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How the world’s most popular instrument was revolutionised by a couple of Canberrans

Jolene Laverty

Not everyone can be credited with helping to change the foundations of music, but then again, not everyone is Tim Kain.

Not only is he the founder of legendary Canberra guitar quartet Guitar Trek and former head of the ANU School of Music guitar faculty, he was also instrumental in developing the guitar family as we know it today.

All the classical instruments you see on stage belong to a family. The trumpet belongs in the brass family with the tuba and the trombone; the clarinet, bassoon and oboe belong in the woodwind family; and so on. But prior to the 1980s, the classical guitar did not belong to any family at all.

The idea to give the classical guitar a family of its own began with Graham Caldersmith, who started his career in aurophysics before moving toward his new vocation as a luthier in 1979. Whilst immersing himself in the history and mechanics of stringed instruments, Caldersmith came to realise that although other classical instruments could be grouped into families, the humble classical guitar was in solitude. Perhaps it was that he was so moved by the Dickensian-esque tragedy of being all alone; perhaps it was his science-brain working overtime; whatever it was, Caldersmith embarked on a journey to give the guitar a family.

“I envisaged how larger and smaller guitars would respond to the strings and appeal to the human mind. In 1980, I made a low-pitched folk guitar which was not successful, but a subsequent baritone classical guitar – tuned a fifth below the standard – had a genuine classical voice, even with an unconvincing upper range.”

Meanwhile, Tim Kain had established the Canberra Guitar Ensemble and was recognised as being a seriously good guitar player, and so was approached by Caldersmith with the idea of the guitar family. Kain recalls seeing the baritone guitar that Caldersmith had made, and was immediately taken with the instrument. He incorporated the baritone guitar into the ensemble, where it gained the attention of world-famous guitarist John Williams who encouraged the pair to work toward realising the potential of the guitar family.

From there, Caldersmith explains, “The Canberra Guitar Ensemble submitted an application to the Australia Council in 1986 under the “Innovative Projects” category, seeking a grant for me to make a classical bass guitar and a treble (requinto) tuned a fourth above the standard, so to extend the classical guitar into a full tonally integrated family: bass, baritone, standard and treble.

Guitar Trek

Guitar Trek

These Classical Guitar Family prototypes were finished in 1986, and after intensive rehearsals by the Canberra Guitar Ensemble at the Canberra School of Music, the first Guitar Family concert was presented in 1987. It was so popular that a repeat performance was given later in the day, and from the Canberra Guitar Ensemble grew Guitar Trek, now internationally acclaimed as the Guitar Family Ensemble.”

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Shell Prom Picnic Concert celebrates the thirty year anniversary of Guitar Trek on Saturday 18 February, with an evening of music that has been arranged especially for guitar and orchestra. There will be many memorable moments from this outstanding collaboration, but Tim Kain describes Pachelbel’s ‘Loose Canon’ as being something to really listen out for.

“It begins with Pachelbel, and then all hell breaks loose with some reggae, some funk, heavy metal, jazz bluegrass… you name it!”

As if having the CSO and Guitar Trek on stage at the same time wasn’t exciting enough, the 35th Shell Prom Picnic Concert will be conducted by the enormously popular Graham Abbott, known by ABC Classic FM listeners for his fascinating radio show Keys to Music.

For the kids, long term partners of the CSO, Icon Water, will be supporting the Shell Prom for the first time with their Icon Water Kids Cool Zone. This will be a relaxed area for children and families to have some fun both before the concert and throughout the evening. At the Cool Zone, kids can get their face-painted, make a badge, do some colouring-in or just chill out in the Cool Zone marquee.

Gates open at 4.30pm, for a 6pm concert start. For supper, you are invited to bring your own picnic (alcohol is permitted), or you can pre-order a gourmet hamper from Ginger Catering which will be waiting for you at Government House. Alternatively, you can have something hot from the SES fundraising BBQ, which will be serving up snags and cupcakes.

To get yourself tickets (there are even ones under $30!) for the Shell Prom Picnic Concert, and be a part of what will most certainly be a glorious evening, please call David at CSO Direct on 6262 6772, or go to our website. Alternatively, tickets will be on sale at the gate from 4.15pm.

We hope you will join us at the Shell Prom Picnic Concert, to celebrate the incredible achievements of Guitar Trek, and to share in the joy that live music and good company brings. In the words of our CEO Sarah Kimball, “It is music that brings us together around the world. In these times of uncertainty, music reminds us of the good that humans can achieve.”

the essentials

What: The Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Shell Prom Picnic Concert
When: Saturday 18 February from 4.30pm for a 6pm concert start
Where: Lawns of Government House


Jolene Laverty

Jolene Laverty was born and raised in Darwin, but has lived in Canberra for most of her adult life. She spent close to twenty years in radio, which took her to the copper outback of Port Augusta to the sparkling aquamarine waves of the Whitsundays. Today she is a member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra*, ANU student, wife of a high-school teacher/rock-musician, and mother to three children who were each born in a different decade. *not allowed on stage. More about the Author

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