One of our new Gathering regulars is the talented, hilarious, rock and roll star and academic scholar Martin Pleass (rhymes with “grease”). That’s him with his Bown harp guitar talking to me (Dave Powell in bg). Along with Tommy Loose and Tony Barnard (both featured at HGG16 this year), Martin came all the way from England to be with us, and even before he touched down back home, he already had this guest blog written for us. Enjoy!

Tony’s Workshop at The Gathering by Martin Pleass

The annual gathering of harp guitarists is an opportunity to meet up and bathe in goodwill, bonhomie and mutual support of our growing sub-bass/floating treble string obsessions. At the 16th Gathering the organisers had arranged some workshop opportunities that offered a chance to learn and develop something new. Alex Anderson, Stephen Bennett, David Powell and Tony Barnard were each doing 1-1/2 hour workshops and tutorials. Each of these fine gentlemen were giving, sharing, instructing and just plain showing us where to put our fingers and this was not an opportunity to pass up.

I chose to study in Tony’s and Stephen’s workshop. This was a good move but I understand that David’s and Alex’s workshops were also exemplary.

Tony Barnard made his name first as a notable jazz guitarist on the London scene and the bands and sessions he has played in read like a “who’s who” of jazz in that city. Hailing from Australia, Tony, like all the best people, gravitated towards harp guitar a few years ago and plays a few incarnations of harp guitars. I have seen him perform on a Sedgwick with 7 sub-basses and floating trebles and at the Gathering 16 he had his Brunner.

To say Tony’s style is intricate is an understatement. Chord melody and an advanced approach to harmonic relationships abound. He uses the floating trebles for melody and the occasional ethereal effect. His “Theme from Harry Potter” is not just an audience pleaser but a ground-breaking statement in the capabilities of multi stringed guitars. His CD (available from him directly) on harp guitar is beautifully arranged for the listener alongside a formidable statement of musicality, arrangement and composition.

I am a fan of Tony Barnard’s music and it’s not always easy to tell him this. Tony’s personality is the very definition of “down to earth” and getting a compliment through to his shining, smiling eyes is tough. I approached the workshop hoping that Tony would be able to articulate some of his concepts and working ideas a bit better that he does when approached socially.  His reply to a question is normally “I’ve played jazz for years man” and then he buys you a beer.

Everyone arrived on time for the workshop, which I thought was very respectful, to find Tony already there sorting his hand out sheets. The workshop was titled “Arranging a Jazz Standard for Harp Guitar.” Exuding an air of calm, confident authority Tony Barnard began to teach, demonstrate and inform.

Choosing to slowly play a C major scale on the fifth and fourth strings of the guitar neck, Tony built these notes up to diatonic triads then diatonic chords with jazz extensions. His hand out showed us where to put our fingers and Tony’s relaxed manner enabled the group to quietly have a go. No one was loud or over-bearing. Tony then added the sub-bass strings of his Brunner, deftly arpeggiating the chords and revealing much of the harp guitar’s potential in jazz. Stating fully and clearly that the scale played in chords was his “corner stone” of conception. Tony then moved to his chosen piece, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the handout illustrated the arrangement in standard notation and tablature on a guitar neck. Explaining that this was a melody everyone knew, he played it explaining as he went how the melody remained on the first string most of the time. Tony went slowly and carefully never once “showing off” or detracting from the teaching and explaining. His vocabulary was purposefully non “jazz technical” and often pausing to explain his approach. Large chords were downsized as he explained that he didn’t like to stretch his hand too much. He showed a few tricks of his trade but justified them musically and practically.

This was an excellent workshop and Tony excelled in the role as a music educator and guitar demonstrator to a mixed group. If this was the world’s first jazz harp guitar workshop then it set a formidably high standard. Of particular note was also the member’s conduct and manners. It can be stated that this workshop offered an hour and a half of top-notch music education at the Gathering and I very much hope I can experience Tony Barnard’s teaching in the future.

Later in the evening we had a beer and I told him I enjoyed his workshop. He just shrugged, smiled and said, “I’ve played jazz for years man…”

Next: Tommy Loose reports on Stephen Bennett’s Workshop