Expanding your guitarist horizons – Xuefei Yang

Here’s a fantastically talented young female guitarist from China and somewhat of a pioneer. Xuefei was the very first classical guitarist in China to enter a music school, the first ever Chinese student to be awarded a full international scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London and then the first to launch an international professional career. Nice work!

Xuefei was born in 1977 in Beijing and began studying guitar at the tender age of seven. Just three years later, at age ten, she began studying under Chairman of the China Classical Guitar Society, Chen Zhi. It was also at this time that she made her public debut at the China International Guitar Festival. Apparently, she impressed the Spanish Ambassador so much he immediately presented her with a top-notch concert guitar! And that wasn’t the only time a top-flight instrument was bestowed upon her – when John Williams visited Beijing in 1995 he was also so impressed with her that he actually gave his very own Smallman to her as a gift!

I first came across Xuefei Yang a couple of years ago with her recording of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (which is a really fantastic interpretation and I invite you to check it out. She comes pretty bloody close to my all-time favourite version of this concerto by Carlos Bonnell). This recording also features the debut presentation of Stephen Goss’ Albeniz Concerto, which is also well worth a listen – taking many of Albeniz’s well-known themes and weaving into a fantastic guitar and orchestra concerto setting. It does feel perhaps a little “pastiche-y” perhaps in places, but an impressively grand, lush, full-on Romantic re-imagining of some of Albeniz’s works and, of course, fantastically delicious playing form Xuefei Yang.

Here are Xuefei and Stephen Goss talking about the work:

Check out some more of Xuefei’s playing……


What guitar does Milos play?

A little piece today on the weapon of choice of the marvelous Milos.

Soundhole and rosette of a Greg Smallman guitar
Soundhole and rosette of a Greg Smallman guitar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This axe that the Montenegrin sensation wields on his two recordings to date and countless concert dates is none other than a 2007 Greg Smallman.

An excellent choice of instrument with a serious pedigree of fine players also wielding the mighty Smallman. Apparently this is not his guitar, however, with this instrument being lent to him by a couple of kind benefactors (Paul and Jenny Gillham). Perhaps a seemingly strange arrangement, but something that is reasonably common to a fashion with violinists*– who can afford a Guarneri del Gesu or a Stradivarius?! (* That, or they have them on a ridiculous hire-purchase kind of arrangement which means they can never really afford them unless they make serious money as the instruments appreciate in value far more than the musician can ever pay it back.)

OK, so the Smallman isn’t quite in the price league of an 18th century Cremonan violin, but when you consider you need to part with the best part of AUD$30,000 (roughly US$30,500) to have one of these fine instruments in your possession, that and Milos in the early days of his career, the arrangement is actually a pretty good deal for the musician. Although the way Milos is tracking at the moment, I have no doubt he’ll be able to afford one of his very own in no time at all!

Here the man himself playing Recuerdos de la Alhambra on the 2007 Smallman:

Who else plays a Smallman?

A number of well-renowned players also play Smallman guitars, including John Williams, Carlos Bonell, Xuefei Yang, Stepan Rak, Timothy Kain, Ben Verderey, David Tannenbaum and Thibault Cauvin to name but a few.

So who is Greg Smallman?

Greg Smallman is arguably one of the most well-respected and pioneering of the Australian guitar builders. Greg started building guitars back in the early 1970s, following a traditional Fleta model. At that time Australian musicians, instruments, instrument makers and their ilk were largely unknown to the wider world, and frankly not greatly well-respected.

To combat this Greg Smallman realised, much to our benefit, that he’d have to do something a little different with his guitars. So in 1980 Greg developed his now famous balsa and carbon fibre lattice bracing system with a paper-thin soundboard. These guitars have an incredible volume, whilst maintaining clarity of tone – as we can tell from Milos’ recordings.

We can also tell this from the recordings of one of Greg Smallman’s early customers and collaborators in developing his designs – another great Australian, John Williams.

John Williams playing his Smallman in 2005
John Williams playing his Smallman in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Greg Smallman’s development of the lattice braced system, and undoubtedly the patronage of John Williams, created a springboard for phenomenal growth in Australian guitar-building.

One of the most recognizable features of Greg Smallman guitars (or Smallman and Sons Damon and Kym, to give the guitars their full and correct label title) is an armrest in the form of a small strip of wood on the bass side of the guitar. This prevents the guitarist’s arm stopping the vibrations moving through soundboard and so getting maximum response from the instrument.

How are these guitars built?

I’m not going to try to explain the full technical details of the guitars here, but check out this video to take a look inside a Smallman guitar: 

And check out Damian Lodge, another Australian builder, give a bit of a run-down on lattice braced guitar construction: