This series has run its course. But its methods can last a lifetime.
Well, that didn’t feel like two years, did it?
When I proposed the Subversive Guitarist column to my Premier Guitar pals in 2018, we figured on 20 or so installments, to be followed by a book version of the series. For once, things went precisely as planned: This is the final column in the series, and PG will issue a book version (with lots of extra material!) later this year. Meanwhile, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll continue to float around the PG universe, and I’ll be part of a cool new ongoing project to be announced soon.
I can’t summarize every Subversive Guitarist column here. But I’ll recap some key concepts, with one goal in mind: creating an ongoing series of mental, technical, and musical challenges to keep your playing moving forward. That’s what I mean by “perpetual subversion.”
As stated upfront in the first column, this series was inspired by the most common complaint I hear from intermediate and advanced players: “I feel like I play the same things every time I pick up a guitar.”
I believe that’s because most of us learn using the same licks, formulas, and box patterns. Those tools help make guitar a relatively easy instrument to learn. The downside is, that stuff can get baked in as muscle memory. Your hands automatically fall into their familiar patterns.
Every exercise in this series aimed to subvert this cycle. But the point isn’t the individual exercises so much as the processes behind them. You can apply these endlessly, perpetually challenging yourself and uncovering new ideas.
Comfortable Techniques in Uncomfortable Places
One useful procedure is to apply a technique systematically to every note or chord in a musical passage. Take position shifts, for example: We tend execute them favoring certain fingers, positions, and strings, especially when improvising using box patterns and scales. But picking out melodies by ear using only a single string (suggested in the July 2018 installment) undermines those habits. With practice, you can get comfortable shifting positions by any interval using any finger, all while honing your ability to play melodies by ear. We used “Happy Birthday” as an example (Ex. 1). Why not just attempt a single-string version of some random melody as part of each practice session?
Going to Extremes
It can be revealing and inspiring to apply techniques in a more extreme fashion than we might during regular playing. We did that when we focused on sliding between notes in the Dec. 2018 column. Ordinarily, we tend to favor particular fingers, positions, and beats when using this technique. But if you apply the technique systematically to every note in a melody, you can break out of your usual habits, cultivating freer and more flexible phrasing. The examples used the cowboy ballad “The Streets of Laredo.” We started by learning the basic melody in Ex. 2.
Next, we replayed the melody, sliding into every downbeat note (Ex. 3). Then sliding into the second beat of each measure (Ex. 4), and then the third beat of each measure (Ex. 5).
And then we did it all again but sliding down into each note. Try this with the first tune that pops into your head.
Another exercise in extremes was when we exploited the guitar’s maximum dynamic range in the June 2019 installment. We tried to play using 10 distinct volume levels ranging from barely audible to the loudest possible attack (Ex. 6).
We all have a general sense of when to play louder and softer. But practice using the instrument’s maximum range and exploiting subtle dynamic changes can bring greater mindfulness, control, and expression to your playing.
We’ve all got favorite phrases we like to play. It’s part of what defines our personal style! But sometimes our lines are nothing more than muscle memory on display. Exercises that force you out of your familiar fingerings are an excellent remedy.
For example, many of us practice scales—a good thing! But you can benefit far more from the exercise if you venture beyond simply running them up and down using only adjacent notes. We did that in the April 2019 lesson, where we tried practicing scales using short melodic “cells,” repeated on successively higher or lower scale steps, as in Ex. 7.
That way, you eventually practice every possible intervallic leap, not just the familiar ones. The benefits are finding new melodies, getting better at playing tunes by ear, and general mindfulness. If you select a different short melody to play sequentially each time you practice scales, you’ll benefit far more from the exercise.
We tried another “scale disrupter” in the July 2019 column: octave leaps. Moving fluidly between octaves can create generate more interesting melodies while honing fretting-hand speed and accuracy. We practiced skipping octaves at shorter and shorter intervals, culminating in Ex. 8. It’s “The Streets of Laredo” again, but with an octave shift occurring between every single note.
We looked at various ways to expand you your rhythmic confidence and creativity, but it all boiled down to two techniques: composite rhythm and rhythmic displacement.
Composite rhythm pertains to hearing the multiple rhythms in a piece of music not as isolated entities, but as parts in a single organized tapestry. That can be as simple as confidently tapping a foot while playing rhythms whose rhythms don’t coincide with the taps, as in Ex. 9.
Then we got trickier, tapping rhythms other than the downbeat while playing syncopated rhythms, as in Ex. 10.
This can be a humbling exercise, especially when you remember that drummers do more difficult things every time they play.
We also talked a lot about cultivating the ability to shift rhythms in time—a technique that’s far easier to describe than execute. One way to tackle it is by studying famous guitar intros that deceive you into perceiving the downbeat as somewhere other than it is, only to surprise you when the full band kicks in. Ex. 11 is one of the examples from the August 2019 column.
We revisited the notion in February 2020 column, where we started with a common folk fingerpicking pattern, only to shift it around to eight possible starting points within the measure, as seen in the video below.
The ability to shift parts in time on the fly can resolve countless arrangement problems and help you craft groovier, more interesting parts. It’s all about making the familiar unfamiliar. Hey, that’s worth saying twice!
Making the Familiar Unfamiliar
Want to generate new ideas and cultivate new skills every time you practice? Then always be sure to practice a few strange and uncomfortable things. It can be as simple as playing a familiar scale using new melodic sequences. Or always substituting new chords each time you practice a fingerpicking pattern. Or shifting a part in time by a 16th note. Or flipping an exercise backward and playing it start to finish. The possibilities are almost practically endless.
With an attitude like this, you’ll never cross the finish line—and that’s great! Guitar becomes a lifelong challenge, always fresh, always fascinating. And you’ll never again have to say, “I feel like I play the same things every time I pick up a guitar.”
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.
It’s a complicated calculus, with no hard-and-fast rules.
Is it good to able to read music fluently? Yup! (End of article.)
But it’s not quite that simple, is it? Learning to read well usually requires years of practice, and not everyone has that kind of spare time. If life obligations only let you play for a few minutes per day or a few hours per week, it’s probably not wise to over-invest in a reading regimen. Other factors include your preferred styles of music, whether you aspire to a musical career, and how much you value exposing yourself to a constant stream of new musical ideas.
This article’s goal is to help you arrive at your best decision. It’s a complicated calculus, with no hard-and-fast rules. Some might say reading is essential for professionals, but not for amateurs. Others might say it’s important for classical and jazz players, but not rock players. I find such views far too simplistic, so let’s attempt a more nuanced discussion. We’ll cover most of the usual considerations and some less commonly considered factors.
Readers and Non-Readers
I should disclose my background and biases. I learned to read as a little kid, and I kept reading through college and grad school. I can generally look at a piece of notation and “hear” what it sounds like, or hear music and visualize how it would look in notation. Sometimes I think I read music better than I read English. This reflects no innate talent on my part—it’s simply a matter of training.
But for all that, I’ve never insisted that all my students learn to read, and I don’t believe it’s a crucial skill for many guitarists. Most of my favorite players are non-readers, or semi-skilled readers who don’t use notation as a day-to-day tool. In some cases, a lack of theory and reading knowledge contributes to a player’s unique and exciting style.
So who needs to read? If you’re going to pursue a degree in music, you need to read well. (You’ll probably need to learn piano too, so get cracking if you haven’t already.) This is probably true even if your specialization is rock, jazz, or pop.
Once upon a time, you had to be an ace reader to be a studio/session guitarist. That’s rarely true these days. The last time I had to do serious reading at a session was for a film score several years ago. If I’d been forced to decline every prospective gig that required reading, I’d have lost … maybe two percent of my work?
Composing for film or television was once unthinkable without notation skills. Even today few musicians would dare step into a big, expensive soundtrack recording session without strong reading skills. But increasingly, the music for film and TV (not to mention jingles) is produced independently in small studios, often by musicians without traditional training.
What if you dream of a career as a session player? Some of the leading Los Angeles players are superb readers, but a handful of players get most of the jobs. There are fine readers in Nashville, but guitarists are far likelier to use “Nashville number system” charts than standard notation. (The number system is a specialized type of chord chart.) In fact, you can make a case that “session guitarist” no longer exists as a career option. Most non-rock stars who make a living in music are multitasking: playing, performing, composing, recording, producing, mixing, teaching, and investing many hours in self-promo and social media. Sure, reading ability is an advantage, but it’s probably less of a factor than at any point in the past.
