Extra strings, strange positions, and surfing

Classical guitarist Redmond O’Toole to play Galway

REDMOND O’TOOLE plays a most unusual guitar in a most unusual way. The Limerick born classical guitarist performs on an eight-stringed version of the instrument and he doesn’t play it across his lap. He plays it upright, as though it were a cello.

He is among the very few guitarists to use an eight-string guitar, the others being The Brazilian Guitar Quartet adn Paul Galbraith. Unusual though it is, Redmond’s use of the instrument and his enormous talent as a guitarist, have seen him build a reputation as one of the most exciting young classical musicians currently at work.

Redmond O’Toole will give a solo recital in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church on Friday February 6 at 8pm and it will be his first solo show in the mediaeval building.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Redmond tells me. “It will be a good old fashioned solo recital, so it’s all up to me. I will be playing the 18th century music of Bach and Scarlatti right up until today with a brand new commission from Brian Bolger. I will also include original guitar works from Spain by Joaquin Rodrigo and Frederico Torroba. I have also included a transcription of a piano sonata by Haydn to celebrate his bicentenary.”

Redmond has been selected as the National Concert Hall’s 2009 ‘Rising Star’ and his St Nicholas recital is part of a series of concerts to mark this. It is certainly an exciting time for the Limerick man as over the last four years he has seen his reputation grow throughout Ireland and abroad.

He has released two very fine albums - Movements (2006 ), which showed all facets of his playing style and Baroque (2008 ), a mellower recording concentrating on Vivaldi, Weiss, Scarlatti, and Bach. He has also toured Spain with the Chieftains, performed for the BBC with the Ulster Orchestra, and shared the stage with the Dutch soprano Charlotte Riedjik.

The guitarist

Redmond grew up in a house full of music. His parents both played guitar and had for a time been a folk duo. Redmond took up the instrument at 13 and recognising his precocious talent, his parents decided to send him to formal music lessons. Then a friend turned him onto classical guitar.

“A friend was taking lessons in classical and I was highly impressed by him,” Redmond recalls, “so I went to his teacher. I was also playing in heavy metal and punk bands during my teens and early 20s, but I never stopped taking regular lessons. It was when I was approached by the College of Music in Dublin to enrol on the performance course that I began to concentrate solely on classical.”

This would eventually result in the Munster man being taught by Oscar Gighlia, the former assistant to Andres Segovia - one of the most pivotal figures in classical guitar. Redmond studied with Gighlia at the Academia Chigiana in Siena and at his home in Athens over a period of five years. He would also study with Paul Galbraith in Sao Paulo and with Dr John Feeley at the DIT in Dublin.

The meeting with Galbraith was significant as it would lead Redmond to use the eight-string guitar, designed by Galbraith.

The guitar is generally a six-string instrument. The best known exception is the 12-string guitar, often associated with David Bowie and The Byrds. The eight-string is a rarity though and The Brazilian Guitar Quartet and Redmond O’Toole are two of the few who use it.

“The instrument was invented by Paul Galbraith who later formed the Brazilian Guitar Quartet, so that is the connection there,” says Redmond. “I saw a concert of Paul back in 2000 and was so impressed by what he could do on it that I immediately had my guitarmaker uncle Pat O’Toole build one and I have never looked back.”

Another usual feature of the instrument is that is not played on its side and across the lap as guitars usually are, but is instead played upright like a cello. Is Redmond not making things more difficult for himself by doing that?

“On the contrary, I find the cello position actually makes playing the guitar easier,” he replies. “Getting used to it in the first place is the problem. The most obvious difficulty is the extra strings. I suppose you could say we have 33 per cent more strings so 33 per cent more work!”

For those that play guitar - classical, electric, acoustic - what is the main piece of advice Redmond would give?

“Practice, practice, practice!” he declares. “I have a simple philosophy; if you keep your hands ‘fit’ and practice, well then, you can realise your imagination.”

A classical piece many guitarists aspire to play (even if they don’t like classical music or own a classical guitar ) is Albeniz’s ‘Asturias’, thanks to its use as part of The Doors’ song ‘Spanish Caravan’. It’s one very, very, difficult piece.

“I play ‘Asturias’ quite often in concert,” says Redmond. “Many don’t realise Albeniz wrote this for piano, hence the difficulty on guitar. But again it really is just a matter of slow practice when approaching a difficult piece.”

The surfer

There is no doubting Redmond’s passion for the guitar, but he also has another passion - surfing.

“I was a committed skateboarder in my teens and then discovered surfing and have been doing it ever since,” he says. “I am roughly 15 years surfing.”

Where does he regard as the best surfing spot in Ireland?

“Every spot has its day,” he says. “When it comes to surfing, the weather conditions are everything, the wind, and the swell direction. My favourite spot is a place called ‘drainpipe’. It’s 50 metres from my brother's house on Brandon Bay in Kerry!”

While in other countries surfers run the risk of encountering sharks and Portuguese man o’war’s, it seems Irish surfers are most at risk from skydiving sheep!

“A friend of mine once got hit by a dead sheep in the water surfing on Achill Island!” says Redmond. “It scared the hell out of him. It must have fallen in off the cliffs.”

Tickets for Redmond’s concert are €15 and are available from 091 - 799258 and at the door on the night. See also www.redmondotoole.com


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