Kevin Ferguson is a guitarist working out of Portland, Oregon who specializes in taking music foreign to the electric guitar and adapting it to the instrument.
His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Strad To Strat II".
Send comments or questions to Kevin Ferguson.
© Kevin Ferguson
Click here for a printer-friendly version of "Vivaldi On Electric Guitar".
Thirteen years ago, the original "Strad to Strat" was released after recording with
an insanely tiny budget and the most modest of methods (direct to master with no
means to change the mix, volume or edit in any way). Now, with the world financial
markets melting down and the music industry seeing CD sales dropping rapidly, "Strad
to Strat II" comes out after a mad frenzy of recording part time during the summer
It was such a pleasure to play this music, nearly all for the first time while
recording in the studio. This music tickled my ears and brain in a way that
inspired me to read Marc Pincherle's "Vivaldi" currently.
While playing many movements from "The Four Seasons" (including on "Strad to Strat")
live many years ago, I was already familiar with "the red priest" as the conductor
of what amounted to an orphanage for girls, small up through teenagers.
Only recently I learned that their performances were out of view of the listening
public, separated via a metal gating to obscure just how disfigured or handicapped
some of young lady musicians were. Nobility came from all over Europe to hear his
unseen orchestra. Many would marry some of the best musicians as they became of
legal age and/or paid Vivaldi to write a custom concerto. His music was in some
ways controversial in that it was deemed by some to be eccentric in its use of
dramatic themes, and extreme in other respects. Then, he and his orchestra lost
popularity. He was let go to be replaced with a new, and now forgotten maestro.
Vivaldi died a pauper in Vienna not so long after.
Vivaldi was pretty much forgotten until being "rediscovered" by an enthusiastic
musicologist in the 1930's who set about collecting his works, mostly from private
owners. And musicologists not familiar with Vivaldi might be surprised by his
proclivity for innovating by borrowing from other cultures (Scottish, Slavic, etc.)
while simultaneously adhering to the basic principals of the Venetian composer of
his time. Such ability to weave ideas in his compositions, along with counterpoint
including fugue, caught the attention of many other composers of his time. J.S.
Bach studied some of Vivaldi's hundreds of concerto works before writing his only
two violin concertos (i.e. compare middle passages of RV 249, 1st movement with
Bach's 1st violin concerto, second movement). This is even more impressive when
considering general limitations in compositional expression sometimes imposed by his
young orchestra recruited and trained within the orphanage. With such a huge body
of work, having major time constraints and being faulted by many for being too
different already, it's no wonder that Vivaldi eventually seemed to "copy himself,"
as did Bach and other contemporary composers. Despite all this, these compositions
continue to impress me in new ways.
Anatomy of Typical Vivaldi Violin Concerto
The typical violin concerto by Vivaldi has three or four movements, often with the
first or second and last being the liveliest. Usually there are main themes
introduced as "tutti" where the entire orchestra plays together, often the same
melody (respective native octave ranges). There are quotes from Pincherle's book
regarding the popularity of Vivaldi's tutti. Often there are other related and
seemingly less related themes introduced and intertwined and harmonized. Canon,
fugue and other imitative forms typical of the time are also found this music.
Another example of imitation often used is a motif that is quickly replicated one
scale degree up or down repeatedly until a dominant chord is reached. A common
alternative to the one scale degree up or down shift is the alternate forth or fifth
interval shift in between each one scale degree shift (i.e. C,G,D,F,E,B, etc.). And
solo melodies are often made more dramatic by what electric guitarists may know
commonly as "breaks" or "blues breaks" where the orchestra plays a "power chord" for
the first beat or so in the measure and then rests.
Put in this way, Vivaldi's concerti may seem quite simple and formulaic. However,
while mostly following the rules of composition common in his native Venice, he
found many clever and exciting ways to create within this framework. For example
the weaving of a simple three note descending theme made to ascend over a chromatic
ascending melody, interchanged between solo instrument and orchestra in the second
movement of his G minor concerto (RV 578) as can be heard on my "Strad To Strat II
Vivaldi" CD (track 1). Another example is the agile modulation and leading tones
yield melodies that are momentarily effectively in exotic scales such as todi in the
first movement of his D minor concerto (RV 249) as can be heard on track 4 of the
same CD. Together, these kinds of things helped to make his reputation. In effect,
he was arguably the equivalent of a pop star for a few decades throughout the music
community of most of Europe.
Melodic minor (the 6th and 7th scale degree notes are major going up and minor going
down) was used most often instead of natural or harmonic (the choice of most
neo-classical guitarists). In some of his melodies, he changes direction among
these notes for interesting effects (for examples in parts of RV 249, track 4 and
parts of 3rd movement of RV 565, track 12).
Typical instrumentation includes the string orchestra (violins, viola, cello, bass,
and organ or harpsichord type keyboard). Several of his violin concertos include
music for multiple solo violins: two, three or four. One example with 4 solo
violins is his B minor (opus 3 No 10, RV580: track 2 from the CD). Here the
violins mostly trade solos, whereas in others they play simultaneously for harmonies
and/or countermelodies such as the fugue of D minor (RV 565, track 11 of the CD).
