Decoding his 19th century scores reveals what a profound influence Worrall has had on the sound of the steel-string acoustic guitar.
In Part 1 I briefly sketched Henry Worrall’s background, his career as an illustrator and how I came to be involved in an interpretation of his guitar composition and arrangement work. In this post we’ll look in greater depth at his manuscripts, how his guitar style would profoundly impact American guitar playing, and his relationship with Martin Guitars.
At the request of the Kansas Historical Society, I was asked to look at some of Henry Worrall’s handwritten manuscripts donated by his family. As I mentioned last time, this was a pretty exciting assignment considering the sheet music had most likely not been played in a century or more!
The first time I read Worrall’s manuscript for “Sebastopol,” a solo-guitar parlor piece, it was clear something was amiss. I soon realized that though it wasn’t indicated, this piece was in open tuning. By looking at the bass notes and chords at the end of one of the movements I was able to see the tuning: D-A-D-F#-A-D. This is one of Worrall’s major contributions to the future of guitar in the United States. In fact, his open tunings would become synonymous with two of his compositions. The Sebastopol tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-D) as well as the Spanish tuning D-G-D-G-B-D from Worrall’s “Spanish Fandango” were both coined as a result of his published music. Open tunings would become a big part of early country blues making it possible for guitar players to use a slide across a single fret to play chords. There are even instances in Worrall’s compositions where a bar is used across the fifth fret to sound the IV chord, which would become a common practice in Delta blues guitar playing later on.
Reading Henry Worrall’s manuscripts was challenging on several levels. Visually the notes are small and a bit fuzzy and the annotations to himself are also hard to read in some cases. Parts have been crossed out or replaced. During the era Worrall’s sheet music was published, it was common for the publisher to simplify a piece of music in order to sell more copies. As I would discover, Worrall’s original versions of his later published works were much more complex. One interesting thing I uncovered while reading Worrall’s manuscripts is that he changed his notation style midway through “Sebastopol.” The first page is notated in the open tuning while the second page is notated as if it were in standard tuning.
The next manuscript I would turn to was “Carmencita” and it was notated as if the guitar was in standard tuning as well. Oddly, Worrall did not specify anywhere on the manuscript what open tuning the guitar should be in. After scratching my head for a bit, I tried playing the notes in standard tuning. I then open-tuned the guitar but played the notes as if they were in standard tuning and the music suddenly came to life. Very cool!
Page one of Sebastopol is notated using the actual pitches produced in open D tuning. Image courtesy of The Kansas Historical Society.
Page two of “Sebastopol” is notated as if the guitar were in standard tuning, however the guitar should be tuned D-A-D-F#-A-D. This is the same notation Worrall uses on “Carmencita” as well. Image courtesy of The Kansas Historical Society.
Another element Worrall used would become an essential part of future guitar styles: a constant bass line counterpointing the chords and/or melody. Here are two examples of Worrall’s bass lines for guitar (remember the tuning is D-A-D-F#-A-D).
Worrall’s songs incorporated a steady, independent bass line. The above pattern has become one of the most common guitar accompaniment styles.
Here is Worrall’s constant bass and chord accompaniment in 6/8 time. Yet another popular strum pattern for future pickers.
As I noted in Part 1, Worrall had a background as an organist, and that becomes evident in his approach to guitar. Keyboardists often keep a bass line going with the left hand during performance. This one-man-band approach was perfect for early blues guitarists. It would eventually turn up in bluegrass and early rock ‘n’ roll too, with guitarists playing in unison with the upright acoustic bass. Even after the invention of the electric bass in 1950, country and rockabilly players have continued to incorporate bass lines into their guitar playing.
After the process of decoding Worrall’s manuscripts it was time to play! I decided to memorize the music since the sheet music wasn’t legible enough for sight reading. I had read that Henry Worrall was an exciting performer who would often inject humor into his playing. This was borne out by his scores, which include slides, harmonics and chromaticism to keep things from getting too serious. I imagined him performing these songs at pretty fast tempos with lively dynamics. By memorizing the music, I could up the tempo.
Although Worrall would have played a small gut string guitar, I chose to play a Martin HD28 knowing that Worrall is said to have written Martin asking them to build a larger model. Remember, this is at a time in American history when the guitar was stepping out of the hushed concert hall and into noisy parlors, pubs and parties. The eventual increase in guitar body sizes and the switch to steel strings makes perfect sense from a historical perspective and it’s why I chose my Martin HD28 to record the performances. I also liked the idea of approaching Worrall’s music as an acoustic guitar player as opposed to a classical guitarist (more about that in a moment). Below are videos of “Sebastopol” and “Carmencita” as played from their original manuscripts.
In June 2015 the Kansas Historical Society presented “Guitar Music of Henry Worrall” at the Shawnee Public Library in Topeka, Kansas (where Worrall died in 1902). I talked about his manuscripts, played examples and demonstrated some of the derivative guitar styles that would follow. The presentation also featured an overview of Henry Worrall by Michael Church of the KHS and a special performance by Joshua Pierce of Tempe, Arizona. Josh is an excellent guitarist as well as vice-president of the Phoenix Early Music Society and a doctoral student in guitar performance at Arizona State. Many of Worrall’s artifacts were on display at the presentation as well.
Speaking about Henry Worrall’s music in behalf of the Kansas Historical Society.
Josh was the perfect choice to balance out the musical presentation, approaching Henry Worrall’s music with a classical guitarist’s perspective and style. He played a small nylon string guitar, read the sheet music and used proper classical posture and technique. I was playing a steel string guitar propped up on my right leg in a more folk and blues style and more loosely interpreting the pieces from memory.
Joshua Pierce performs the music of Henry Worrall with nylon strings and classical posture.
Joshua Pierce and I with Worrall’s personal copies of his published sheet music and handwritten manuscripts.
Historically, this is exactly where Henry Worrall lived: in the transition from classical and Spanish guitar to early American country and blues guitar styles. Personally, I find these times of musical transition fascinating, and I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did uncovering it. Until next time, keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.