undeniable. I can sort of show you what I'm talking about on youtube, now (again, this stuff was impossible to find last time I looked, but now...) So this thread. Here's two minutes. Note especially the last 30 seconds, but the whole two minutes. This was a storm coming out of Japan in the classical world... Kazuhito Yamashita:

That's really just a hint. It's not just that he was a shredder. Though there was all the usual.... he plays "too fast' or questions about his tone or musicality or.... the usual. Then comparisons with other shredder guys... Is Fisk as fast or is Phillip Hii less sloppy or... and so on.

Hii is a decent comparison because he at least did some transcriptions of things nobody was thinking about. Like that Toccatta and Fugue from Bach that they used as the soundtrack to "Rollerball". And he's precise and mostrously fast (though not, I would think, Yamashita-fast... but it's like with electric players again, about fast-at-what and sloppier than whom and 'but his tone'... and all that).

But the comparison there sort of came up because of the transcriptions. Yamashita was doing transcriptions of orchestral music for solo guitar. WTF? Dvorak Symphonies. Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.... stuff like that. And it was ridiculous.... he had to invent techniques to do physically (assumed) impossible things.

He did mostly "normal" things at an impossibly high level, like you'd expect -- he played standard repertoire and didn't do anything but play it well. And on occasion played the fast stuff faster than anyone else. I think this is mostly what upset folks.

And then that he could do one-finger tremelos, or do left hand trills with slides faster and "better" than others could using hammer-ons and pull-offs. So I know for me it was "holychit, I don't WANT to like this guy, if we just say bad things about him, why it's a terrible idea, maybe we won't have to PRACTICE that stuff".

And the easiest target was him doing symphonic transcriptions. "That's not supposed to be solo guitar music". (That and the same old "too fast" and "but his tone", again, like in the rock world...)

His stuff was hard to find, this was well before the internet, japanese import classical records and cds were rare and pricey. I heard him on the radio periodically, and then discussion.

When the internet "happened" I used to participate on the newsgroup "alt.classical-guitar" or whatever it was. Tons of classical players on there. One guy started a long discussion about Yamashita -- like, a sighting! And he was talking about how of course he expected there'd be a generation of guys who followed in his footsteps, who would do what he did now the kicked down some doors. But no, there's just controversy, there's just occasional bickering and a lot of ignoring. We don't hear other players who worked up the techniques to do some of his transcriptions, or worked up the chops in general to be a follower.

Then some guy.... some name.... some person I never heard of... posted on the thread that he was doing a concert in New York and was playing Yamashita's transcription of Pictures At An Exhibition.

Some guy on a newsgroup. I didn't know if it was for real or not. But I remembered the name. And a few years later I started to see it. And read some reviews. And heard him on the radio only once or twice. And now... youtube makes him local.

So this is what I posted on the OG thread that got me going. Jorge Caballero -- here he's just doing an impossible Bach piece, but it's the first one I posted because I thought it was bite-size, and thought the quality was great. Caballero is a beast. I don't know whose transcription this is, if it's Jorge's or someone else's (even Yamashita's), but... it wasn't that long ago people weren't doing this sort of thing. "This is organ music".

So this guy... was for real. (Which I did knew long before the youtube clip, but... you see he's for real). And there are a couple of of people playing some of Yamashita's stuff now. Really not many, but not only one or two.

Here's where I wish I had more of a library on youtube of Yamashita himself, because the sound quality on this one sucks. But if you have a decent speaker or headphone, and watch this freaking thing.... This is Yamashita playing his own transcription of Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition -- and you thought Emerson Lake & Palmer put that one to bed). Just the most impossible section, maybe.

With this camera angle you can see fairly well. Both hands are nuts. I think he's doing things with his right hand that might confuse Paco De Lucia. "How???"

Obviously that's ballsy music being played by a ballsy player. Sometimes I listen to his versions of something along with other known greats.... ("normal" music), and in many cases, Yamashita is just the fire breather on the slow stuff, too -- his attack and phrasing are never, ever, timid. And he's not afraid to make a mistake sometimes, so you hear it (like you do with everyone on live stuff). But he's just balls to the wall when called for. For that whole thing above... but even notice the little pretty strummed section at 4:12. Man i wish the audio were better, because that's stunning. And then after that he just proves he's an alien, too. Planet Shred. Leading back to that strummed motiv at 5:31... where it's the same but .... different...

Anyway, I'll shut up. If you have the patience with the sound, you might like that.

Anyway, haters gonna hate. (I can do it too -- I can give all sorts of reasons I like other guys more, but... I shut myself up if it's not going to be a nuanced conversation. Gotta remember.... Yamashita is dazzling. Period).

I don't know if he has students, or "followers" in any normal sense. The other major classical players I've heard from Japan are nothing like him, at all. But there are a few people at least picking up on what he did, and picking up on the challenge of playing of his specific transcriptions. I really like that Mussorgsky piece on guitar. And really admire the above-posted Jorge Caballero. One of the greats. Here's Jorge playing the whole Mussorgsky piece in the Yamashita transcription. Obviously that "guy" (that "kid" on the internet) was not bullshitting about doing it. This is a beautiful, bravura performance. I don't find a second of it boring, and this is such old warhorse of a piece of music it had a lot of potential for boredom.

Another guy I heard about years before I heard Caballero is Phillip Hii. He writes, teaches (I think out of a university in Hawaii, but I haven't looked it up recently). Singaporean guy... who had nothing to do with Yamashita per se, but I thought of him because he also did a few transcriptions of things that no one thought "should" be done on guitar before him. And his chops are sick, and outside of some students, it seems no one's talking about him much. Here he is at home, playing his transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fuge in D Minor.

Wow great thread, I think I agree with everything you have said.