Transcribing and Arranging Violin Concertos to Electric Guitars
After selecting music from Vivaldi's "Harmonic Inspiration" and "La Stravaganza,"
the following were taken into consideration when transcribing the music to electric
guitars: octave range of treble clef for guitar vs. violin, tessitura (general pitch
ranges) of the orchestral parts, ornamentation appropriate for the Venetian Baroque,
guitar technique that maps roughly to violin technique for some of the same effects.
Since the guitar treble clef is played one octave lower than written for violin,
especially considering the considerable difference octaves make in how harmonies are
distributed (close interval harmonies, especially seconds, mostly reserved for
higher octaves), it made more sense to actually play the music in the original
octave range. In effect this meant reading the music as if it were written for
guitar, only playing one octave higher. This resulted in most of the violin music
being played above the twelfth fret of the guitar. In some cases, the pitch range
was of the fret board. If the highest note was only a whole step off the fret
board, bends where generally used to reach it. In a few cases, where the highest
note was about a forth above the highest note on the fret board, the entire movement
or concerto was transcribed down by that much (or a minor third).
Likewise, solo parts of other instruments, especially cello, were covered by
electric guitar in the original pitch, again by playing as if written for a guitar
an octave higher.
For when multiple solo violins alternate, often one guitar would take on all parts.
An example of this is the somewhat verbose concerto in B minor I Allegro, RV 580
Ornamentation added included grace notes, trills, turns, mordents, slurs
(hammer-ons, pull-offs, especially for quick grace note based slur runs thrown
between notes, and to a lesser extent slides and bends) and vibrato. In faster or
at least rhythmically dynamic passages, ornaments were used conservatively, whereas
for some of the slower and otherwise rhythmically monotonous passages, ornamentation
was added more liberally for spice (for example, track 12, d minor III Largo RV565).
Note that for Baroque music, especially with tight harmonies, pure tone was
considered more of the norm and the focus of composition rather than liberal vibrato
popular in many electric guitar styles. So vibrato was used more conservatively,
mostly lightly, but moderately to heavily sometimes for stress or variety more than
as the norm. An example of extreme use of ornamentation used to spice up Vivaldi is
violinist Nigel Kennedy's "Vivaldi II" renditions where some passages are almost
unrecognizable due to so many notes being added. I like what he's done for creating
solo pieces, but I also like Vivaldi's original compositions with both the blend of
melodies and the clear counter melodies of multiple voices.
Many of the faster passages are normally played by the violin with groups of notes
played with one stroke of the bow, usually with strokes starting on a naturally
accented note. The same general principal was applied to grouping right hand
(picked) vs. left hand (hammer-on or pull-off) sounded notes on the electric guitar.
I personally find it especially important to keep accents consistent as motifs are
repeated as they are transcribed up or down, which often can be at odds with the
most feasible way to play the music on the guitar. But without this consistency,
the irregular use of technique relative to repeated motifs can make for very
distracting if subtle tone changes.
Some of the fast arpeggios are continuous hammer-on and pull-off combinations after
the initial note (for example in the minor section in the middle of E Major concerto
III Allegro, RV 265, track 4). In other cases, all notes got relatively equal
stress and were all picked, such as opening quick theme of G minor I Allegro RV 578
(track 1). In other cases, light picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs were used to
minimize the attack of each note and to make it more sonorant or singing for better
blending of harmonies, such as A minor II Larghetto, RV 522 (track 9). Often
intervals between notes played on one string for hammer-ons and/or pull-offs were
extraordinarily large for the electric guitar, but being so high on the neck
mitigated the stretch involved. In other cases, using right-hand finger taps was
required. To see a video of a live performance of a Vivaldi violin concerto with
wide interval arpeggios using such technique, take a look at my video of a live
performance of "Vivaldi Style" (also on my "Subtle Hint" album) at an international
guitar competition at debone.com or on youtube.com.
Bends were used sparingly, often for dramatic effect on highest notes, sometimes as
simply a practical way to reach notes off the fret board (for example, D minor II
Adagio & Allegro RV565, track 11, the last few bars of the solo violin part).
Similarly, slides were used sometimes for variety, dramatic effect or simply as a
solution to unaccented fingering requirements in a fast passage. Examples include
the large descending arpeggio in the first few measures of C minor I Allegro, RV 196
(track 15) and near the middle of A minor I Allegro, RV 357 (track 14).
Some guiding principles used to transcribe and arrange Vivaldi (and other Baroque)
violin concertos to electric guitars in my latest CD have been offered for you to
give it a go if you like. With hundreds of works by Vivaldi alone, there is a rich
treasure trove for those who wish to explore it.
Additional Columns by Kevin Ferguson
Additional Songwriting/Composition Columns