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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 “what if?”
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!
Tony McManus 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.