McNeil’s Modern Guitar Method (1930)

Charles McNeil wrote a few excellent books for banjo and guitar, and lived at a time when the former was giving way to the latter in popularity. His Modern Method is subtitled, “A Plectrum Method for the Regular Spanish Six-String Guitar“, and although published when Swing style was gathering momentum, it is largely backward looking, representing a style of music that was popular from the 1890s to mid 1920s.

So, don’t buy this book if you hope to play like Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, but do buy it if you are interested in the sentimental and melancholic style personified by romantic tenor vocalists in popular song.

But the transition from the old style to the new can be discerned here and there. For instance, on Page 34, McNeil introduces the tremolo technique, for both single notes and chords, but from Page 49 he states that: “In lieu of Tremolo, strokes may now be employed to sustain the whole-notes.” By strokes, he meant strumming. Both tremolo and strokes were used to fill out the sound when the vocalist would sing a long note, or when the guitar could not sustain a long melody note. Tremolo was popular with mandolin players, in imitation of the long sustained notes of the violin, which suited early 20th-century popular romantic song. It is little surprise that McNeil’s tenor-banjo background would include the tremolo technique, as many mandolin players doubled on tenor banjo. Strokes, or strumming, were similarly employed to fill-in over long notes or gaps in the melodic line, but did so in a more rhythmical way, which was much loved in early jazz and swing.

More about strumming later.

I’ve prepared two pieces for you: Our Yesterdays (page 55) and Love’s Ship Waltz (page 65).

Our Yesterdays

Our Yesterdays was composed in 1918 by Herbert Leslie. You can hear an original recording of the song on the DAHR (Discography of American Historical Recordings) site, a wonderfully syrupy version for orchestra, with soprano soloist. This period performance will give you a good indication of McNeil’s vision for the guitar at this time: https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/matrix/detail/700008048/B-22889-Our_yesterdays

His guitar version follows the melody closely, in fact this is early chord-melody style, or, as they called it back then, melody-chord style. He makes good use of 9th and diminished chords, but never allows the accompaniment part to detract from the tune. Talking of accompaniment, there is a second-guitar part, a close study of these 2nd parts will give you lots of ideas for accompanying songs from this period – a style not far from that used by Eddie Lang when accompanying Joe Venuti.

Sadly, I’ve been unable to find much online about the composer, Herbert Leslie. Any info gratefully received. I have managed to find a legal download of the original score for voice and piano, so if you are keen to take this further, “have at it!”: Our Yesterdays

Love’s Ship Waltz

Love’s Ship was composed by Alice Nadine Morrison (1892-1978). It proved very popular, with no less than nine editions being published between 1920 and 1921.

A biography of Morrison’s very interesting life can be read HERE. A DAHR recording can be heard here https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/matrix/detail/700010853/B-25594-Loves_ship   with the tenor vocalist, Charles Harrison (biography). Again, it gives a good indication of McNeil’s repertoire for the guitar. Note the very sentimental violin interlude. An instrumental version – at a rather sprightly pace – can be heard on YouTube: https://youtu.be/m1XQ9tbyFiI

Strumming

McNeil provides us with six different examples of fill-in strums to be employed over long-held melody notes, or in gaps between phrases or verses. Each example is given a number, with that number appearing over a whole note in the course of a score. Notice, for instance, his “modernized” take on Rubenstein’s “Melody in F” (below the score of Love’s Ship Waltz above) – look particularly at bars 5 and 11, where “No.1” and “No.2” refer to strum or stroke patterns which appear in small print here and there in the book. I’ve collected them into one table. Note that the letter x indicates a single note – this could be a single bass note, or an upward stroke on the highest note of a chord. When practising these strokes, makes sure you articulate the accents.

No.2 shows two notes which are lower than the others – this indicates a single bass note.

Summary

McNeil’s Method shows the guitar being using at a transitional period, is backward looking to romantic and sentimental popular song, but also forward looking to the developing swing style. Guitarists wishing to specialise in this period could learn a lot from this book, especially if the 2nd-guitar parts are also studied, as the guitar was used primarily as an accompaniment instrument at this period.

I hope you can track down a copy of the book. There are 88 pages – too many for me to scan, unfortunately. The back cover of my copy is missing. I’d appreciate a photocopy of it, if you have a copy available.

As ever, your comments are welcome! Skype tuition available 🙂

Rob MacKillop
Edinburgh, 2018

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