** As featured in issue 13 **
In this fingerstyle acoustic guitar lesson we will be looking at a short composition of mine simply called Banjo Roll in D Minor, as it does exactly what it says on the tin! The guitar technique needed for this study is in fact a three-finger technique, very common in banjo music thanks to the one and only Earl Scruggs, the legendary leading exponent of Bluegrass music.
Study pieces are normally bespoke compositions constructed around a particular concept or technical idea such as an arpeggio, a picking or fretting hand technique, a time signature etc. This composition, for example makes use of the following picking hand permutation: ‘p’, ‘m’, ‘i’ and ‘p’ respectively on D, B, G and D. This is a typical 4-note pattern used to generate the so-called ‘banjo rolls, but also common in Flamenco and Classical guitar. To ensure fluidity, the above-mentioned pattern is embellished with various articulations, such as pull-offs and hammer-ons. This will become clearer from the example below as well as from examining the enclosed score.
The legendary violinist & composer Nicolo Paganini used to compose many study pieces using a similar approach, navigating a set of harmonic changes with a recurrent pattern, like an arpeggio, broken chord or a melodic pattern.I recommend trying this strategy to construct your own compositions.
Below is the harmonic content I have chosen for this composition:
Dm / / / A/C# / / / (x2)
Dm/ D / Gm/ / / Dm/ / / A/C#
Dm/ D / Gm/ / / Dm/ / / A/C#/// Dm
Please note the use of slash chords like, for example the A/C#. This is essentially an A major triad with its 3rd on the bass. (This voicing is normally referred to as a 1st inversion, as the third of the chord is on the bass).
As I mentioned in the previous column, the finger picking permutation used in this tune (mentioned above) could be changed as you wish. Once you find a chord sequence you like, you’ll notice that any arpeggio or strumming pattern will work nicely. In other words, the most important thing when crafting a composition is to make sure that the harmonic content makes musical sense on its own (even without a melody).
Here is a breakdown of the composition bar by bar. You will be able to download a transcription by selecting the menu option in this page. As always, I recommend starting with learning the above-mentioned picking pattern with open strings, using the planting technique explained in the previous issues.
Fretting Hand positions:
Bar 1: Middle f. on fret 3 of D, index on fret 2 of G and ring f. on fret 3 of B. Pull-off from the note F to an open D.
Bar 2: Index f. barre’ on fret 2 of D and G. Ring f. or little finger on fret 4 of A. Apply the same picking pattern including articulations.
Bar 3: As bar 1.
Bar 4: As bar 2.
Bar 5: As bar 1 to start with and then little finger on fret 4 of D to generate a D major chord.
Bar 6: Index f. barre’ on fret 3 of G and B. Ring f. on fret 5 of D.
Bar 7: As bar 5.
Bar 8: As bar 6.
Bar 9: As bar 1.
Bar 10: As bar 2.
Bar 11: As bar 5.
Bar 12: As bar 6.
Bar 13: As bar 1
Bar 14: As bar 2
Bar 15: Open A, Little f. on fret 5 of A, middle f. on fret 3 of D, index f. on fret 2 of G. Ring f. on fret 3 of B and open D simultaneously.
As mentioned in the video, feel free to experiment with a few variations, changing the chords as you wish in terms voicing (higher or lower), as well as trying the same picking pattern on a different chord progression.
When repeating any section twice or more, you may want to play ‘sul ponticello’, (closer to the bridge) or ‘sul tasto’ (over the frets) for a more contrasting result.
Using a wider dynamic and tonal range is important to keep our listeners engaged, especially when repeating the same section. I guess we could call this a ‘yawn-buster’ strategy!
Now let’s check the additional Flamenco passage!
Middle f. on fret 2 of G, index f. on fret 1 of B, open E.
Picking hand permutation: p, m, I, p, pull-off to an open G, m, i, p, p, m, i, p, pull-off from fret 3 to fret 2 of D.
Practise as explained at the end of the video tutorial, using open strings and focusing on articulating notes in a fluid manner, by refining your pull-offs and hammer-ons.
Congrats! You’ve completed this tune.
As always, tonal and dynamic awareness is what makes our playing sound ‘expensive’ or ‘cheap’. To meet the former objective, slow practice is key, as we certainly don’t want memorise wrong parts or develop bad technical habits.
Take one beat at a time, memorizing the fretting hand shapes and pattern.
It is wise to follow the recommended fingering and muting techniques, as per the video and the transcription included. Practice singing the melody in the low register played with the ‘p’ finger while playing the piece. This strategy can help performing the tune in a more ‘cantabile’ (singing like) manner.
As recommended in the previous columns, where we mainly focused on the picking hand, we ought to focus most of all on accuracy and consistency of tone. Strategies to further improvement include the use of the planting technique described in the previous columns, resting our fingers onto the chosen strings, and executing each stroke with a controlled and even pressure and with tonal and dynamic awareness. Each note we play should sound as full-bodied and as good as the previous one.
Please focus on minimum-movement approach, as this will help delivering the piece in a more accurate and consistent manner, while saving energy.
This will complete this fingerstyle and guitar composition lesson.
Whether you will play this composition on a steel strung or a nylon strung guitar, this will provide a great opportunity to improve your muting techniques as well as coordination skills of the picking and fretting hand.
I hope you will enjoy playing this study piece and that this will give you some ideas on how to write your own solo guitar compositions.