The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 1)*

When I  walk someplace in Manhattan I play a little game with myself. Say that I am starting out at my old workplace at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street and walking to my current workplace at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s nine blocks up and three blocks across. There is a traffic light at every intersection in midtown Manhattan. So here is the game: can I do the walk without ever having to stop for a light, so that I can be walking the entire time? It means making a choice at every corner. For example, I can cross from the northwest corner of 33rd and 7th to the northeast corner. At that point, I can go north up the east side of 7th Ave. or continue across 33rd to 6th Ave, turn left, and walk up the west side of the street. When I get to the next intersection I’ll have another choice to make.

You might reasonably ask “what does this have to do the Chaconne?” Well, nothing, really. But it is a good way to think about the challenges of deciding the fingering of music on the guitar.

Guitarists aren’t alone in dealing with fingerings; all string players have to do it. Keyboard players have to think about it as well. But there is an important difference. On a keyboard—piano, harpsichord—a pitch can only be played on one key: “Middle” C can only be played by pressing a particular white key. A pianist can choose to play that key with any of 10 fingers, depending on what other keys are being played before, during, and after. Complicated enough, to be sure.

For a guitarist, though, it’s different for two reasons. First, because (most of the time) it takes the action of two hands to produce one sound: a finger on one hand—for a right-handed guitarist like me, the left hand— presses a string down on the fingerboard while a finger on the other hand—again, for me the right hand— plucks that string. So there are really two different sets of fingerings to work out. Second, because so many of the pitches available to play on the guitar can be played in more than one place on the fingerboard; for example, the pitch “middle” C can be played in six different places on the guitar’s fingerboard:middle_c_on_guitar

[For non-guitarists, help in deciphering notation and fingerboard diagrams can be found in the Classical Guitar Primer page of the site.]

Four of these are played the standard way (or, in guitar-speak, natural); that is, one finger presses down on the blue dot and another finger plucks the string. Two others can be played using harmonics: one finger presses down at the red dot while, using the other hand, the guitarist lightly touches the string at the appropriate point and plucks the string with a different finger of the same hand. Harmonics isolate different vibrating segments of the string and have a bell-like sound.

All six of these pitches will be the same—middle C—but each will have a different sound. Every string on the guitar has a different thickness, and the lower three are wound with metal, so each string has a different voice. Think of it like a mixed chorus: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses can all sing middle C, but for the basses it is a bit of a strain—being high in the range—while for the sopranos it is in the low part of the range called “chest voice.” You can imagine how challenging it would be to have a single melody where each individual note is sung by a different section of the choir while still keeping some sense of a single, connected line. The guitarist faces that same challenge.

A couple of other technical things to bear in mind. First, guitarists, like other string players, play in “positions” that are determined by the location of the index (first) finger. If I am playing a pitch with my first finger behind the first fret on the neck I am in first position. From there I can play the second, third, and fourth frets by placing the second, third, and fourth fingers. With my first finger behind the fifth fret (fifth position) I can similarly play the sixth, seventh, and eighth fret.

Moving from one of these positions to the next—say from the second to the fifth position—is called shifting, and it poses three potential problems. First, it takes time. It is easy to spoil the smoothness of a melodic line—legato—by leaving one note a little too early and arriving at the next a little too late. Second, it takes effort, and it’s critical to avoid inadvertently creating a little accent at the point of a shift. Finally, with the wound bass strings there is an unavoidable byproduct of moving or sliding on the string: the squeak. It’s part of the character of the sound of the guitar, but we avoid it as much as possible because it can be a distraction from the musical sound.

In Part 2 we’ll look at how all of these factors influence the fingering decisions for a specific passage of the Chaconne.

*For those to young to get the reference:

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