You don’t even need to read music to be a guitar magazine editor. I’ve edited for two major guitar mags, and in both cases, only a few of the editors were capable readers. (But obviously, you need those skills for, say, transcribing guitar solos or editing music for publication.)
Isn’t it possible to play MIDI notes into a DAW or notation program and have the program capture your performance in notation? Not quite. No matter how precise your performance or how clever your software, you must almost always make many manual edits before the notated music becomes suitable for sharing.
Tab: Fab or Drab?
These days far more guitarists rely on tab than on standard notation. Tab (short for tablature) isn’t some recent invention for guitarists too “lazy” to learn notation—fretted-instrument players have used tab for well over 400 years. Tab has helped millions of guitarists successfully learn millions of songs.
But tab has shortcomings. First, only guitarists can read it, so you can’t use it to share ideas with musicians who play other instruments. Also, tab conveys limited information about the music it depicts. As an example, consider the two measures shown in Ex. 1.
If you’re not a notation reader, try picking out the tab notes. Wow, a descending C major scale—big deal. Without the rhythms indicated in the notation, you might not realize that it’s the first phrase from “Joy to the World.” (The Christmas carol, not the Hoyt Axton song about Jeremiah the Bullfrog.) Tab doesn’t tell you how long to sustain notes, or whether to play them legato, staccato, or some other way. It communicates nothing about dynamics. It’s not clear when notes should bleed into each other and when they shouldn’t. And while tab can indicate note-to-note articulations such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and bends, it has no way to depict longer musical phrases.
Tab usually works great if you’re already familiar with the music you’re trying to learn. And that brings us to one of the strongest arguments in favor of music reading.
Learning What You Don’t Already Know
For me, the biggest benefit of reading well is the ability to learn from music you don’t already know. It’s a cliché to say that guitarists should study music by non-guitarists, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Tab can be great for learning a Van Halen solo, but it won’t help you learn a Miles Davis solo or a Bach prelude.
As an example, I often steal ideas from classical music for everything from rock solos to pop hooks. Racking my brain for an example, I thought of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a piece for orchestra and chorus that I’ve loved since I was a teen but have never approached as a guitarist. I downloaded a free public-domain score and got to work.
For reference, here’s a fine performance of the score as the composer intended.
It opens with a chord so unique and renowned that classical musicians refer to it as (wait for it … ) “the Symphony of Psalms chord.” It’s a bizarre voicing of an E minor triad played by most of the orchestra. According to traditional music theory, the 3 of a triad is the note you’re least likely to double at the octave. But Stravinsky quadruples it, voicing the G in four different octaves.
With eight notes spread across more than three-and-a-half octaves, it’s unplayable on guitar. It’s literally impossible to play the three lowest notes on a single standard-tuned guitar. The chord is difficult on keyboard as well, though players with a good reach can handle it (see Image 1).
But if a single guitar can’t play the chord, can two guitars? To find out, I had to write down the chord, and then figure out how to divide the notes between two instruments (Ex. 2). Yes—it works! What a bizarre and fascinating voicing! But I’d never have known that if I couldn’t read music.
Then I started thinking about other parts of the piece. In the opening section, the famous chord alternates with spiky, chromatic melodies employing half-diminished scales centered around Bb. Those are played by a bassoon and an oboe, doubling the melody at a distance of two octaves—a relatively rare voicing for guitarists. With its dissonant intervals and the tritone clash between the E minor chord and the Bb scales, this passage could inspire a hundred evil-sounding metal riffs. The odd-meter rhythms would suit any musical style with the word “progressive” in its name. And whoa—that two-octave doubling sounds an awful lot like impossibly fast artificial harmonics. I’m definitely going to be stealing that trick.
Those scales are a bitch to play at the indicated tempo of 92 bpm. I had to write everything down and learn the parts slowly from the page. This too would have been nearly impossible without reading skills. Ex. 3 shows the piece’s opening section, transcribed for two guitars.
The goal isn’t to perform a symphony on two guitars (not that that’s a bad idea). It’s about stretching my hands into new formations and stretching my ears to incorporate these new discoveries. This cuts to the heart of the entire Subversive Guitarist series: breaking dead-end muscle-memory habits and finding new inspiration.
