Michael Nicolella isn’t just a
world-class classical guitarist who is constantly
pushing the boundaries of what the
instrument is capable of as a performer.
He is also a composer, who has had his
works performed by symphonies, with
him accompanying on classical as well as
electric guitar. He is an instructor at Cornish
College of Arts, shepherding the next
generation of classical players. Not only
that, he was in the Mike Varney Spotlight
in the February 1987 issue of GP, and is a
rock dude who saw Queen on the News
of the World tour and can talk Van Halen
with the same authority as he can Segovia.
He is that guy.
Nicolella’s latest undertaking, Complete
Bach Cello Suites [Gale], is a two-plus
hour opus of his arrangements and
interpretations of the work of a guy named
Johann from the Baroque period. It is an
astounding collection of beautiful melodies
and counterpoint, all expertly rendered
by Nicolella. The deep love and respect
for Bach’s genius is apparent throughout,
never overshadowed by Nicolella’s incredible
technique, which combines a deft
touch, gorgeous tone, and such amazing
independence of parts that it has tricked
some writers [Ed. Note: me] into believing
that at times there were two guitarists
playing. Although Nicolella’s chops and
fearlessness have led some to call him the
future of classical guitar, he spoke to GP
about the past and present of the instrument
from his home in Seattle.
In a nutshell, why did you want to do this?
First and foremost because I just love
playing Bach. I’ve always viewed the cello
suites as one really large, epic, two-hour
piece. The fifth cello suite exists as a version
for lute, and I played that as a teenager
in the key that most everybody plays
it in, which is A minor. The piece was originally
written in C minor for cello and then Bach arranged it in G minor for the lute.
Guitarists usually play everything either in
A, E, or D. I went back and tried playing it
in G minor and that sparked this idea to
do all the cello suites with a “What would
Bach do?” kind of mentality.
So, what would Bach do?
Changing the keys in the same way is
what Bach would do, so I raised everything
up a fifth as he did with Suite No.
5, with the exception of the sixth suite.
When it came to the question of how
much to add to the pieces, I used what
he did with the fifth suite as a template:
what bass notes to add, how to complement
the harmonies, and how to realize
the implied counterpoint that’s there and
turn it into a piece that was more fitting
for the guitar. That even extended to the
idea of ornamenting—doing these little
improvisational ornaments on the repeats,
which is very fitting to Bach’s time.
Talk about the reasoning behind the
key choices and your tunings.
Some people actually do them in the
same exact key as the cello, and you can,
but then you have the problem of if you play it as the same pitch as the cello,
you’re unable to add bass lines below
that because you’re close to the bottom
pitches of the guitar. If you bring them
up an octave, then everything’s up in the
stratosphere and it sounds kind of plinky.
So by bringing it up a fifth you get it into
a register where the melody can sit for
the most part on the top three strings of
the guitar and you have the bottom three
strings to work with bass lines. I started
with No. 5 in G minor. Most guitarists do
it in A minor because of the open A and
E strings. I circumvented that by dropping
the two low strings down a whole-step
to G and D. The third suite is in G major
and has the same tuning as the fifth. The
sixth and the first are both in dropped-D. The second one is in A minor, so that
works in standard tuning. The third and
the fifth have the two bottom strings
dropped down a whole-step. The fourth
one is in Bb, so the A is tuned up to Bb
and the E is tuned up to F.
Did you chart everything out for this?
Yes, I did. Other guitarists have done
this in the past, so in some cases I cheated
a bit and found a version that was in the
key that I wanted to play it in, and then
basically just whited out the stuff that
wasn’t the original cello and started from
scratch from there. For the other ones I
actually painstakingly typed them into
Finale from the get-go.
That seems like an amazing undertaking.
Do you have any idea how many pages
of music this was?
No, I don’t, but it’s a lot. It’s two hours
and ten minutes of music.
Were you reading charts for the recording?
For the most part no. I memorized and
played them in concert from memory.
This was a long project. Some of these I
recorded in the same sessions for my last
album. My general process was I would
make an arrangement of a suite, I’d learn
it, and then I’d play it for about six months
in concert while I was starting on the
next one. I didn’t memorize the second
suite, because that one was an experiment
in trying to actually improvise the
ornaments live in concert. For most of
these, while there’s some improvisation
involved, I would kind of improvise in the practice room and then I would decide that
I liked an ornament. I might tweak it a little
bit in concert here or there, but basically I
was working within a framework. For the
second suite, I experimented with playing
it in concert actually trying to completely
improvise the ornaments. For that, it’s really
helpful to have the music in front of you
and not try to improvise while you’re playing
The other one that I played from a chart
was the fourth suite, and I’ve never actually
played that in concert, although I’ve
played it for friends and colleagues. The
reason for that was the tuning really kind
of threw me off. That’s the one in Bb, so the
A and the E strings were tuned up a half-step.
I find that really difficult because it’s
not a tuning I ever use and it messes with
my head in terms of memory because the
pitches aren’t where you think they are.
Dropped-D I’m used to. Even dropped-G-and-D—I’ve done enough stuff in those
tunings that I’m kind of used to them. But
having everything up a half-step on the
bottom two strings was kind of tough. So
I read the piece, and even then it’s difficult
because you have to remember as you’re
reading it that those pitches are up a half-step.
