The 21st-century concept of the guitar often invokes images of shredding and electric hard rock, but the Columbus Guitar Society plays to a different tune.

Its members are devoted to classical guitar, playing music that dates back as far as the 1500s, written for the guitar by such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin and George Frideric Handel.

Society members play guitars patterned on those used in past centuries -- and sometimes actually manufactured in past centuries.

They are acoustic instruments using nylon strings, a modern concession and replacement for the gut strings used long ago. The more common modern acoustic guitars use steel strings.

Unlike guitarists who stand in front of powerful amplifiers, Columbus Guitar Society members and all classical guitarists play seated, said Delaware resident Eugene Braig, the society's artistic director.

Right-handed players sit with their left foot on a small stool, to elevate the guitar to the proper position to pluck the strings with the tips of their fingers.

Several Columbus Guitar Society members perform for families and patients at the James Cancer Hospital on the Ohio State University campus.

Blake Miller, who coordinates the program at the hospital, testified to classical guitar's appeal: "The guitar is a beautiful instrument to have in the hospital. It's very soothing, and the sound travels through the lobby and down the patient halls amazingly."

The hospital performances are only one of the society's activities, Braig said.

The group meets the third Saturday of each month at Starbucks, 2450 E. Main St. in Bexley, and anyone is invited to attend. The sessions start at 1 p.m. and often run past 4 p.m.

Those attending bring their classical guitars, "and there's lots of sitting around a table and noodling" on the instruments, Braig said. The group also sets up a performance chair where members and visitors can perform one at a time, if they wish, before an attentive audience, he said.

More than a dozen members of the society perform as an ensemble twice a year, and the society also organizes concerts.

It will present Russian guitarist Irina Kulikova at 8 p.m. Jan. 12 at Huntington Recital Hall, 2199 E. Main St. in Bexley, on the Capital University campus.

The guitar society began in 1990 and was affiliated with Capital, Braig said. It separated financially from the university a few years ago.

The society recently gained nonprofit status, he said, which will make it eligible for arts-related grants.

Satisfying complexity

Braig was a heavy-metal guitarist in college, but he soon was drawn to classical guitar.

"With classical guitar, one musician can generate an entirely satisfying piece of music -- melody and accompanying rhythm by one player," he said. "The complexity of the music really appealed to me."

Accomplished classical guitarists are highly skilled, he said, "and it's a great way to see people achieve something really extraordinary. I personally respond to that. It's beautiful."

Classical guitar often is confused with flamenco guitar, Braig said, because the instruments are similar.

"The techniques overlap, but are different," he said. "Flamenco is flashy and very dependent on well-structured rhythm. The rhythm is more fluid with classical guitar."

Braig and fellow society member Karl Wohlwend formed a performing group called Gruviera Armonico, playing both classical guitar and mandolin. 

The modern mandolin uses eight steel strings arranged in four pairs. The classical mandolin uses 12 gut strings in six pairs.

The classical mandolin is not common in the 21st century, Braig said, "but if you went into a music store in 1780, I bet you would have seen one."

Wohlwend also plays flamenco guitar. He performs with Flamenco Dance Columbus and teaches at a home studio.

Braig often plays a Panormo guitar made in 1839 in London. It was restored and owned by a friend, he said.

Classical guitar can be played on more economical instruments, he said, which is particularly helpful for beginners. He advocates an instrument with a solid spruce top, a type which sells for as little as $200 or $300.

Also for beginners, he said, virtually every music store will have an instructor who can teach the basics of guitar. Learning classical guitar likely would require a conservatory-trained instructor, which some music academies will have, he said.

Many compositions for classical guitar are played in what's called standard tuning, which is the tuning used by almost all beginning guitarists, Braig said.

Other tunings also are used in classical guitar. One of the most common involves lowering the pitch of the guitar's lowest bass string, normally an E note, to a D note, said society secretary Ed Florek.

The same tuning often is used by rock guitarists, who call it "drop D" tuning.

"They stole it from us," Florek said with a laugh.

'Immense' impact

Seven society members regularly perform at the James Cancer Hospital, both in the lobby and on the patient floors, Miller said.

"The impact they have is immense," he said. "In the lobby, they provide patients who are coming to the James ... a moment to stop and relax on their way to or from their stressful appointments. On the patient floors, they provide patients an opportunity to take their mind off of their struggles that they are constantly dealing with.

"We constantly receive positive feedback and I have personally never had a negative comment given to me about any of them."

Tickets for the Irina Kulikova concert are available at the door, by calling CAPA at 614-469-0939 or at ticketmaster.com.

For more information, go to columbusguitarsociety.org.

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