Another example: My previous column, on mutant folk fingerpicking, employed a simple concept: Take a pattern whose accent usually falls on the downbeat, and then shift the placement so that the accent falls anywhere but the downbeat. But there’s no way I could have gone straight from concept to performance. Again, I had to write it all down, and then practice from the page. It can be a laborious process, but if you’re lucky, it generates fresh, exciting ideas.
Obviously, That’s a Circle
For the sake of balance, here’s a final argument against relying too much on theory and notation. If you know theory well and have read lots of music from notation, you grow accustomed to the most common melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic formulas. That can be a valuable skill! But it can also make you leap to assumptions, ruling out less predictable, less theoretically “correct” options. It’s not a matter of guitarists with theory chops being sticklers for “the rules.” It’s simply that we sometimes assume prematurely where something is going, when the best destination might be someplace less predictable.
Here’s a visual metaphor: A player schooled in theory might look at the partial circle in Image 2, think, “Obviously, that’s going to be a circle,” and complete the idea as shown in the second drawing. But someone who doesn’t know the usual formulas might devise something more creative, like the third drawing.
Given the choice, I’d definitely choose “strong theory and reading skills” over “no theory and reading skills.” Yet I must admit that non-schooled players often devise the coolest, freshest ideas. Too often I make the expected choice because I know what musicians usually do. That’s the opposite of creativity! Maybe that’s why most of my favorite guitarists don’t have traditional theory and reading skills.
Hey, don’t ask me—the jury is you! I just hope I’ve presented a balanced perspective on an important and difficult decision for many ambitious guitarists.
A funky fingerstyle challenge that starts with Travis picking and then warps it beyond recognition.
This month’s lesson is an exercise in fingerpicking, syncopation, and groove. We’ll start with a familiar idea: the folk fingerpicking style commonly called Travis picking. (Even though it’s not really how Merle Travis played, as explained at the end of this column.) Then we’ll warp it beyond recognition.
There are countless variations on this basic picking concept, but they all share one trait: The thumb’s accented bass notes always fall squarely on the beat. That’s perfect for country ballads and coffeehouse folk rock. But with some sly rhythmic displacement, you can generate a vast collection of funky patterns evocative of Latin and African music. This video demonstrates the premise. If you find the idea worth pursuing, try working through the exercises that follow.
I play all of this with no pick—just my thumb, index finger, and middle finger. But you could also use a thumbpick and two fingers, or grip a flatpick between thumb and index finger and pluck the high strings with your middle and ring fingers. Heck, when I was a tween, I used a flatpick along with my middle finger, ring finger, and pinky. You’ve got a lot of liberty here.
We’ll start with eight possible rhythmic variations, all played over a simple C chord. These are all played exactly the same, but starting at different points within the measure. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy! After that, we’ll apply these patterns to more complex chord sequences.
If you’re a fingerpicking newb, the exercises in this column may help you find your feet. Meanwhile, this column deals with rhythmic displacement, as heard in all those song intros that trick you into thinking the downbeat is somewhere other than its actual location. We’re playing a similar game here.
A common version of the three-finger pattern appears in Ex. 1.
Ex. 2 is the same, except that the notes from first beat and second beat are reversed. In other words, everything has been shifted by a quarter-note. The “pinched” (thumb plus finger) accent still falls on the beat—but it’s beat 2, not beat 1. If you can play Ex. 1, Ex. 2 should be pretty easy.
In Ex. 3, the pattern gets shifted by an eighth-note, so that the pinch falls on the “and” of beat 1. For the first time so far, no thumb notes fall on the downbeats. This can be quite tricky at first. Be sure to engage the metronome in SoundSlice (by touching the metronome in the control bar). Tapping a foot probably helps.
Again, Ex. 4 is the same as Ex. 3, but with the beat 1 and beat 2 notes swapped. Now the “pinch” appears on the “and” of beat 2.
So far, this is all fairly straightforward. Now comes the hard part.
The Hard Part
The next four examples shift the basic pattern by 16th-notes. This can be incredibly confusing at first. I simply couldn’t do it the first few times I tried. I had to write down the patterns and read them from the page until they started to feel natural.
Be certain to use the SoundSlice click track here, preferably while tapping a foot. Without a backing rhythm, you’ll probably hear these as if they were played on the beat.
