Reviews: ABRSM guitar syllabus 2019, Grades 1-5

Al Summers
Saturday, December 1, 2018

Al Summers reviews ABRSM's new guitar syllabus for Grades 1-5, including Guitar Star and Guitar Prep Test.

ABRSM's format and marking scheme will be familiar to most teachers. The excitement of this syllabus update concerns the publication of Guitar Exam Pieces books. These are published with an optional CD (and as audio downloads from the online shop at Although a full suite of volumes up to Grade 8 would have been welcomed, this initial set of books is noteworthy, as it is the first time the board has produced this type of grade handbook. (Grades 6-8 have also been updated, and lists of pieces are available via the ABRSM website.)

Useful information sections (required scales and arpeggios, sight-reading and aural tests) are given at the front and back of the book, which each contain nine pieces arranged in the habitual A, B and C lists. A list of seven other choices for each section includes publication detail.

As well as the grade books, ABRSM offers a valuable new resource, Guitar Star: a book and CD package containing 42 superb little beginner pieces. Evidently aimed at young players, it is equally helpful and attractive to any beginning player. Publishers often seem to miss the well-reported growing market of older learners. Skilled composer and arranger Gary Ryan will need no introduction to guitar tutors. He is a considerable performer and has recorded (including accompaniments) these beautifully presented pieces.

This leads on to (while including some pieces suitable for) the Prep Test, a pre-Grade exam experience. New pieces in this update are well written; there are some aural tests – ‘Listening Games’ – and a quiz highlighting some theory knowledge and understanding. Besides a piece by Ryan, it is good to see other composer-guitarists such as Abigail James and Tim Pells represented by playable, fun pieces.

As has been fashionable among all boards in recent years, the music comprises a reasonably conservative mix, with a few technical challenges (but nothing innovative) and almost no pieces of harmonically adventurous music (Leo Brouwer featuring in the ‘other pieces’ lists as a token gesture perhaps). Although this reflects the age, pleasing most tutors and students, it gives no option for pupils with bolder tastes who wish to live a little more dangerously: there are some who wish to explore and share their enjoyment of music that pushes boundaries.

Among some fairly customary pieces, there are gems at each level here:

Grade 1: Claude Gervaise's simple ‘Gaillarde Passemaize’ is a charming 16th-century piece presented here in a duo arrangement, with the candidate taking the top melody. ‘Spanish Knights’ by James Longworth and Nick Walker has a flavour suitable for its title and subject (Don Quixote) and a basic but characterful Phrygian melody chiefly in the bass. ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, written by Clarence Carson Parks in the 1960s, makes an effective duet in the hands of experienced arranger Richard Wright.

Grade 2: Carlos Bonell's clever and appealing duet arrangement of the Spanish folk song ‘Inés’ is a delight. A solo by Manus Noble (‘Highland Spirit’) in the Dorian mode evokes a Celtic mood; ABRSM seem not to have a house style for modal writing as the previous grade's modal piece has a key signature reflecting all required flats while this has an E minor signature with sharpened Cs given as accidentals. This is no criticism: my personal preference is for a lack of signature in modal writing (as any signature can confuse) and players need to be exposed to different approaches to modal writing as that is what they will find in the real world.

Grade 3: Dorian melody with some Aeolian harmony is not the only feature of the Breton song ‘Tri Martolod’ as arranged by Lauren Snowden, its many changes in time signature not nearly as difficult to render as they look – already a favourite of one of my older students within a month of publication.

Grade 4: It is good to see Paganini represented; his 37 short and fine guitar sonatas are too little known. The Allegretto (second/final movement) of ‘Sonata No. 6’ makes a fitting introduction to his idiomatic writing. Pieces by Panteleimon Michaeloudis and Peter Wrieden present familiar moody filmic and blues shuffle characters, respectively.

Grade 5: Paul Desmond's ‘Take Five’ is a pleasing challenge, Robert de Visée's ‘G major Gigue’ a refreshing choice from this composer and Laura Snowden's ‘The Snow Globe’ for two guitars is a highlight of the syllabus.