Fingers in Motion
A technique I learned from my first classical teacher may help here. She advised me to start moving my fingers while the last note before a position shift is still ringing out. In Image 1, I’m fretting the 1st-string note, but my other fingers are already on their way to a higher position. Try this in the spots where you must leap from the 1st fret to the 6th, 8th, and 13th frets.
Use the reverse technique when leaping from a higher fret to a lower one. In Image 2, I’m sustaining the 13th-fret note while other fingers depart toward lower frets.
Try doing the same with whatever melody pops into your head. “Silent Night,” “Star-Spangled Banner,” the Star Warstheme, “Shake It Off”—it doesn’t matter. Choose a random string and fret. Find the notes. And then figure out how to play them as legato as possible. If the melody exceeds the range of a single string, just move to the next one. I won’t report you to the single-string police.
If you’re feeling brave, try this with your eyes closed. (Brace for humbling mistakes.) If you can play most tunes by ear on a single string with your eyes closed … you’re really good. Do you give lessons? (Asking for a friend.)
Bach Around the Clock
Let’s conclude with a truly great melody from J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite #3 in D Major. About 150 years after Bach’s 1750 death, a violinist named August Wilhelmj arranged one of the movements for solo violin and accompaniment. He decided to play the entire melody on the violin’s 4th string, earning the piece the nickname “Air on a G String.” (Insert underwear joke here.)
Wilhelmj probably didn’t make that choice just so he could say, “Check my chops, bitches!” Playing it that way makes it feel like a vocal piece, for the reasons mentioned above. (When a classical instrumental piece is named “Air,” “Aria,” or “Arie,” it usually means it’s written to sound like a vocal piece, often an operatic aria.)
The violin’s G string is in the same octave as the guitar’s G string, so we can do the same trick. I recorded it on electric guitar, plus electric bass and second guitar. Even if you’re not a classical music geek, the piece might sound familiar. Procol Harum swiped the bass line and harmonic progression for their 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” However, the violin melody doesn’t appear in that song. Check it out in Ex. 3.
Don’t be intimidated by all the notes in measure 2. The tempo is very slow, so they’re not all that fast. (If you still have trouble with the trill, check out the alternative measure 2 in the appendix below.) The hardest part is playing the melody legato despite the position shifts. It’s also tricky sustaining the long notes. (It’s easy on violin, where the bow keeps the energy going.)
So you can check out the accompaniment, Ex. 4 shows the electric bass and second guitar parts.
Practice one-string exercises for a while, and then try some conventional playing. Does anything feel different after the first day? After a week? I’m eager to hear about your experiences, so please post them to comments.
Thanks for joining me. Many more daring adventures to come!
Appendix (For Classical Geeks Only)
This is only the first half of the piece. Download a public domain score for the entire suite (Ex. 5) here. (The “Air” movement starts on page 232.) You’ll find performances of the piece featuring many different instruments on YouTube.
You may notice that the second measure in Ex. 3 is very different from the one in the score, which looks like Ex. 6.
Like much 18th-century music, this piece includes ornamentation, depicted by the grace notes and trill symbol. I wrote these out as individual notes in Ex. 3 for two reasons.
First, music notation software isn’t good at depicting ornamentation in tablature. By writing out everything as it’s actually played, tab readers can perform this accurately.
Also, these symbols were interpreted differently in Bach’s day than they are today. Some performances strive to play these with as much historical accuracy as possible. Other recordings (especially older ones) feature the ornaments in a non-Baroque style.
In modern practice, a trill means oscillating quickly between the note under the trill sign and the next scale step above it. That means starting this trill on C#. But a Baroque musician would have started on the note abovethe one shown (D, in this case).
Also, a modern performer usually interprets a grace note (the mini-sized notes, shown as smaller numerals in the tab) by playing it very quickly an instant before the beat. A Baroque musician would have played it directly on the beat, and not necessarily quickly. Usually, the grace note gets half the duration of the note it proceeds. So that last grace note in measure 2 would probably have been played as a leisurely eighth-note.
There’s nothing wrong with substituting the simplified measure 2 in Ex. 6. It’ll still sound beautiful.