To me that crappy video of Yamashita playing "Pictures at an Exhibition" is still the single most amazing classical guitar playing I've ever seen/heard.

I've never heard complete versions of Bach "Chromatic Fantasy (minus the Fugue" and "Toccata and Fugue in Dm" played on classical guitar, incredible. I did notice that they were transposed to different keys though to make easier playing (Chromatic Fantasy from Cm to Dm and Tocatta and Fugue from Dm to Em) but still unbelievalbe stuff.

Cool to see Jorge Caballero carrying on with the Yamashita tradition of insane stuff on the classical guitar. I had heard of Phillip Hii about 5 years ago. A classical guitar friend recommended his version of "Cathedral"! This was the first time that I actually saw a video of him playing, awesome!

While many of these performances have a few mistakes or aren't perfect (a reason I think some classical guitar snobs poo poo them) I think that by pushing the boundaries to the limit, and in this case past it, raises the bar. Much like when Segovia first started transcribing some of the Bach violin music, raising the bar, sets a higher standard for the next generation, so hopefully that bar continues to rise.

Great thead, thanks!

Cool jman -- I made this one "for you". No squealing saxophones for once...

Yeah, totally with you about that Yamashita clip being the most amazing classical playing. It's astonishing. That's been there for a while, but of course the crappy sound has always been a problem. That "Rhapsody" clip is new to me and sounds better, so I went there first.

Hii's first record is all Bach transcriptions, came out on the GSP label ("Guitar Special Projects"); that was mentioned to me by a guy I knew in school who played pretty much only Brazilian music. His second disc is all Chopin transcriptions. I haven't heard more than clips of that.

Classical guys "poo poo"-ing Yamashita for making the occasional mistake, live, is just an eye-roller. Most shut up when they catch themselves doing that. They don't want to have to deal with the fact that he was changing what was possible, so... to focus on a mistake and be at all dismissive about that is to be responsible to never make a mistake, yourself. Good luck.

One of Yamashita's earliest recordings was the Rodrigo Concerto de Aranjuez. Longest-in-the-tooth warhorse in the literature at this point. And it's not close to the best recording. I think Yamashita was 19 when he did it, and... everyone did it already. It's a little tame. But I was just checking out the first movement in live videos on youtube and comparing his to, say, DeLucia's, was interesting.

DeLucia's not a classical player and he recorded that piece before he learned to read standard notation. It's just so "Spanish" that it sort of seemed like something he had to do. And so also controversial, because Classical guys are territorial. It's really elegant and amazing, and DeLucia looks as relaxed as Perry Como. Yamashita is just more fiery, more emotional. On the slow sections, too. So another thing people who say about him how did get the "emotion" of the music ("too fast" often goes with this) was coming from people who didn't really listen. Granted, it was hard to find things to listen to. Still is, those Japanese recordings are just plain hard to find.

I've heard at least two other people playing Yamashita transcriptions. Caballero sounds best to me. And he has great taste and control for other music, too. I laugh every time about the fact that he just announced he was playing one of those things on a newsgroup, and I thought he might just be a troll. There's no other player I've heard of that way. And then it turns out to be that kind of player.

Anyway, I was hoping to save you the trouble of combing through the OG thread I mentioned earlier. And maybe the other 5 people who check in to the Soundground would dig it, too!

Thanks, I looked for the Guitar thread you mentioned on the OG, but couldn't find it, so it's cool you made this thread.

I seem to never to be able to play anything without making some small or usually large mistakes so it is comforting seeing Yamashita hit a few clams. No idea how people like John Williams and others just never seem to make any mistakes...EVER!!!

There is a certain fire to Yamashita in his playing the is not there with most other classical guitar players. I'd much rather listen to him play and at the sacrifice of a few small wrong notes, hear a fire and energy that all but gone in most of classical guitar music.

Classical guitar can be such an amazing, but also boring instrument to listen to. I think that's why I like players like Andrew York, Yamashita, etc who take chances and do something a little different to breathe some new life into the territorial classical guitar world.

Found this interesting thing on Yamashita's technique:

That article is interesting -- the repeating with the same finger on the right hand is "wrong" in terms of "Segovia technique"; it's one thing Yamashita does that's just... hard. Or hard to get right (beginners find it automatic, but do it badly and are trained out of it, I think!)

The article goes on with Bellucci's writing about various things... and he labels Williams the "King". Then he also raves about Ana Vidovic, now there's a "Queen". I don't know if I could agree with either of those, but I don't know if I could argue, either.

I think Williams makes the occasional mistake, live, too. Doesn't show up on recordings... but mistakes don't show up on Yamashita's recordings either.

That said, I agree that Williams plays within himself a bit more, and is prett superhuman perfect.

On what makes classical guitar "boring" and what makes it intereesting again... I'm half-way with you. Either play with the fire and imagination of a Yamashita if you're going to be doing that kind of music, or do more modern and "new" music. Of course modern-classical music alienates lots of folks. I think in many cases, modern classical guitar music is more listenable than most.

Great post Ali, I look forward to investigating Jorge Caballero's music. I'm still flabbergasted by Yamashita's Pictures at an exhibition. I've watched that clip about 20 times and still have trouble believing it's real.

That Yamashita is about as much as I can take in this lifetime. And you know there's lots more that we haven't seen. I'd like to see a video of him playing his own transcription of Dvorak's "New World Symphony".

Oh well, have to settle for Jorge Caballero doing it...

It's crazy how something can be so mindblowing, inspiring and depressing all at the same time. I was going to post more, but I'm speechless.

This is the first part of the "infamous" Yamashita video that you posted. Nothing too insane, but my god the execution is at a level just not seen by 99% of the guitar players out there: