Classical Gas is one of the most requested and most familiar instrumental pieces of all time. In an episode of The Simpsons called “Last Exit to Springfield” Homer leads the workers of the nuclear power plant in a strike to recover their lost dental plan. While they picket the plant, Lisa plays a bleak worker’s song. As she finishes, Lenny shouts, “Play Classical Gas”. Lisa plays the guitar and everybody watching the episode on TV goes, “Oh, yeah, THAT tune!” Classical Gas is always asked for whenever a bunch of people and a nylon string acoustic guitar are in the same room. It is not really a great technical showcase for finger style guitarists but it is a great vehicle to show off the sound of the classical guitar.
Classical Gas was released into the world in 1968. A song by The Doors prevented it from turning into a number one hit but it remained in the second place for two weeks. Forty years later it is still among the most familiar tunes of all time and, along with The Anonymous Romance and Leucona’s Malaguena regarded as an essential element of the classical guitar repertoire. And nobody can say why.
The impact of Classical Gas is way more than the sum of its parts. There are very few musical ideas in the tune. It is mainly repetition of a theme made up of a few notes. There are a few parts that are unforgettable “surprises” making use of syncopation, scales, strums, and abrupt time signature changes. Somehow all the bits link together like pearls on a necklace, and the final note adds a sublime resolution.
The composer, Mason Williams, states on his website, “I didn’t really have any big plans for it, other than maybe to have a piece to play at parties when they passed the guitar around. I envisioned it as simply repertoire or “fuel” for the classical guitar, so I called it Classical Gasoline.” Mason Williams’ day job was as a comedy writer and stand-up comedian who had lots of other projects besides writing a classical guitar instrumental.
It was Mason Williams’ work on the Smothers Brothers’ “Comedy Hour” which gave him the opportunity to have his pet composition heard by the American public. The original score of the piece shows only chords and a few notes. Mason Williams had a twenty-three year old composer named Mike Post finish off the arrangement.
At the Grammys it won Best Instrumental Composition and Best Instrumental Performance for Mason Williams and Best Instrumental Arrangement for Mike Post who has had a career full of triumphs in the field of TV theme music. His latest victory is the theme(s) for the “Law And Order” series.
Classical Gas has been employed as the theme music for several news programs, the background music for the Apollo 4 movie, and featured in a number of other movies and TV shows. Many people have mistakenly attributed Mason Williams’ solo version of the tune for a cover by Eric Clapton.
Classical Gas is quite an easy piece to play, the challenge is to play it with passion and dynamics because it appears to non-guitarists, more difficult to play than it really is. Maybe this is the reason it is among the most requested guitar pieces ever.