Featured photo: Diego Figueiredo, a Brazilian jazz artist playing at the Southern Guitar Festival (photo by Beckett Clarey)

Diego Figueiredo has some practical advice for aspiring jazz guitarists.

First thing in the morning, he says, spend two hours practicing all major chords and learning all of their inversions, which are variations on that chord’s bass note, as well as learning every spot on the instrument where those chords can be played. Then spend another two hours drilling every minor chord with their inversions— experimenting with how they each sound when you add a flat ninth, a sharp 11th, a 7. After a short lunch, the aspiring jazz guitarist should spend another two hours working on the harmonic minor scale — trying it in every key, every mode, every position on the guitar all the way down the neck. 

“It’s no secret”, he says with a chuckle. “Everyone asks me, ‘How do I improvise?’ You just study the scales and the chords eight hours a day for 10 years.”

Now, Figueiredo is able to think about his music vertically, he explains in a presentation given on the Sunday afternoon as part of  11th annual Southern Guitar Festival, held over the weekend at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

Figueiredo is an award-winning Brazilian guitarist who fuses his jazz, bossa nova, and classical music influences into his unique style. He has performed at hundreds of locations all around the world from China to Portugal and even on a cruise to Antarctica. He’s released 28 CDs, and he has a book on improvisation called New Patterns

The festival, directed by respected guitarist Marina Alexandra, was originally held in Columbia, South Carolina. It has been held in Winston-Salem since 2021. Featuring a competition, concerts, workshops and the opportunity to meet and talk with extremely talented guitar builders, the event attracts guitarists locally and from across the country — the majority of which were classical players.

Winners from this year’s competition at the Southern Guitar Festival (photo by Beckett Clarey)

The classical guitar world is a relatively small community. There are only a handful of reputable programs to study it in the US. Many of the professionals and luthiers have known each other for years. Most serious players or professionals spend countless hours practicing and performing all by themselves. The Southern Guitar Festival and other events like it give the community opportunities to meet up, share information, showcase talent, and foster artistic growth for all players.

For the uninitiated, classical guitar is both a style of playing and a type of guitar. The guitars themselves are strung with strings of soft nylon, giving them a darker sound than steel stringed guitars. They are almost always fully acoustic, meaning they cannot be plugged into anything — although Figueiredo plays a classical guitar that can be plugged directly into an amp. While some classical guitars are mass produced, most serious players will have one that was handmade by a luthier for a high price. The most seasoned players will know how each type of wood subtly affects the sound of the guitar.

Guitars made by George Thomas for sale at the Southern Guitar Festival (photo by Beckett Clarey)

Classical guitar luthier Waddy Thomson gives a presentation explaining some aspects of how he builds his instruments, using a half-built cross section of a guitar for demonstration. Building just one takes him over a month, with hundreds of hours of work going into each guitar. 

The way he explains it is just like a very complicated woodworking project. 

He has to carve thin spears of wood tapered on both ends to create the 7-fan bracing, he has to use heat to bend rectangular strips of wood to make the sides of the guitar, he has to carve out a guitar neck with indents for frets. Even making the bridge of the guitar is a major project, he says. 

The final product is pristine, as seen by the showcase he has of his work in the lobby.

An opened up guitar from a workshop at the Southern Guitar Festival where classical guitar Luthier Waddy Thomson explained how he makes them. (photo by Beckett Clarey)

One might think that the type of music people play on the classical guitar is all Bach, Mozart and other long-dead, Eastern European symphony composers. But the guitar has a rich history in Spain and France,  as well as Brazil and other Latin American countries. 

On Saturday night in the Watson Hall of UNCSA, Diego Figueiredo showcases the breadth of variety afforded by the instrument. After wiping his brow and smiling after performing his arrangement of “All the Things You Are,” the jazz hit originally written by Jerome Kern, he engages his audience in a kind of game. 

“Okay,” he says, “Something I like to do in these concerts is improvise a whole piece on the spot. So you know I’m not lying, I’m going to ask you all what key I should play in, and in what style. Samba, choro, tango, bossa nova, bolero, anything.” 

Audience members shout out letters and genres. Figueiredo is tasked with playing a samba in G-sharp minor, transitioning it into a tango in A major. 

“I will try my best,” he says.

He starts to play a G-sharp minor chord with a samba rhythm, his eyes looking to the ceiling searching for inspiration. Ten, 15 seconds go by with him repeating just that chord, and a member of the audience laughs. 

Suddenly, he adds an exquisite seductive samba melody on top of the tonic chord. Never to get bogged down in one thing, the melody gets constantly altered and extrapolated, the style subtly shifting. 

He blazes through multi octave scales with a sound like a lawnmower engine revving up. And he performs all of it with an unmatched looseness. He sways from side to side, as he looks up at the crowd with a raised brow when he hits something he knows is impressive. He even throws in a quote of what sounded like Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” 

His performance is fiery, always surprising and engaging. 

When he plays his last note, he cuts the sound with his whole body and explodes to his feet, letting out a loud triumphant laugh through his wide grin. 

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