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Classical Music as Guitar Practice

I do not assume any responsibility for frustration, injury or death resulting from the application of these exercises.

It is a bit of dangerous territory, trying to discuss electric guitar and classical music at the same time. The purpose of this page is not a tribute to Yngwie Malmsteen or to provide a treatise on his particular guitar style. What I do is to present common types of figurations found in classical music and how they can be adapted as guitar exercises. Some of these might have been used by Yngwie or his many imitators, but that doesn't necessarily disprove my point. It is up to you to take the parts you like and incorporate them into your style.

What Yngwie has done is to combine his influences, musical instincts and last but not least technique to create his signature style. I don't see why another person couldn't take the very same building-blocks and come up with something completely different. If nothing else, it is a challenge.

Classical music makes for good guitar exercises simply because it was typically not written for the guitar, but for orchestral instruments such as the piano, the violin or the flute, where the demands for instrumental prowess are greater. Passages that are written idiomatically for those instruments might not always be easily adaptable to a six-string guitar, and thus we guitar players who enjoy playing classical stuff once in a while are presented with wonderful opportunities to wrench our digits into fingerings that might be more or less awkward to us.

Pedal Point

The term pedal point originally comes from organ music, particularly fugues, where one voice is sustained on one note, chordal or nonchordal, while the other voices catch up in preparation for the final cadence. Pedal-point figuration has also crept up in melodic lines assigned to other instruments in other situations. This was especially prevalent in the Baroque era, where there was an emphasis on rhythm and melodies very often moved in constant 8th- or 16th-note motion.

Instruments that cannot sustain indefinitely the way an organ can instead use various tricks to give the listener an aural illusion of a pedal point. Usually, the pedal note is alternated with the notes from a scale for a ping-pong effect.

The following passages are examples of scales that use one constant note as the pedal point. The first two have the pedal point in the top voice, the following two in the bottom:

E-12-13-10-13-8-13----13----13---13----|
B------------------12----10----9----10-|
G--------------------------------------|
D--------------------------------------|
A--------------------------------------|
E--------------------------------------|
E-12-10-12-8-12-7-12----12---12----12-7-12-8-|
B--------------------10----9----10-----------|
G--------------------------------------------|
D--------------------------------------------|
A--------------------------------------------|
E--------------------------------------------|
E-----------------------|
B------9---10---12---13-|
G-10-9---9----9----9----|
D-----------------------|
A-----------------------|
E-----------------------|
E-------------15----17----19-|
B-17----19-------------------|
G----16----16----16----16----|
D----------------------------|
A----------------------------|
E----------------------------|

A pedal point can also consist of two alternating notes:

E-8-12-11-12-7-12-11-12----12-11-12---12-11-12---11-9-11----|
B-----------------------10----------8----------7------------|
G--------------------------------------------------------9--|
D-----------------------------------------------------------|
A-----------------------------------------------------------|
E-----------------------------------------------------------|
E------------8---------10---------12---------13-|
B-12-10-9-10---10-9-10----10-9-10----10-9-10----|
G-----------------------------------------------|
D-----------------------------------------------|
A-----------------------------------------------|
E-----------------------------------------------|

This last example can be diatonically transposed for a complete ride through the circle of fifths:

E------------8---------10---------12---------|-13-------7-------8-------10-------|-
B-12-10-9-10---10-9-10----10-9-10----10-9-10-|----8-7-8---8-7-8---8-7-8----8-7-8-|-
G--------------------------------------------|-----------------------------------|-
D--------------------------------------------|-----------------------------------|-
A--------------------------------------------|-----------------------------------|-
E--------------------------------------------|-----------------------------------|-

E-12-------5-------7-------8-------|-10-------4-------5-------7-------|-8------|
B----6-5-6---6-5-6---6-5-6---6-5-6-|----5-4-5---5-4-5---5-4-5---5-4-5-|--------|
G----------------------------------|----------------------------------|--------|
D----------------------------------|----------------------------------|--------|
A----------------------------------|----------------------------------|--------|
E----------------------------------|----------------------------------|--------|

Ornaments

Musical ornaments are decorative flourishes that embellish but are strictly speaking not part of a basic melodic line. In classical music, ornaments are used in two ways: either to shake up a melody when repeating it, or as a way of getting around limitations of instruments that have little sustain, such as the harpsichord. In traditional musical notation, they are written in a consistent fashion that acts as a form of shorthand, as opposed to writing all the notes out.

