Under Investigation: Paganini's Caprice No. 2 for Guitar

Up for a challenge? The 24 Caprices were composed by the great violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (1782 – 1840) in the form of etudes, with each number exploring different skill sets and techniques, such as high-velocity arpeggios and scales, double-stopped trills, and extremely fast switching of positions and strings.
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Up for a challenge? The 24 Caprices were composed by the great violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (1782 – 1840) in the form of etudes, with each number exploring different skill sets and techniques, such as high-velocity arpeggios and scales, double-stopped trills, and extremely fast switching of positions and strings. Arranged for guitar, Caprice No. 2, this month’s featured investigation, spotlights the latter, and presents a wealth of riches for any guitarist.

Classical master Eliot Fisk was the first to transcribe all 24 Caprices for guitar, but during the ’80s, some of Paganini’s Caprices served as a primary source of inspiration for a new generation of neo-classical shredders spearheaded by Yngwie Malmsteen, Jason Becker, et al. (Fact: Caprice No. 5 was the basis for part of “Eugene’s Trick Bag” as performed by Steve Vai in the 1986 film, Crossroads.)

Learning to play any of Paganini’s Caprices is a huge commitment, but it’s also an investment that will pay off with huge dividends. I guarantee you’ll hear fresh and familiar harmonies and discover new techniques. Just remember, when the going gets tough, keep repeating the following mantra: “I think I can, I know I can.”

Eliot Fisk


Take some time to scrutinize the rhythmic and melodic strategies behind this 34-bar excerpt from Paganini’s Caprice No. 2 (in B minor), and you’ll discover two key concepts: First, there’s virtually no rhythmic variation throughout—nearly every bar of 6/8 contains all 12 sixteenth-notes—and, second, much of it centers around moving melodies played on the eighth-note downbeats alternating with repeated pedal tones (i.e., the same note) on the sixteenth-note upbeats.

Suggested fret-hand fingering has been thoroughly notated below the TAB staff, and you are encouraged to explore other options, but your pick hand is on its own. (The same goes for your choice of instrument.) Online videos reveal performances of every imaginable way to play the piece, from traditional classical fingerstyle and strict alternate picking, to hybrid pick-and-finger-style (my personal preference) and two-hand tapping. All I can say is get ready to stretch!


Much of this excerpt’s non-stop melodic action is grouped into two- and three-bar phrases, so we’ll begin by isolating the first two bars in Ex. 1a. Note how all of the melodic motion occurs on the downbeats (one, two, three, four, five, six), while every other note is a pedal B played on the and, or upbeats. One of the most efficient ways to digest and assimilate this (or any) phrase is to break down its components and practice them separately before reassembling them. Ex. 1b extracts the B-minor-based melody—a tonic B followed by a jump up to its 7 (A#) and a chromatic descent to the b7 and b6 (A and G), before continuing with more B harmonic minor scale tones (F# and E, the 5 and 4) and crossing over into bar 2 with D, C#, B, A# (b3, 2, root, 7), and a final B-to-D (root-to-b3) ascension. Playing the melody on its own clarifies the note positions for improved retention. Begin very slowly and drill the two-bar phrase a few dozen times (with breaks), gradually increasing the tempo as your motor memory sharpens.

Now, look at Ex. 1c, which isolates the upbeat B pedal tones. Piece of cake, right? But before you reassemble the two parts, check out Ex. 1d for still another way to look at the phrase. Here, each two-sixteenth grouping is combined and played simultaneously as a harmonic interval. This method illustrates each fingering contortion necessary to play the phrase, hastens the learning curve, and will come in handy as you work through the piece.

Yngwie J. Malmsteen

Once you’ve internalized the first two bars, move on to bars 3 and 4 (Ex. 2a), which outline F#7, the V-chord in B minor. Ex. 2b shows the isolated melody, which contains an ascending and descending contour similar to Ex, 1b, and suggests F# Phrygian Dominant, the fifth mode of B harmonic minor. Commit it to memory via repetition, and then add the pedal A#s from Ex. 2c to both measures. Again, Ex. 2d sums each two-note grouping into a single harmonic interval and helps define the shape of the phrase. There’s your drill. You’ll also want to zone in on the transitions from one phrase to the next, such as beat six of bar 2 into beat one of bar 3. Don’t proceed until you can play all four bars in time, even at a slow tempo, and then repeat the process for every upcoming phrase.

OK, we can’t do this with every phrase, so drill-wise, you’re on your own from here on in. Just follow some or all of the same steps as necessary to instill each new phrase slowly and thoroughly into your motor memory as you work your way through Ex. 3, which presents the first 34 bars of the beautiful Caprice No. 2. Let’s pick up where we left off.

BARS 5 & 6

It’s back to the B natural minor scale and a high-B pedal for the seventh-position, D-F#-B-D-C#-B melody in bar 5. We remain in position for bar 6, but the pedal tone shifts to a high, pinky-fretted D over the G-based G-B-A-G-F#-G melody. (Tip: G is the bVI chord in the key of B minor, and the IV chord in the relative key of D major.)

BARS 7 & 8

Here, the high-D pinky pedal is maintained over both the F#-B-G-F#-E#-F# and E#-D-C#- B-G-E# melodies. (Tip: E#, an enharmonic spelling of F, is the #4/b5 of Bm, as well as the 3 of C#7, the secondary dominant of F#7.


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In this transitional measure, the pedal tone drops a half-step to C#, and is re-fingered with the third/ring finger to free up the pinky to grab the lone G in this F#7- based, F#-A#-G-F#-F#-F# melody. Note how the three consecutive F#s create a double-pedal effect.