In Ex. 5, the pinch accent falls on the second 16th-note of the first beat. It’s harder than it sounds! It may help to imagine a string of words to represent the target rhythm. If, for example, Ex. 1’s rhythm can be expressed as “Where are we sailin’, Sally?” then you could represent Ex. 5 with “Sally, the ship is sinking.”
Ex. 6 is the same, but with the first and second beats flipped, so the accent falls on the beat 2’s second 16th-note.
The final two variations are my faves, because their accents align with many African, Latin, and funk grooves. With the accent appearing on the fourth 16th-note of a beat, you get a kinetic “push” into the subsequent beat. It’s similar to the effect you get with strummed rhythm guitar parts where a chord changes on the 16th-note right before a downbeat.
In Ex. 7, the accent falls on the fourth 16th-note of the first beat.
Ex. 8 is the same as Ex. 7, but with the beats reversed. This is the only variation where no notes are struck on the downbeat of each measure.
Just Add Chords!
The remaining eight examples feature the same patterns as the first eight. As far as your picking hand is concerned, it’s the same stuff. But chord changes and fancier voicings may make these feel more like music than dry exercises. Ironically, I find this second set of exercises easier than the first, even though they demand more from your fretting hand. With chord changes, it’s easier to hear these patterns as grooves, as opposed to abstract permutations.
Displacement for Days
I hope these exercises break muscle-memory habits while inspiring new parts and grooves. Remember, the point isn’t the exercises—it’s the process. More often than not, you can generate new ideas from familiar ones by displacing them in time. Or to paraphrase the old Yardbirds song, shift them over, under, sideways, and down.
Epilogue: Are You Sure Merle Done It That Way?
A few words about the term “Travis picking”—the style is named for the brilliant Kentucky guitarist Merle Travis (1917-1983), who fused rhythms from ragtime and early blues into a hard-charging style that influenced Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, and countless others. However, much of what we nowadays call Travis picking departs from Travis’ actual style.
As a California kid ignorant of country music, I grew up thinking of Travis picking as the guitar patterns heard on such songs as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” (More recent examples include Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” and Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again.”) It’s a soft, flowing style, usually involving the thumb (or a thumbpick) and two fingers. But Merle himself used only a thumbpick and his index finger, anchoring his remaining left-hand digits on the pickguard. He was also fond of striking multiple notes with thumb and finger. His style is aggressive and rocking, as seen in this video. Put some drums behind it, and we’d call it rockabilly. Still, all accented bass notes fall squarely on the downbeats.
Let’s consult J.S. Bach! Don’t know a partita from a fajita? No worries.
We’re back to Johann Sebastian Bach for this lesson. We’ll focus on an 18-measure passage from one of his violin partitas with two goals in mind: First, it’s a fabulous finger exercise that will challenge both your hands. It’s also a case study in just how much you can communicate with a single-note line.
Don’t know a partita from a fajita? No worries. The lessons here are relevant for any type of composition or improvisation. (But in case you were wondering, a partita is just another name for a suite: a group of compositions that work together as a set.)
J.S. Bach is famed for his use of counterpoint: the way he wove multiple independent melody lines into glorious tapestries of sound. You hear it in all his compositions, from the massive choral works to compositions for solo instruments such as harpsichord and lute.
Harpsichord and lute can play multiple melodies simultaneously. But what did Bach do when composing for an instrument that can only play one note at a time, such as the flute? Hear for yourself!
Even though you never hear more than one note at a time, you perceive the underlying chords. At times the flute leaps between high notes and low notes, suggesting two simultaneous melodies. The music never gets rhythmically boring, even when, for example, you get nothing but an unbroken string of 16th-notes from the beginning of the video until the 01:20 point. We’ll see how Bach accomplishes those things in our violin excerpt (Ex. 1).
Stretch and Bend
First, let’s consider this as a technical exercise. This guitar version is an octave lower than the violin original. The tab shows my favorite way to finger this passage, though you may get better results shifting some notes to other strings. Composers didn’t use metronome indications in Bach’s day, probably because there were no metronomes. But the name of this section of the partita—“Corrente”—tells us that it should be played at a lively “running” tempo.
In some ways, the first two measures are the trickiest ones, because you must play consecutive notes across the 4th and 3rd strings using the same finger. (I recently wrote a lesson on this very topic.) Another challenge is “spider-y” fingerings that don’t conform to common guitar scale patterns, as in measures seven and eight. (The exercises in this lesson can help you develop the needed finger independence.) You also need to make some speedy position shifts, as in measures 11 and 15. (This lesson includes some tips for fast and efficient position changes.)