But I still found I was more successful
doing that than trying to do it from
memory. So those are the only two that
in the studio—actually it’s a church that I
record in—I read sheet music for.
How did the recordings go? How many
takes would you do on these?
My general process for recording is I do
three takes. That doesn’t mean that I don’t
sometimes do more, but I keep three. I try
not to keep more than three because when
I go to edit, it just becomes a nightmare of
having to listen through everything. Then
I’ll edit when necessary.
By editing, are you comping tracks? I’m
assuming there are no punches on this.
No, there are no punches at all. I record
complete performances and then I edit
in Pro Tools. For a while I had some guilt
issues about editing, but I think pretty
much any classical musician edits quite
a bit, so now I don’t worry about it. I look
at like this: When I’m playing in a concert
it’s like a play, and when I’m in the studio
it’s like a movie. And just like with a movie,
you don’t care how many takes it requires
to get it right or how many cuts and edits
you have to do. Sometimes I’ll listen back,
though, and decide that none of the takes
are really good enough, and then I’ll go
back in and record it again.
Is there a reason you decided to play the
same guitar on all of these suites?
The main reason was that when I started
this recording, I had one concert guitar: a
cedar top Robert Ruck. And because I was
thinking of this as one big piece, I wanted
as similar a sound as possible, so I didn’t
change the mic placement, the room, or
the guitar. I also really like the way that particular guitar records. Since then I have
been performing in concert with guitars
made by a talented young builder named
Tim Harris. I string all these guitars with RC
Titanium Carbon strings. RC is a Spanish
company that specializes in classical and
flamenco guitar strings.
How did you mic it?
With two large condenser mics—Audio
Technica 4033s—in an equilateral triangle.
They were about six feet apart and six feet
away from the guitar.
You get so many different timbres from
the same guitar, same mic placement, and
same room. I’m struck by how noticeably
the tonality changes when you go from the
first to the second suite. You’re going from
a bright major key to a darker minor key,
but there’s a lot more contributing to that
mood shift. How do you go from a bright and
lively vibe to a dark and melancholy vibe, in
terms of where you pick on the string and
how you attack it?
That’s one of the great things of classical
guitar. As an electric guitarist, everyone
knows the equipment is only so much.
The tone is in your hands. With classical
guitar, I think that’s even more exaggerated.
Obviously where you pluck the string
matters. Just like with the pickups on a
Strat, the closer you get to the bridge,
the brighter the sound; the closer you
get to the fingerboard, the warmer the
sound. But I find more and more that I’m
relying on the angle of the attack of the
nail against the string to change the tone.
It’s amazing how much coming straight
across the string will get a brighter sound
and then going more obliquely—kind of
slicing the string at an angle—will give a
warmer sound. Then on top of that you
have how much you’re pushing the string
towards the face of the guitar or how
much you’re pulling it away from the top
of the guitar. I always say to my students
that a good sound has to do with activating
the string towards the face of the
guitar. But sometimes you almost go for a
“bad” sound by plucking up on the strings
to get a brighter tone. Coupling that with
the angle of the attack and placement of
where along the string you are, you have
a limitless supply of tones that you can
get. In classes I do this fun thing where
I can make it almost sound like a flanger by the way that I’m changing the angle
of the attack of my nails.
When you’re working these up, how do
you practice? Do you slow them down? Do
you play along with recordings?
I never play along with a recording. In
fact, I try not to listen to recordings at all
when I’m practicing because I don’t want
it to influence what I’m doing from an
interpretive or arrangement standpoint.
I try to use as many different strategies
as possible. Slow playing is one of them.
I also break them up into little phrases
and practice backwards. I practice the
last phrase and then the second to last
phrase into the last phrase, third to last
phrase, and so on—all from memory. It’s
a good way to secure the memory. I go
through the pieces in my head, trying to
visualize what they look like on the fingerboard
and how I’ll play them. Another
thing I’ll do is go through a piece and play
everything with the left hand, but with
my right hand I’ll just play the bass line
or just the top line. I’m trying to develop
this incredible independence between
the two voices, like it’s a conversation
between two people, or the old cliché
of “It sounds like two guitarists at once.”
It’s one thing to just play the bass line by
itself, but when your left hand is having
to play another line at the time, you tend
to kind of fudge things in the bass. This
way, I can listen and hear if that bass line
really has the clarity and the shape that
I want. Is each note speaking the way I
want it to from one to another?
Is it nerve-wracking to tackle a project
of this size and to interpret a composer of
Sure. In some ways you feel this kind of
responsibility to Bach in a way. It’s amazing
how much time I’ve spent playing Bach’s
music. Sometimes I have to laugh to myself
when I think that he probably knocked out
one of these suites in an afternoon and
I’ve worked on some of these things off
and on for over 30 years. There’s so much
depth emotionally and you feel this sense
of responsibility. But what tempers it for
me is this feeling of thankfulness and luck
that we have this incredible music. That offsets
the responsibility in some ways, that
sense of gratitude. I just feel so fortunate
to be able to play his music on guitar.