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.

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:

Where’s the beat?

Bach lays the foundation for the entire Chaconne in the first four measures, as I explained in an earlier post. That foundation really consists of two elements: a harmonic progression and a rhythmic idea. Since it is the germ of the rest of the piece, it’s important to get it right.

It’s not hard to play the notes; I was able to pick up the guitar and play the opening bars by ear after first hearing Christopher Parkening’s recording of the piece when I was a teenager even before I had started playing classical guitar. But it does present us with our first interpretive question, and it’s one that I hadn’t really expected until I started studying the score. To paraphrase the old Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beat?”

When first hearing the Chaconne all those years ago and playing the beginning by ear, it was very clear that the piece was in a slow triple meter. If I had written those four bars down like I was taking musical dictation I would have written this:


So I would play it as starting on a downbeat and following a typical triple meter pattern (ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three).

But I would have been wrong then, and I would still be wrong today. Because that is not how Bach wrote the beginning!


Notice that the first measure only contains two beats (see the half note?). So what might sound like a downbeat is actually the second beat of the measure, which would normally be unstressed in triple meter. This same pattern is repeated in measure 5. What are we to make of this stress on the second beat? Is Bach deliberately putting the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble?

To understand this, it helps to know that there is a close relationship between the chaconne (in a general sense) and a dance that is much more common in music of this period: the sarabande. Also in triple meter and generally in a slow tempo, the sarabande is a standard part of Baroque dance suites; all of Bach’s suites include one. A characteristic features of the sarabande is to have an emphasis on the second beat; it’s a vestige of the way the sarabande was danced. By Bach’s time most of these court dances were no longer being danced, but the choreography lives on even in these more stylized versions.

Here, for example, is a famous example from Handel; it starts on a downbeat, but the emphasis on the second beat is very clear.

Closer to our Chaconne is the sarabande from the same partita. Here, Bach begins the on a downbeat, but leans into the second beat.

So the downbeat is still the downbeat, but there is a definite stress on the second beat, particularly when the dotted quarter note appears.

Here is a second version of the first four measures in which I try to make the rhythm clearer. [Keep in mind…this is very early on in my learning path. It will get better!]

Nobody will every mistake the Chaconne for a tune made for dancing, but I believe it is important to honor that terpsichorean ancestry in some way. At the same time, it’s not something to beat to death. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to add emphasis to a pitch or chord on the guitar.

  • play louder
  • if it is a chord, roll the chord instead of playing all the notes as a block
  • insert a slight delay or pause before the attack
  • change the kind of attack

So there are plenty of ways to shape the interpretation to help bring out that extra stress on the second beat when appropriate. It’s also something that can be done as I work on the arrangement itself. Since I have the opportunity to add in some implied harmonies or extra bass notes, I can think about doing that on the second beat as a subtle way to achieve extra emphasis.

Next up: all about fingering!