The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 2)

In The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 I described some of the basic parameters of deciding on left-hand fingerings for the guitar: the possibility of playing pitches in more than one place on the neck, the different voices of the individual strings, the potential pitfalls of shifting from one position on the neck to another.

All of these factors come into play when developing the fingerings for a passage. For consistency of tone and voice, keeping a single melodic phrase or line on one string (or even two adjacent strings) is preferable. But if that phrase spans more than a small interval it’s going to require one or more shifts to play it, increasing the technical challenge.  On the other hand, it might be possible to avoid or ease a shift by incorporating a pitch on an open string—allowing the left hand to move freely while the right hand plays the open string—or to skip across strings to play a wide leap. But that introduces the challenge of keeping the voice of the line consistent. Let’s look at a specific example. [Remember the Classical Guitar Primer if you need a refresher on notation.]

Here is one variation, a four-measure example, taken from the violin original. Each measure combines an arpeggio figure on the first two beats with a little melodic figure on the last beat that leads to the next downbeat. These little melodic figures, indicated in red, create a sequence: in musical terms, the same melodic idea repeated on different starting pitches.


That sequence is the key idea in this variation. In the manuscript, Bach writes a slur over the first three notes of the figure, meaning they should be taken in one stroke of the bow to make them legato (smooth). In performance, therefore, that is the thing I want to make sure comes out.

Here are two measures from this passage in Segovia’s edition.


Two things stand out to me. First, he shifts the first finger up two frets (marked by the red arrows) and puts a slur on the final two notes of the group. That has the advantage of keeping all three notes in this group on the same string, but it breaks up Bach’s “all on one bow” legato slur into something else. Second, and more problematic, is that he wants me to jump my 4th finger from A on the 5th fret of the first string to D on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string from one sixteenth-note to the next (marked with the blue arrows). That makes me shift my whole left hand and makes it very hard to avoid a gap between the A and the D.

Maybe if I could play like Segovia I could make this work. But I don’t. So I want a solution that doesn’t break up that little group of the three slurred notes and the note that they lead to. Here’s what I came up with.


I use the open E string (circled in red) as a way to cover shifting my left hand up to the 5th position. That lets me play the whole passage in the blue square without shifting my hand again. I can play the last three groups of that measure smoothly (even without a slur) and connect them to the first note of the next measure. Then I can use the open D string (circled in green) to move back to 3rd position for the rest of the measure. The trade off is that in the space of those 7 pitches I am playing on 5 different strings, so I have to be careful of the voicing. But that’s easier to manage for me than shifting smack dab in the middle of a phrase that I want to play smoothly.

In the next post, I think it’s time for an update on my overall progress and a sample—warts and all—of how it is sounding so far.

3 thoughts on “The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers (Pt. 2)

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