When my friend Mike Marshall suggested
I learn Bach’s Partita No. 3 in
E major (BWV 1006), my first thought was
“impossible.” That was shortly followed by
I’d known the solo violin works for years,
but however much I love Bach’s music I
never considered it within my scope as a
player. I’m a “folkie” and I play by ear. As
more non-classical musicians are beginning
to explore this incredible musical landscape,
I figured now might be the time to dive in!
The well-known opening phrase is a
great example of Bach running up and
down a major scale—in a way that only
he knew how. Now, in my experience as a
guitarist, when I hear lots of linear scales
or even fragments of scales, I immediately
think of DADGAD tuning. Though in
some cases an arrangement may not stay
there. In this case the opening measures
drew me so far into the piece that I stayed
committed to this tuning even through
some fairly hairy key modulations.
The key of E major is not the friendliest
in DADGAD, but maybe even Johan
Sebastian would have sanctioned the use of
a capo. In order to preserve the intervallic
spacing of the tuning, and make liberal use
of the open strings, we will place a capo
at the 2nd fret. When Bach transcribed
this piece for lute he changed the key to F
major to suit the tuning of that instrument.
If you want to retune to E–B–E–A–B–E
and avoid the capo then have at it—however,
my medium-gauge strings would protest.
Glenn Gould, regarded as one of the most
significant interpreters of Bach in modern
times, said that the point of this music is to
be faithful to the harmonic ideas that Bach
was exploring. And Gould mostly played
Bach on the piano—an instrument that
hadn’t been invented in Bach’s time.
Several times in arranging this piece I
thought the difficulties in fingering were
going to make it unplayable, only to eventually
find an alternative that put me back
on the rails. It’s an amazing piece of music,
originally written for solo violin, but also
arranged by Bach for lute. The lute version
consisted of an astoundingly inventive
series of key changes, often exploring the
same idea in several keys and all delivered
in a relentless torrent of consecutive 16thnotes—
1,560 of them to be precise.
In playing the first few measures in Fig.
1, I use two ideas that are worth exploring.
One is the technique of playing across
the strings. DADGAD tuning, with the
whole-step interval between the 2nd and
3rd strings, lends itself to this very naturally.
In fact it’s one of the main reasons
for the enduring popularity of this tuning.
The idea is to play consecutive notes on
different strings so that these ring into each
other. In classical guitar this technique is
called campanella, which means “bell-like.”
It’s often also compared to the sound of a
harp where each note has its own string.
This first occurs in the fourth measure.
The descending scale moves across three
strings, then back to the open string. This
can be a bit confusing, but the effect is both
attractive and ergonomic. The fretting hand
stays in one position and the picking hand
can do the work.
The other idea worth mentioning is the
use of an open string to get the fretting
hand into a different position. This occurs
throughout the piece, but the first instance
is in the seventh measure, shown in Fig. 2.
The open 1st string allows us to move from
2nd position to 4th position to continue
the ascending phrase that ends with the B
at the 7th fret of the 1st string.
Getting that transition smooth and
accurate will take some work. One striking
difference between stringed instruments—
fretted or bowed—and the keyboard is that
we have the same pitch available on different
strings. The piano has only one middle
C! Bach’s writing for strings exploits this
frequently by “pivoting” between an open
string and the same note on a lower string.
The first instance of this is in Fig. 3, which
begins at the 13th measure. The open 1st
string alternates with the same note on
the 4th string. This creates a great sense of
movement around one fixed note.
In Fig. 4, the pivot note remains but the
pattern changes and we are into a descending
sequence of arpeggios that presents a
real challenge. Remember, this piece was
written around the capabilities—including
the open strings—of the violin, not the
guitar, in an altered tuning. When I first
tried to figure out a way to play this section
I found the notes easily enough, but once
the arpeggios started to descend my fingers
got tied in knots. Playing the section slowly
only made the knots more apparent! I was
trying to play the first part of the sequence
up around the 12th fret, which is where
the fingers naturally land from the previous
bar. It was playable but somehow sounded
clumsy and awkward whereas on violin it
sounded natural and musical.
The solution is in the second measure of
the figure, where the G# note moves from the
11th fret on the 3rd string (measure 1) to the
9th fret on the 2nd string. From there on the
arpeggio sequence is so much easier. As the
open top string remains constant, the outer
notes modulate and then descend one at a
time, with one note changing in each measure
that fits under the fingers. This almost
mathematical type of pattern is typical of
Bach’s compositional style, but hopefully we
can play it in a way that brings out the musicality
rather than the technicality of it.
I found learning and arranging this
music to be one of the most challenging
and satisfying projects I’ve attempted. The
music is difficult but rewarding and has
opened many doors in terms of technique
and harmonic awareness. I hope you get the
same out of it!
One of the foremost Celtic guitarists in the
world, Tony McManus crosses borders and
genres by combining elements of classical,
country, folk, and traditional music to create
a unique hybrid sound. His latest album, The
Maker’s Mark, was recorded in Nashville and
features 15 of the finest guitars being built today.
For more information, visit tonymcmanus.com