Study the music of the great baroque-period classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach and you’ll discover that, in addition to being a master of harmony and composition, the legendary maestro knew how to exploit the unique characteristics of each instrument he wrote for.
A case in point is the Prelude to his Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. As the piece climbs toward its exultant finale, Bach scores some breathtaking passages that feature alternating open-string drones pitted against broken, step-wise scalar lines that climb the neck at a furious pace. The result sounds much more orchestral and harmonically compelling than just playing scales in one position. In this lesson, we’re going to be taking a page from the Kapellmeister’s playbook and look at some ways to create similarly-structured “classical shred” licks on the guitar that set linear scalar movement against ringing open strings.
To begin, familiarize yourself with Ex. 1, which delineates an ascending E major scale (E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#) played up the high E string in an eighth-note-triplet rhythm and three-note groups that we’ll refer to as “shells.” Starting from the second triplet onward, approach the first note of each new shell with your first finger, shifting your hand up the neck for each new shell.
For shells that stretch over five frets, such as the A, B, and C# in the last beat of bar 1, I recommend using your first and second fingers for the first two notes. You’ll need to make a two-fret stretch with adjacent fingers to tackle these shells, and it’s easier to place it between the first and second notes (the A and the B) with your first and second fingers than between the second and third notes (the B and the C#) with your third and fourth fingers, which aren’t as long and flexible.
Work through the example slowly trying to commit each three-note shell and its fingering to memory. I haven’t indicated metronome markings, but it’s best to begin at a moderate tempo and only increase the speed until you can play everything cleanly using alternate pick strokes throughout.
Once you’ve gotten this first etude (musical exercise) under your fingers, you’re ready for Ex. 2, a 16th-note run that drops the open E note between each ascending three-note shell. After you’ve gotten the three-note shells ingrained in your muscle memory, you can use them to create various extended patterns. For instance, Ex. 3 is identical to the previous exercise, except we’re playing the notes of every other shell (the second, fourth, sixth, etc.) in descending order to create a zigzagging melodic climb.
In Ex. 4, we’re using the same shells and inserting an open B note on some of the 16th-note upbeats to create a decidedly Baroque-flavored scalar pattern that uses both the open B and high E strings as pedal tones (recurring notes played against, or as part of, a melodic pattern). Be mindful of your fret-hand fingerings here, and be sure to use strict alternate picking, beginning on either a downstroke or an upstroke (whichever sequence you prefer).
Ex. 5 is a two-string expansion of the first example that’s played in the same eighth note-triplet rhythm and incorporates three-note shells of the E major scale, as they occur on both the B and high E strings, played in alternation. Notice how the fingering is symmetrical across both strings for the first three pairs of shells, in terms of the frets used, but starting from the seventh fret onward, the shell pairs become asymmetrical. Follow the suggested fingerings, start each new shell with your first finger, take the time to memorize each pair, and you’ll be able to play the pattern fluently.
Then try Ex. 6, a digitally challenging run that takes a 16-note motif and sequences it up the neck through the E major scale, injecting both the open B and E strings throughout, which creates a very angular and interesting melodic contour.
For our final linear frolic shown in Ex. 7, we’ll add two new elements - pull-offs and a less step-wise, more intervallic melodic pattern for each shell that makes a kind of “X” shape on the fretboard. To work your way smoothly up the neck, you’ll need to shift position on the third 16th note of beats two and four in each bar. Play through the pattern slowly a few times, and the sequential logic behind it should reveal itself.
Once you’ve mastered these examples, you’ll have the tools to create dozens of variations on your own. Try adding hammer-ons, pull-offs and finger slides, then transferring the patterns to the other pairs of adjacent strings. By adapting a linear mindset and applying open strings liberally, you can transport simple scales into an entirely new and harmonically rich dimension.