Ornaments are indicated by various lines and squiggles that mean something or other to the musician. Most ornaments are some form of alteration of a note by adding either or both of its immediate neighbors. In the absence of notational examples, I will try to list them by name and say something about their character:

The basic melody I will use as illustration of various ornaments is an E minor scale fragment, played quarter-quarter-half in a rather stately tempo:

E----------------|
B-5----7----8----|
G----------------|
D----------------|
A----------------|
E----------------|

A trill is a rapid legato alteration between two notes:

E-------------------------------|
B-5----7----8h10p8h10p8h10p8h10-|
G-------------------------------|
D-------------------------------|
A-------------------------------|
E-------------------------------|

The (lower) mordent is an ornament that is a "mini trill" in that it only alternates between a note and its next lower neighbor once. A mordent is always performed on the beat, which means that the two quick auxiliary notes are to be played as 32nd-notes or faster.

E--------------------|
B-5----7----8-7-8----|
G--------------------|
D--------------------|
A--------------------|
E--------------------|

The upper mordent is the same thing, but instead you play the upper neighbor note:

E---------------------|
B-5----7----8-10-8----|
G---------------------|
D---------------------|
A---------------------|
E---------------------|

A turn uses both neighboring notes. It is performed differently depending on where the symbol is placed in the notation—if between two notes, it goes something like this, where h = half note, q = quarter note, e = eighth note and 3 [s s s] = three 16th-note triplets:

         3
  q   [s s s] e e h
E----------------------|
B-5----7-5-3--5-7-8----|
G----------------------|
D----------------------|
A----------------------|
E----------------------|

If the turn symbol is placed over the second note in the passage, it should be played thus:

  q   s s s s  h
E--------------------|
B-5---8-7-5-7--8-----|
G--------------------|
D--------------------|
A--------------------|
E--------------------|

An appoggiatura is a suspended note that resolves to the proper note within a time span defined by the notation:

  q   q   q    q
E-------------------|
B-5---7---7----8----|
G-------------------|
D-------------------|
A-------------------|
E-------------------|

The accacciatura can also be referred to as a "grace note" in English. It is notated with smaller, crossed-out notes and is to be performed quickly, without emphasis and with the main notes on the beat and auxiliary notes before the beat:

E------------------------------|
B-(4)h5--(4h5)h7--(4h5h7)h8----|
G------------------------------|
D------------------------------|
A------------------------------|
E------------------------------|

One of the simplest yet most effective tricks in the guitar player's book is the glissando, more commonly referred to as a slide. The guitar player can slide between two notes:

E------------------------|
B-5----(5)s7----(7)s8----|
G------------------------|
D------------------------|
A------------------------|
E------------------------|

Or he or she can "slide from nowhere", which thickens up the sound:

E-------------------|
B-s5----s7----s8----|
G-------------------|
D-------------------|
A-------------------|
E-------------------|

Yet another, similar, tool is what in orchestral parlance is called portamento. We call it bending strings. There are many ways to bend a string: from a pre-bend via an almost imperceptibly quick bend to a normal bend to a tortuously slow bend that only reaches the target pitch on the last 8th-note of the measure:

E------------------|
B-5----7----7b----|
G------------------|
D------------------|
A------------------|
E------------------|

When in the hands of a skilled player, liberal use of ornaments can take the most banal melodic idea and make it sound wonderously fresh and exciting. This, however, also carries with it a great risk. Overzealous use of ornaments will obscure the melodic line and simply distract from what you're trying to say. Be careful!

Double-stroke Scales

Double-stroke figuration is a term that I have invented myself and I'm not even sure it's very accurate. But let's go for a practical example and you will likely know what I'm getting at.

This is an E minor scale, which due to the absence of legato markings ("h" and "p") is supposed to be played using strict alternate picking:

E------------------------------8-10-12-
B----------------------8-10-12---------
G---------------7-9-11-----------------
D--------7-9-10------------------------
A-7-9-10-------------------------------
E--------------------------------------

The double-stroke technique simply means that you strike each note twice:

E-----------------------------------------------------------8-8-10-10-12-12-
B-------------------------------------------8-8-10-10-12-12-----------------
G-----------------------------7-7-9-9-11-11---------------------------------
D---------------7-7-9-9-10-10-----------------------------------------------
A-7-7-9-9-10-10-------------------------------------------------------------
E---------------------------------------------------------------------------

This is a staple of orchestral violin playing, especially in rich accompaniment figurations or passages that lead to crescendos (putting it a bit simply, but you get the idea). They do have the effect of sounding like the music is running in place, the pace has picked up a bit but not too much. Double strokes are especially common in Baroque music with its propulsive rhythms and perpetuum-mobile melodies (as mentioned above).

In guitar playing, they can be put to similar use. One thing that I am fond of coming back to is the concept of the target note. Double strokes allow you to slow down the pace of your frenzied scale pattern, delaying the arrival at the said target note.

Another thing that I've noticed is that scales and arpeggios played with double strokes are definitely tricker to perform. Therefore, they make excellent practice exercises!

Transcribing Classical Music

Here is a full-blown example of how one can use a piece of classical music as a guitar exercise. This example incorporates many advanced techniques such as quick position-shifting, string muting, arpeggios and odd fingerings. I have deliberately not transposed it from its original key of C minor since it's good practice to not play in E minor once in a while.

