Phillip de Fremery's technical conversion of 1975

The confrontation was sudden yet it belied an internal drama which had been a long time coming.  As early as the fall of 1971 the young guitarist began to feel the need to work in greater detail on his tone.  He added another hour per day to his routine of arpeggio formulas.  When at the end of 1972 his speed and precision had improved, but there had been no qualitative progress with the tone, he redoubled his efforts for the 1973 season.  The following December his sound still had not improved so he increased the time allotment yet again for 1974, now spending three hours a day exclusively devoted to the study of tone.  Another year brought yet another negative result and he entered the 1975 season even more determined to solve this disturbing mystery, investing a solid four hours a day toward his right hand technique.  This was a player who had always been known for his sound but the situation was now beginning to wear on him, for on a fairly extensive swing of appearances throughout the five-state area of the U.S. Northeast late that spring he began to have trouble accepting applause.  After four straight years of unrelenting work, with the daily outlay of technical study increasing considerably during each of those years, he was only able to claim progress in speed capability and tonal finesse.  There was no improvement whatsoever in quality of the tone itself.  He had never had any desire to become faster than he already was at the beginning of his career.  More and more he had to face the stark and unforgiving reality that he felt his tone did not originate within him, that he only felt it forming within the guitar and going out from there. It was a situation of total disenfranchisement.  He decided that his long-submerged hunch was correct and that he was going to have to cut off his fingernails entirely.  In light of the fact that nails formed the entire basis of the modern concert guitar technique, and although at the time he could not have realized that his nails were only part of the problem, the resignation of the Aspen position, which entailed the final training of many who are now among the acknowledged leaders in the international field, was virtually a foregone conclusion.


Although his decision to cut off his nails was unequivocal, he knew that his career as a teacher in the Liberal Arts environment could continue and for one simple reason: since his abandonment of the fingernail technique he had never experienced even a shadow of disapproval of the way others played.  He did not admire their playing any less than he always had.  He knew he was hearing their sound, that reality had always been protected; the only task remaining was the discovery of his own.


As luck would have it he did not have to wait long.  In the fall of 1975 he happened upon an Irish harp.  He was running his fingers over the strings, not paying any particular attention, when something about what he was hearing leaped into the room.  He became suddenly alert and quickly noticed that the instrument was strung with a random assortment of strings, specifically he saw that throughout the range some were nylon and some were gut.  And the sounds which had so forcefully called to him came only from the gut strings.  He paid even closer attention.  All of the gut strings had longer durations than those of nylon.  None of them had any shrillness in the sound, not even the shorter ones as compared with the longer ones of nylon.  More important even than all of this combined was that the sound of the gut strings on that little half-size harp answered, fully and forever, all of the questions raised in his agonized search of the previous four years.


 Nevertheless – and he could not have known this at the time – a third factor was preparing to emerge and form a true partnership with this “new” combination of raw materials.  The guitar maker Michael Cone had already crossed his path at least a dozen times, their first meeting having taken place in Aspen in 1973 over the issue of a small-bodied guitar Cone had just built and was trying to sell.  The new instrument had generated absolutely no interest anywhere in the Southwest but when the young luthier showed it to de Fremery, who was in charge in Aspen for the first few days while Oscar Ghiglia was enroute from Europe , the reaction was nothing if not kinetic.  The evening session of the master class had just concluded but no one left the room. Michael Cone stepped forward and handed over the guitar and de Fremery played it for five or ten minutes.  An appraisal had been requested so he simply said, “for this instrument you may ask whatever you want – it has extraordinary capabilities.”  Cone had not anticipated this reply and was stunned.  One of the performers, a young professional from Vermont , immediately telephoned home.  She arranged the sale of her (famous) concert guitar, and offered to buy Cone’s instrument at a price which was accepted, taking possession of the guitar then and there.  Steve Toplitz, the owner of the Amherst (Massachusetts) Music House, who happened to be visiting for that night’s session, stayed later into the evening and ended up commissioning Cone for three guitars, two for his business and one for himself.


In this small chapter of The Life of the Guitar it was an occasion of considerable moment.  Cone and de Fremery remained in touch, the three new guitars for Steve Toplitz were built that fall in San Luis Obispo , California and were soon delivered in person by Cone, who announced in the process that he was relocating to the Northeast.  For the next several years his guitars were made available not only in Amherst but through Bob Page at the Classical Guitar Store in Philadelphia .  And -- on the occasion of the discovery of gut strings on the Irish harp – there was one other person in the room and that person was Michael Cone.