BARS 10 – 12

Bar 10 would be a great time to employ the harmonized interval method a la Examples 1d and 2d. Losing the pedal tone for a half bar, we play three broken tenth intervals that could be viewed as partial G, Bm, and A chords. The high-B pedal reappears in the second half of the measure over a chromatic descending G-F#-E# melody, which segues directly to the pedal-less melody in bar 11. Here, we play two beats of an arpeggiated F# chord, followed by four broken intervals—a minor third (E#-G#), a tri-tone (E-A#), a major sixth (D-B), and a minor tenth (A#-C#) that outline C#, F#7, Bm, and F# harmonies, respectively. Raising the last minor-tenth a half-step creates a false cadence/resolution to G in bar 12. The second half of the measure, for the first time, drops the low-G pedal tones below the melody and shifts them to the downbeats while the melody occupies the upbeats, a pattern that continues for the next three measures.

BARS 13 – 15

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The low, downbeat pedal tone drops to F# starting in bar 13, which features the same motif played twice and sets up another false cadence. The first four notes of each repetition outline F#, while the last two (G-E#) depict an enharmonically-spelled partial G7 chord. The ear expects bar 14 to resolve back to B minor, but instead, the F# chord is extended with a stretch-y, off-beat, ninth-position arpeggio that reaches the 14th fret! Hang on the F# octave in bar 15, take a deep breath, and then have a well-deserved break, letting rest and sleep do its magic thing before moving on. (That could be an hour, a day, a month, or more.) Just review and stay fresh on everything you’ve programmed so far. Let it all sink in and keep repeating that mantra (“I know I can”), and I’ll see you…whenever!

BARS 16 & 17

Ah, I see you’re back for part two, feeling completely restored with 15 bars under your belt. By now you’ve come to grips with the complexity of the piece, but those who have been captured by its allure have no choice but to soldier on and resume the drill. Transitioning to the relative major key of D, the phrase in bars 16 and 17 echoes bars 1 and 2 in form and melodic contour, except for the completely descending melody in bar 17. The pedal A (the 5 of D) is back on the upbeats for the downbeat D-G#-G-E#-F#-E and D-A-G-F#-E-D melodies that comprise both measures.

BARS 18 & 19

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If that wasn’t stretchy enough, check out the giant leap that commences this twobar, A7-based phrase. The C#-G#-G-D#-E-D (bar 18) and C#-G-F#-E-A-G (bar 19) melodies maintain the high-A pedal tones on the upbeats throughout.

BARS 20 – 23

Things get a bit trickier in the next four bars, but the good news is you can sustain the first pedal tone in each measure through beat two of each measure, which allows an easier transition between each one-bar phrase. The F#- A-G#-A-F#-D melody in bar 20 alternates with five upbeat high-D pedal tones, before the sixth one drops a half-step to C#, making the whole passage a kind of Dmaj7#11 arpeggio. B assumes the pedal role in bar 21, acting first as the 3 of G for three beats, and then the 9 above three more beats of an A7/C#-based melody. The broken minor-seventh pickup on beat six functions as a partial C#7 chord. The triple-F#- to-D-to-B melody played beneath a high-A pedal in bar 22 reeks of D, but actually outlines Bm7. Another broken minor seventh on beat six precedes the G-pedaled A7-based melody in bar 23. (Tip: Use that open-A to buy time for the shift to seventh position.)

BARS 24 – 27

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The two-bar phrase in bars 24 and 25 begins with a sizeable leap from seventh (on the last beat of bar 23) to eleventh position (on the downbeat of bar 24) preceding the ensuing chromatic and diatonic sixth intervals played over upbeat open-D pedal tones. This marks the first use of harmonic intervals in the piece. The V-chord tension comes in bar 25’s ascending A7-based diatonic tenths (which suggest A-Bm7-A/C#-D-A7/E) sandwiched around an open-A pedal. (Tip: Transpose the first three chords down a whole step and observe a remarkable similarity to Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” intro.) And here’s the best news so far: You just learned bars 26 and 27. It’s a BOGO!

BARS 28 – 31

All of the melody notes in the next four bars have been transposed down an octave to compensate for a few pitches that are beyond the range of a standard fretboard. Originally written as diatonic tenth intervals, bar 28’s F#-ED- E-F# melody notes (which alternate with upbeat open-D pedal tones) have been re-harmonized in diatonic thirds. The high B and D pedal tones that swap registers with the G-DB- G-B-G# melody in bar 29 have also been lowered. The last two broken minor-tenth intervals outline G#dim7, and the fingerings converge nicely to the string of melodic tenths that outline A, Bm, C#m, D, C#m, and G triads in bar 30, and the broken D-and A7-based intervals that follow in bar 31.

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BARS 32 – 34

Finally, we wrap up this investigation by reverting back to the original pitch ranges (with one exception), and momentarily reversing the pedal open-Ds to the downbeats against a descending set of six diatonic third intervals played on the upbeats in bar 32. An impossible- to-grab low-G pedal tone in bar 33—which is back on the upbeats alternating with more descending thirds—necessitated its transposition to open-G, which brings out its lovely Lydian IV-chord quality. The second half of the measure continues the descending thirds over an open-A pedal to create a (temporarily) final V7-I (A7-D) cadence, which culminates in bar 34 with three Ds in three different octaves, each preceded by its lower chromatic neighbor (C#). You can stop right here on beat four, or tag on the two-beat pickup and repeat the whole deal from the top. Congratulations! You’ve made it through roughly one half of Paganini’s magnificent Caprice No. 2. Now search out the rest of the score (nudge-nudge wiki-wiki) and have at it!