I play the examples fingerstyle, but they work great with a pick too—just brace for some challenging string-skipping. Aim for smooth, connected phrasing. A listener shouldn’t be able to tell that a sequence of notes required a twisty fingering or a tough position shift. And of course, start out at a slow tempo!
If you stop here, you’ll have a challenging exercise—great! But read on for an analysis of how Bach says so much with a single-note line, using techniques you can apply to your own composition and improvisation.
The Art of the Arpeggio
Even with this single melodic line, Bach lets you hear the underlying chords, mainly through arpeggios—sequences of notes that convey chords as a string of notes. Classical musicians don’t think of “chord progressions” in the way pop musicians do, but if you indicated these harmonies pop-song style, it would look like Ex. 2. In the accompanying audio clip, I add strummed chords to reinforce these harmonies. But these are superfluous—the melody already communicates them.
You can hear the 18-measure passage as two long phrases. The first phrase is 10 measures in length, while the second is seven measures long. We’re so accustomed to four- and eight-measure phrases in music that these asymmetrical phrase lengths sound fresh and unpredictable.
Notice how not all the “chord changes” are of equal length. Bach sets up one harmony per measure as a pattern, but then he breaks it up with a two-chords-per-measure change in measure seven, and a longer sustained harmony in measures nine and 10. “Harmonic rhythm” is the term for the rate at which harmonies change. Setting up a steady harmonic rhythm, but then deviating from the expectation it creates it is one of the ways Bach adds rhythmic excitement, even in an unbroken chain of eighth-notes or 16th-notes.
You’ve heard plenty of fast guitar arpeggios—they’ve been a shredder’s staple since the 1980s. A chord progression played with light-speed arpeggios may be more dramatic than simply strumming the underlying chord, but the harmonic information is the same. But Bach doesn’t use long, unbroken blocks of arpeggios—they’re interspersed with dissonant notes and short scale patterns. In Ex. 3, the red boxes indicate arpeggios that outline a single chord.
Ex. 4 flips the equation, indicating passing dissonant notes with blue boxes.
Notice how irregularly the boxes appear. You never know exactly which note is coming next.
The Compound Line
For me, Bach’s most amazing magic trick is implying two melodies with a single line. Imagine a film of an artist painting two different canvases on adjacent easels: a few strokes on this one, then a few strokes on the other. If you speed up the film, it might look like twin artists painting simultaneously. Bach does something similar with a line that leaps between registers to create an illusion of two simultaneous parts.
Let’s zoom in on the first four measures. In Ex. 5, I split the music between two guitars, one covering the low notes and one snagging the high ones. When one part stops moving, it sustains a chord tone while the other part moves. Of course, you don’t actually hear those sustained notes in the original version—but it’s easy to imagine that you do. This “two melodies at once” technique is called a compound line.
The Ups and Downs
Finally, let’s see how Bach makes strategic use of register—the distribution of high notes and low notes. You don’t get the full range right away—he gradually introduces successively higher notes, climaxing with the high D in the final two measures. In Ex. 6, I’ve indicated the highest notes with red boxes and the lowest notes with blue boxes.
Try playing only the red-box notes as if they were a melody, and then try the same with the blue boxes. The resulting lines make musical sense on their own. They’re like points on a road map, or maybe an architectural blueprint. You get a sense that there’s a master plan.
Your Inner Bach
None of us can compose as well as Bach, let alone improvise Bach-quality lines. Yet chances are these concepts are applicable to your own music. If you’re using an unvarying pattern, might it be more dramatic to set up an expectation, and then violate it?If a melody consists mostly of chord tones, would it be more exciting to break it up with non-chord dissonance? If you’re using only four-measure phrases, could you introduce some three-measure or five-measure phrases? If your part climbs straight up or down a scale, could you liven it up with daring leaps? Asking yourself questions like these may yield cool and surprising answers.
By the way, the image at the top of this column is Bach’s original manuscript for this music. If you’d like to explore the entire partita in standard notation, you can download a public-domain score here. There are many fine performances online—just search for “J.S. Bach Partita in B Minor solo violin.” Here’s a fine one by Gidon Kremer. (Our section starts at 07:19.)