The 20 “touchstones” on Laurence Juber’s latest solo guitar collection are snapshots of history—dances, tunes, and movements that trace the evolution of fingerstyle playing from Renaissance lute, vihuela, and viola da gamba folios to the modern guitar pieces that kicked off the early-20th century parlor music craze. Dubbed an exercise in “guitar-ology” by its creator, Touchstones avoids a dusty archivist approach because Juber presents these guitar milestones as malleable, living tunes. In effect, Juber, a former in-demand session guitarist who also played with Paul McCartney’s Wings, is the ultimate touchstone here—the constant that assigns and assesses the value of each piece through his virtuosic, deeply personal interaction.
Juber’s guided tour of the development of guitar-playing highlights music on the cusp of discovery and invention. With Mauro Giuliani’s “Sonata Op. 15,” he presents one of the earliest examples of the sonata form for guitar, with clambering picking and percussive swipes setting up a series of rhythmic and melodic variations. With pin-wheeling picking and nimble harmonics, Julián Arcas’ “Bolero” and Francisco Tárrega’s “Prelude No.1” are forerunners of the nylon-string Spanish-influenced classical style exemplified by Andrés Segovia. The European steel-string style that represents an alternative evolution of guitar playing is represented by “Caprice #7,” an 1822 piece by Luigi Legnani, the “Paganini of guitar” (though Paganini was a fine guitarist, too). Here, pointillist bursts of notes punctuate luxurious glissandos.
Regardless of the provenance of each piece, Juber plays them all on “modern” steel-string guitars: his 1893 Martin 1-21, supplemented with a pair of Martin OMs and a mahogany/Sitka spruce Collings OM1. Techniques range from proto-rasgueado strumming on the 1507 lute piece “La Bernardina” to the John Philip Sousa–like phrases tumbling over syncopated ragtime rhythms on William Foden’s “Capitol March” of 1920. But they are tied together by Juber’s signature style—he strums with the flesh of his fingertips rather than his nails, and puts his thumb and forefinger together to form a “pickless pick.”
All this technique and scholarship would go for naught if the music was not engaging and lively. Happily, Juber makes certain that his musicology milestones remain vital and relevant across the centuries. Side-winding picking circles and backtracks like a hedgerow maze on “Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard” from 1601. The contemplative and ornamental “Guardame Las Vacas” and the stately and spiraling “Romanesca” both ascend the passamezzo antico chord progression that modern listeners can identify from “Greensleeves.” (Juber calls the progression “the 12-bar blues of the 16th century.”)
Cross-picking radiates beneath a silvery melody line on the influential “Spanish Fandango” of 1866. Here, Juber’s corkscrew picking emphasizes the piece’s open-G tuning, connecting this parlor music favorite to country blues and rock ’n’ roll. It’s the perfect example of how Juber’s sympathetic playing transforms his treasure trove of touchstones from historic relics into ebullient popular tunes that still resonate today.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.