Playing classical / baroque music on electric guitar brings a unique set of challenges, and, having had some experience in the genre (sometimes referred to as ‘classical crossover’), I’m going to outline some of the challenges I faced so that you can pre-empt them:
1. Start With Something Simple
There are plenty of classical pieces that are quite simple. ‘Air’ by Bach is a beautiful baroque piece that you can start with. Some of the Minuets from Bach’s Cello Suites are pretty approachable too.
2. Classical Music Tends to Have a ‘Push-Pull’ Sense of Timing
Rock and metal guitar players tend to (at least, should be) working to a metronome and getting their timing nice and even. While classical players also work with metronomes, especially when working on their technique, you will find that they can also ‘groove’ to a metronome, that when they play a piece live, they work a lot by feel rather than a strict sense of timing. This takes some practice to get right.
You can get a sense for this by finding a classical player, playing a piece you want to learn on YouTube. Listen to their playing very, very carefully. Loop the first few bars of the piece you are learning and try and replicate how they play it, as precisely as possible.
3. You Will Have to Learn to Sight-Read and Start Developing Your Memory
Classical musicians tend to be very good sight readers. A lot of rock players cannot read music at all. If you really want to get into this genre, then learning to read music is a necessity. Two books that I have seen, that are great at teaching sight reading for guitar players, are Ernie Ball’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 series. You can pick them both up for $20 or less on Amazon.
Now, personally, I think that reading music live is kinda lame, so, you will have to start training that memory. If you do want to do live or studio stuff, then getting great at sight reading is going to be a necessity for a logistical reason:
Notation takes up less space than guitar tab
Most guitar tab has the notation on top of it, so you can read the rhythm (I’ve always thought that notation with rhythm marks on it looks horrid!). Guitar tab with notation takes nearly triple the amount of physical space on a page that notation takes. If you are learning, for example, prelude from Bach’s Cello Suites on Electric Guitar, in notation that will take up one and a bit pages. In tab plus notation, it takes up 4-5 pages.
You can’t be sitting around with 4-5 pages hanging off your music stand (not that I’ve ever tried that…).
Developing your memory is also a good approach, and you approach memorising pieces like you do playing them – one bar at a time. I memorised over 7,500 notes when I memorised Bach’s 1st and 2nd Cello Suites – it can be done. It’s really not that difficult when you settle into it for the long haul.
4. Learning These Pieces Well Takes Time
A 15 minute piece could take you several months to get that hang of. Something harder could take a year. Maybe longer. This is perfectly normal, and classical players will often spend this amount of time learning complex piece too. When I was studying Bach’s Cello Suites, at one point I felt a bit depressed at how long it was taking. I was sure that classical players picked it up faster than me.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Be prepared to put some serious time into it and ignore that little voice when it starts piping up.
5. Pay Attention to Pitch Range
To state the obvious, when we learn classical music on electric guitar, we are taking music written for other instruments and playing them on guitar. So one thing we have to pay attention to is the pitch range of the piece and the instrument. For example, a violin has a range from G3 to A7 and a guitar has a range from E2 to E4. So, some violin music might require transposing lower, to fit the range of the guitar. Some might not. Spring, from Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons, fits on an electric guitar quite nicely. Some of Paganini’s Caprices do not, and you either need an extended range guitar, or, to transpose the pieces to a lower key than they were written in, in order to play them on guitar.
It’s worth checking through the score of the piece you are looking at to check it fits on guitar, before you start transcribing it!
6. Talk to a Professional
If you are learning a cello piece on guitar, then, after you have memorised the piece or can read through it, it might be worth booking some lessons with a cello teacher. They will help you get the timing and the feel of the piece, and, having a second set of ears is always useful.
7. You Will Have to Develop Your Use of Dynamics
Rock and metal music tends to be either loud, or quiet. Classical can have a much greater dynamic range. When you are playing with a clean tone, you have a huge amount of dynamic control. This is something that gets lost with a heavier lead guitar tone, where the signal is compressed. Anyway, this dynamic control is something you will have to get used to, to bring out the beauty in the music.