So in 1973 the two men began a conversation which continues to this day and which has since made manifest both of de Fremery’s concert guitars, the original from 1976 and the second instrument from 2007.


Two critical factors in this “new” equation of smaller-bodied instruments being played without fingernails, and on gut strings, become immediately apparent.  Gut is noticeably higher tension than nylon.  In addition, with the fingernails gone and a surface area of considerably greater mass suddenly in play, the guitarist is in a position to generate forces of exponentially greater magnitude.  (those who find themselves interested in the physics of all this will observe that when one plays without nails the string can be pulled much farther back – and further back at many different angles – before it is released, and that when one thinks of this from the point of view of archery, for instance, the implications are interesting to say the least – and if we add in that the Michael Cone bridge saddle establishes a full 2 5/8 inches between the 1st string and 6th string, these possibilities are even further expanded)  Finally, we note that the smaller instruments inherently produce considerably higher string resistance than do the modern, larger designs which originate in the celebrated work of Torres.


Since Michael Cone was already interested in building instruments with smaller bodies, and since the original of those had created such a stir in Aspen , this design was given a total green light.  (these instruments are small but only to the eye – the string length is a full 65.5 centimeters – in short there is nothing about them which suggests a copy of an 18th or 19th century guitar, they are in fact fully modern in their design)  So what stands revealed is that three separate factors converge to elevate the implications of higher string tension:  1) the builder’s design forces the tension up,  2) the gut strings have far higher inherent tension than do those of nylon, and 3) with no fingernails for the player to be afraid of breaking,  there is a much greater physical mass available to be delivered to the string. 


One other breakthrough came, quite unexpectedly, in 1994, when out of the blue Richard Cocco, President and C.E.O. of E. & O. Mari, Inc., provided de Fremery with prototype versions of varnished gut strings.  These were immediately recognized as being equal in tone to the normal gut treble yet they were practically indestructible – the life span of the traditional (unvarnished) gut 1st string had heretofore been about ten days, while the varnished gut 1st string lasts on average between two and three months, even under heavy usage.  This brilliant technical advance erases what had once been an important concern on the part of the professionals.


When asked whether, given the implications of his findings, he plans to reclaim his concert career, de Fremery is both articulate and adamant in pointing out that he has followed this sequence only because to have ignored any part of it would have been tantamount to abandoning his lifelong love affair with the repertoire of the modern concert guitar.  He is not interested in becoming the next advocate of this instrumental technique.  He was simply forced to face the fact that if he wished to continue playing the guitar with the same intensity of feeling that he had at the very beginning, he was going to have to follow his instinctive requirements of the sound wherever they led him, no matter what.  And, fully aware of the fact that in the Age of the Internet he is in a position to stay home, perform locally and simply export work should the demand arise, he also points out that through the centuries the fingernail/no-fingernail pendulum has been swinging way too far in both directions, and that the surviving accounts of any stage of this debate are transparently vicious and adolescent in their natures.  In his estimation, for this to have taken place even just once is not only a disgrace but it is endemically corrosive and as such it constitutes a cruel repudiation of the true nature of the guitar.


“Many systems have come and gone and yet somehow they are all still here.  The guitar is wonderful in all of its manifestations.  Some even feel the guitar is the most beautiful instrument of them all.  In any case, sound represents by far the most profound personal commitment a performer can ever hope to establish.  So all that really matters is that those who love the guitar should play it.  That still, small voice will always be a miracle in this world, on levels both personal and universal.”


Toward this end we may safely say that since the concert guitar is now at the virtual zenith of its popularity, and since the prevailing technique is overwhelmingly based on the use of the fingernails, we may yet have the opportunity to conclude for the first time in history that players who have weak or otherwise inadequate nails may still lead a very rewarding life with the guitar, up to and including the avenue of public performance.  The means of production on both sides of the question are different but there is no escaping the fact that in both instances the dynamic range is rich and full.  The ancient option of playing without the use of the nails is now proven to be as practical and available as any other.  This will literally be music to the ears of many who either could not grow their nails or could not keep them.  For further detail on the playing of the guitar without fingernails, please follow this link.















Phillip de Fremery