How to Play Melody in the Bass on the Classical Guitar
The melody of a classical guitar piece, though usually played by the fingers on the high strings (in the treble), is sometimes played by the thumb on the low strings (in the bass). (This concept applies to the piano, too, by the way. The right hand plays the melody of most pieces, though for a different effect, the melody can be placed in the left hand.)
You may find it easier to combine arpeggios with a melody played by your thumb than by your fingers. For one thing, your thumb usually plays on the beat (rather than between the beats, as the fingers do).
For another, you have no decisions to make about which finger plays the melody; that is, your thumb, acting alone, plays nothing but the melody notes while your fingers play nothing but the accompaniment (the higher notes of each arpeggio).
Don’t worry about having to hunt down the melody in a piece. The melody usually reveals itself soon enough when you start to play, just in the way the composer or arranger wrote the notes. (Sometimes the written music itself even offers clues, such as giving the melody its own stem direction.)
After you’re able to hear where the melody falls, you can work to bring it out further, using slightly stronger strokes on the melody notes themselves. Or, if the piece has no melody at all (which sometimes happens in short passages between melodic phrases), you hear that, too, and give no emphasis to any particular notes.
Playing a bass melody within arpeggios
How do you bring out the notes when the melody is in the bass line? Just play them a little louder (striking them a little harder) than the other notes, and make sure the other notes are consistent with each other in loudness.
Here is an exercise that offers you an opportunity to practice the basic technique of combining arpeggios with a bass melody without having to worry about any of the complicated rhythms or unusual left-hand fingerings that real-life pieces may contain.
Note that the first note of each triplet group has a downward stem (in addition to an upward stem). Those downward stems tell you not only to play those notes with your thumb but also to play them as quarter notes; in other words, to let them ring throughout the beat.
Now, alert reader that you are, you may point out that one of the rules of arpeggio playing is that all the notes of an arpeggio should ring out (rather than be stopped short) — so all those bass notes would sound as quarter notes anyway. And you’re right.
So in reality, those downward stems on the first note of each triplet group tell you not only to play them with the thumb and to let them ring out but also to bring out those thumb notes so that a listener hears them as an independent melody.
Measure 2 presents an interesting right-hand fingering dilemma. Normal right-hand position has the index finger assigned to the 3rd string, the middle finger to the 2nd, and the ring finger to the 1st. Also, you generally try not to move the right hand itself, if at all possible. For those reasons, you’d expect to use fingers m and a to play the top two notes of the D minor arpeggio.
But another rule of arpeggio playing says that you should use the strongest fingers whenever possible — and the combination of i and m is stronger than that of m and a. So, according to that rule, you should use i and m for the top two strings (even though you have to move your right hand across the neck a bit). Hence the dilemma.
The important point is that when you have a situation in which those right-hand fingering rules conflict, the “strong fingers” rule takes precedence over the “minimize motion” rule, and thus, in measure 2 you play the top two notes of the D minor arpeggio with i and m.
Practicing making a bass melody stand out
This is taken from a study by early 19th-century Spanish guitar virtuoso Dionisio Aguado. It features a single right-hand pattern throughout (p-i-m-i) and a uniform rhythm. That’s what makes it easy to play. But at the same time, the study is somewhat challenging for a few reasons.
First, the notes are sixteenth, which means that they move along rather briskly. So start out by practicing slowly, then gradually increase the tempo. Second, the bass notes — because they’re all chord tones that occur at the beginning of each four-note group — have a tendency to sound like nothing more than simply the first note of each arpeggio.
So it’s your job to make them especially melodic; that is, bring them out forcefully — but smoothly and sweetly — so that a listener hears a “tune” in the bass. Finally, you play some of the notes on strings you may not expect.
Check out measure 2, beat 4, for example, where, in order to preserve the right-hand pattern (and flow), you play the C on the 3rd string, and the repeated E’s alternate between the 2nd and 1st strings.
For ease of playing, pay special attention to the left-hand fingering (and especially to the guide finger indications). And for an effective performance, keep the rhythm as even as possible.