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A guitar orchestra is a performance group that consists of mostly guitar players, though there may be a few other complementary instruments such as percussion, wind, and strings. There can also be different kinds of guitars, including alto, contra, and bass. The players in a guitar orchestra are divided into several sections, each of which plays a part of the score. These groups can play a wide array of genres, from classical to pop. Different kinds of guitar orchestras can be found all over the world, in places such as Japan, Mexico, and the United States.
A Japanese guitar orchestra typically has four different kinds of guitars. They are the alto, prime, bass, and contrabass. The first two guitars have the highest tones, with the prime most closely approximating a traditional classical guitar. As the latter types have lower tones, they tend to provide rhythm while the alto and prime handle the melody.
Mexican guitar orchestras usually consist of three different guitar types. The highest guitar is the requinto. Middle tones are provided by the classical guitar. The lowest notes and rhythm are provided by either a bass guitar or a lower-toned contrabass.
An American guitar orchestra is typically a larger ensemble of at least twenty players. There can be anywhere from four to eight sections in this kind of ensemble. The players tend to be arranged in a manner similar to that of a traditional string orchestra, and these kinds of groups often use other instruments in addition to guitars.
There are also orchestras which consist of mostly electric guitars. These groups tend to focus on avant garde music, though some ensembles do play a variety of styles. There are also groups which combine electric and acoustic instruments.
Depending on the size of the group, a guitar orchestra can have many different sounds. As there are several different kinds of guitars, with tones from the highest to lowest registers, the cumulative effect can vary widely. The groups tend to have a sound similar to a large harp.
The concept of a one instrument orchestra has existed for several years. Other similar groups include mandolin and balalaika orchestras. Some groups will have primarily two instruments, such as a mandolin and guitar orchestra. Single instrument groups tend to be composed of string instruments, as they are capable of a wide array of sound variations from bowing, plucking, and using the body of the instrument for light percussion.
One of the most famous guitar orchestra pieces is Glen Brancas 100 Guitars. It is exactly what it sounds like, 100 people playing electric guitar all at once, no other instruments.
As you might expect this almost never gets performed because of all the technical difficulties and because of the very specialized nature of the piece. It only appeals to so many people.
But I was lucky enough to see it performed in New York about 15 years ago and it was amazing. I have never experienced a wall of sound like that. It was beautiful to hear and also a truly unique idea. We all know what a guitar sounds like. But who knew what 100 guitars playing together sounded like. It makes me wonder about 100 trumpets or 100 drums.