Harp-like Scales for Guitar
For this week's Woodshed Wednesday, we're going to take a different approach to playing scales. Typically, guitarists play scales in a linear fashion--play two or three notes on one string and then continue on the next string. Today, let's try playing scales across the strings, like you would arpeggiate a chord. Done properly we can create lush, harp-like ringing, legato scales. I first used this technique when studying J.S. Bach's Suite No. 1 for cello (BWV 1007), which is also a popular piece for classical guitar. Two-thirds of the way through the Prelude of Suite No. 1, there are a few measures of scales, starting with Examples 1 and 2 below. These are simply D Major scales, starting on G.
Click on any of the images for larger, easier to read notation. You may also download all four examples on a single PDF.
In Ex. 1, we play the scale in a traditional, linear fashion.
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In Ex. 2, we play the same scale but play only one note per string (use the TAB for proper fingering). Pay attention to the 3 note groupings.
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To get the best harp-like effect, hold down each note as long as you can. Use the open strings to position your hand for the next two fretted notes. I think of the open strings as pivot points between each grouping of notes, allowing me to shift my left hand up and down the neck to the best place to play the next group of notes.
Open strings are very important when using this technique, but sometimes the right notes aren't available as an open string. This is especially true once you start using scales with several accidentals. The first two examples utilized the open E, B, and G strings. What happens when the scale allows for fewer open strings?
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In Ex. 3 we look at an E Major scale that uses natural harmonics to add open strings to our scale. Ex. 3a is a little easier to play. The harmonic for A can easily be played with your left hand. Ex. 3b rings out a bit more, but it trickier to execute. By moving your left hand down to first position to play the G# and F# you allow the A to ring out longer, and playing the final E harmonic with your right hand creates a rich, ringing cluster chord.
Finally, Ex. 4 is a more complex use of the technique as I used in an arrangement of Elliott Smith's "Everything Means Nothing To Me." The original recording is done on piano with a sustain pedal, allowing each note to ring out. I wanted to recreate that on the guitar. Here's the opening line:
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First, notice that there are actually two voices in this line. On piano you might play one voice per hand. Guitarists, however, have to figure out how to allow one voice to ring while the other is being played, otherwise it will just sound like a single line. This is another reason the harp technique is handy.
Example 4 is perhaps more tricky on the right hand, requiring some odd finger picking patterns that are anything but intuitive.
Here's a video of me playing "Everything Means Nothing To Me" by Elliott Smith. Throughout the entire arrangement, I tried to sustain chords and play open strings whenever possible to create a harp-like effect.