As is hopefully evident from the first few bars, it is the introduction and main theme of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. According to the score, the tempo is Allegro con brio with a metronome mark of 108 bars (half-notes) per minute. Wind up your metronome and get cracking!

E---------|------|---------|------|---------|-
B---------|------|---------|------|---------|-
G---------|------|---------|------|---------|-
D---5-5-5-|-1----|---3-3-3-|------|---------|-
A---------|------|---------|-5----|-(5)-----|-
E---------|------|---------|------|---------|-

E---------|---------|---11-11-11-|-8-----|---------|---------|---13-13-13-|-10-------|-
B---8-8-8-|---9-9-9-|-8----------|-------|---8-8-8-|---9-9-9-|-8----------|----------|-
G---------|-8-------|------------|-------|---------|-7-------|------------|----------|-
D---------|---------|------------|-------|---------|---------|------------|----------|-
A---------|---------|------------|-------|---------|---------|------------|----------|-
E---------|---------|------------|-------|---------|---------|------------|----------|-

E---15-15-13-|-11-----|-10-15-15-13-|-11-----|-10-------|-------|-------|-3-----|-(3)---|-
B------------|--------|-------------|--------|----------|-------|-------|-0-----|-------|-
G------------|--------|-------------|--------|----0-0---|-------|-------|-0-----|-------|-
D------------|--------|-------------|--------|--------3-|-1-----|-4-----|-0-----|-------|-
A------------|--------|-------------|--------|----------|-3-----|-3-----|-2-----|-------|-
E------------|--------|-------------|--------|----------|-------|-4-----|-3-----|-------|-

E---------|-------|---------|-
B---------|-------|---------|-
G---------|-------|---------|-
D---6-6-6-|-3-----|-(3)-----|-
A---------|-------|---------|-
E---4-4-4-|-1-----|-(1)-----|-

E---4-4-4-|-1-------|---------|---------|---4-4-4-|-1-------|---------|---------|-
B---------|---3-3-3-|---------|---------|---------|---3-3-3-|---------|---------|-
G---------|---------|-4-1-1-1-|-0-------|---------|---------|-4-1-1-1-|-0-------|-
D---------|---------|---------|---------|---------|---------|---------|---------|-
A---------|---------|---------|---------|-3-------|---------|---------|---------|-
E---------|---------|---------|---3-3-3-|---------|---------|---------|---3-3-3-|-

E---------|-------|-----------|------|-----------|-------1-|-1-0-0-3-|-3-1-1-4-|-
B-------1-|-1-----|-(1)-0-0-3-|-3----|-(3)-1-1-4-|-4-3-3---|---------|---------|-
G---0-0---|-------|-----------|------|-----------|---------|---------|---------|-
D---------|-------|-----------|------|-----------|---------|---------|---------|-
A-3-------|-------|-----------|------|-----------|---------|---------|---------|-
E---------|-------|-----------|------|-----------|---------|---------|---------|-

E-4-3-3-6-|-6-4-4-8-|-8-7-7-10-|-8-11-11-11-|-8-------|------------|----------|-
B---------|---------|----------|------------|---8-8-8-|------------|----------|-
G---------|---------|----------|------------|---------|-8----------|----------|-
D---------|---------|----------|------------|---------|---10-------|----------|-
A---------|---------|----------|------------|---------|------10-10-|----------|-
E---------|---------|----------|------------|---------|------------|-11-8-8-8-|-

E---13-10-10-|-------------|-----------|----------|---11-11-11-|-8----------|-
B------------|-12----------|-----------|----------|------------|---10-10-10-|-
G------------|----12-10-10-|-----------|----------|------------|------------|-
D------------|-------------|-12-9------|----------|------------|------------|-
A------------|-------------|------10-8-|----------|------------|------------|-
E-7----------|-------------|-----------|-10-7-8-8-|-8----------|------------|-

E----------|----------|------|----|-----|---------|-----|-----|------|-------|
B----------|----------|------|----|-3---|---------|-----|-----|------|-------|
G-11-8-8-8-|----------|------|----|-3---|---3-3-3-|-----|-----|------|-------|
D----------|-10-7-7-7-|-7----|----|-3---|---------|-1---|-3---|------|-------|
A----------|----------|-6----|----|-5---|---------|-----|-----|-1----|-(1)---|
E----------|----------|-5----|----|-----|---------|-----|-----|------|-------|

Editor's note: I realize a few things now when transcribing this passage from memory and then comparing to the score. First, a few wrong notes have managed to sneak into my guitar arrangement. Sigh. It's going to be damned near impossible to try and learn the proper version after playing wrong for so long. Second, it is almost impossible to play this slowly. Third, it is indeed impossible to transcribe it from memory—I just admitted I had to consult the score! But it only serves to prove my personal motto: don't think, just let it happen!