Bach Cello Sweetness for Guitar

June 15, 2015

In the Frets section of the May issue we reconnected with classical iconoclast Michael Nicolella, who recently released his guitar arrangements of the Complete Bach Cello Suites. Here he explains how he executed some of those beautiful passages, with time markers from the audio, which you can hear on the first track of disc one or by going to the Lessons section of guitarplayer.com.
—Matt Blackett

The Prelude to the first cello suite [BWV 1007],” says Nicolella, “is the opening movement of the entire cycle and probably the one most often performed by guitarists. In the following examples from that movement, we will explore some of the fingering choices I used on this well-loved piece on my most recent album.

“The opening measures of Ex. 1 [0:00- 0:17] are most often performed in open position, but I play them in the fifth to seventh position with the top line on the second string rather than the first string. This allows for a much richer tone with a more pronounced vibrato, which highlights my rubato approach with a tenuto, or slight rhythmic elongation, on each second beat. In this example, I have broken the general rule of right-hand fingering, which states: ‘Thou shalt not repeat the same right-hand finger on consecutive notes.’ The repeated fingers (‘a’ in bars 1-2 and ‘m’ in bars 2-4) are interrupted by a slur. This, coupled with the rather moderate tempo, makes the repeating right-hand fingering possible and contributes to both a more consistent tone quality and ease of playing.

“I perform the four descending scale passages in Ex. 2 [1:39-1:46] ‘cross-string,’ allowing the notes to overlap in a cascading, bell-like fashion. For full effect, it is crucial that all notes are held for as long as possible.

“The excerpt in Ex. 3 [1:46-2:04] is a great example of pedal tones, used so often by Bach. Get comfortable with this pedaltone concept and you can easily work it into other styles of music. I use a very similar passage for the electric guitar intro I play in a live voice/guitar duet of Jimmy Webb’s classic tune ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,’ which you can see on YouTube. There’s a lot of beauty to be found in these Bach lines, and the fingering concepts presented here are not solely limited to classical guitar, so use your imagination and dig in!”

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