Fans of classical ukulele will already be aware of John King’s ground breaking The Classical Ukulele, and Tony Mizen’s excellent books From Lute to Uke, The Baroque Ukulele and The Romantic Ukulele, all published by Flea Market Music. Much of the late 18th and 19th century guitar repertoire by composers such as Sor and Giuliani can be adapted to the ukulele. This tutorial, originally published in UKE Magazine, focuses on a beautiful romantic study by Francisco Tárrega.
Francisco Tárrega was a Spanish classical guitar composer (1857 – 1909). A renowned concert artist and teacher, Tárrega performed in Spain, Paris and London. He played a guitar made by Antonio de Torres who is considered to be the most influential guitar maker of the 20th Century. Torres perfection of the fan bracing system allowed the guitar to achieve the sustain and projection necessary for a concert instrument. Although Tárrega’s recitals were well received in London he disliked the language and the weather! It is said that following one concert Tárrega, feeling particularly miserable, was inspired to write one of his most well known pieces, Lagrima (or Teardrop). Here it is played on the guitar:
Tárrega’s most famous concert works include the Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra) and Capricho Arabe. Here’s me playing Recuerdos in the grounds and garden of the Alhambra Palace.
Tárrega also composed beautiful miniature pieces for guitar. One of my favourites is the Etude in E minor which I have transcribed for the ukulele into A minor and is the topic of this tutorial. The ukulele is most commonly portrayed as a happy or comic instrument. This Etude is a perfect example of what a beautiful, melancholic and emotive instrument the ukulele can be. (See the first video on this page for my interpretation on the ukulele.)
The piece has a simple structure and is relatively easy to play. But if you are new to arpeggio technique you will find it challenging but rewarding to play. The following suggestions will guide you through the piece bar by bar.
Firstly, let’s look at the harmonic structure of the Etude. Harmonic structure translates as chord progression. Before continuing click on the blue link below to open and download the score. I recommend you do this before reading on. You’ll find chord boxes above the music to make it easier to follow.
Section 1 is based on the following chords:
Am G7 E7 C
Am G7 E7 Am
Section 2 is based on the following chords:
Am Dm G7 C
Am G7 E7 Am
If you want to strum along to the video there are 3 beats per bar or 3 strums per chord.
You might notice that the 1st beat of the bar (e.g. bar 2) sometimes sounds wrong and the chord only becomes ‘right’ on the 2nd & 3rd beats. This is intentional. Dissonance is an effective device for creating a moment of tension or conflict in the music which quickly resolves. It’s the composer’s way of getting our attention.
Tárrega has written this piece in an arpeggio style. Arpeggios are an alternative way of playing a chord. Instead of playing the chord as a block of sound (as we do when we strum) the notes are played one at a time or arpeggiated. The word arpeggio comes from the Italian arpeggiare which means to play on a harp. When a chord is played as an arpeggio it is said to be ‘broken’. Thus, arpeggio is synonymous with ‘broken chord’.
In 1862 Tárrega ran away from home in order to try and make a living playing in bars and cafes in Barcelona. He was only 10!
Bar 1 is built around the A minor chord. The notes that make up the A minor chord are:
A C E
Start by holding down the familiar A minor chord shape. The piece begins with 2 A’s played together. If you are new to this technique then you can just play 1 of the A’s to start with. The right hand technique is to pick the notes using the pattern indicated in the score: p & a together and then m and then i. If you are note familiar with the pima system of right hand fingering please see below for an explanation.
The finger indicators are also used by classical guitarists and come from Spanish.
Thumb = pulgar, or p
Index = indices, or i
Middle = medio, or m
Ring finger = anular, or a
Bar 2 is based on the G7 chord. The 2nd and 3rd beats are straightforward – the familiar G7 chord played as a reverse arpeggio. The quirky note is the 1st beat C in the melody which clashes rather starkly with the D in the bass. The C and D create a dissonance. The C is a hang over from the previous bar and belongs to the A minor chord. Things resolve on the 2nd beat when C falls one step to B and our chord now sounds like a proper G7.
The main chord for this bar is E7.
The melody notes, played on the 1st string, are D (5th fret), C (3rd fret), and B (2nd fret) which form a nice little descending melody. This time the rogue note is the C on beat 2 but Tárrega cleverly places it between the D and B – both notes of the E7 chord – so the C is just a passing note.
This bar is made up of only 3 notes – E E C (the 2 E’s are an octave apart).
Remember E and C are notes of both the A minor and C major chords. But chord is correct? Well, is your cup half full or half empty? Are we A minor or C major? I hear C major for the following reason. Bar 4 is the climax of the 1st section and that soaring 7th fret E which Tárrega restates 3 times in the melody sounds like a burst of sunshine in the dismal winter sky. Hence the brighter major chord moving away from the more somber A minor feel earlier in the bar.
Bars 5, 6 and 7 are a repeat of bars 1, 2 and 3 (see above).
Bar 8 is the end of the 1st section and we conclude with our tonic chord of A minor. The squiggly line next to the chord indicates the chord should be rolled.
The 2nd section opens with a beautiful soaring A minor arpeggio. There are no surprise notes here. The melody moves from A (open 1st) up to C (3rd fret) and then up to E (7th fret) – like an arpeggio within an arpeggio. The high E (7th fret) is reminiscent of bar 4 but this time we remain in the minor key – as asserted by the A in the bass. The music seems to be reaching up trying to find that lost ray of sunlight.
Such an emotional moment! Here is the climax of the entire piece. We seem to be reaching up searching for our little lost ray of sunshine. We hover briefly on the high E (7th fret) but the moment passes and we descend into the despair of a D minor arpeggio. The F, which is the highest note in the piece (8th fret), is one final plaintive cry before we fall back to a G7 chord in bar 11.
The almost bluesy moment of the G7 is transformed as the melody ascends in steps from B to C to D. Once again the C passing note creates a little jolt in the melody. The final 3 notes of the bar are from the G7 chord but lacking the 3rd (or B). The effect is rather bleak and empty. We are in a state of harmonic and emotional uncertainty. Where is Tárrega taking us?
The 1st beat of bar 12 does little to reassure us. The D in the melody clashes with the open C on the 3rd string. Once again we have a feeling of dissonance, uncertainty and discord. But the mood is fleeting as Tárrega quickly shifts from D to C in the melody to arrive in the reassuring key of C major. The C in the melody rises all the way up to the E on the 7th fret giving us one final burst of sunshine.
Bars 13, 14 and 15 are a repeat of bars 1, 2 and 3.
The piece concludes with the tonic chord of A minor. In the download I’ve suggested playing the 2nd time ending slightly differently. This is indicated by the little bar underneath bar 16. The suggestion is to play the final chord as harmonics. Harmonics are produced by placing the left hand finger lightly on the strings over the 12th fret without pressing the strings down. Pluck the strings with the right hand and then release the left hand fingers to allow the string to sound.
Good luck! I hope you enjoy playing this beautiful piece! Let me know if you upload your performance of the Etude and I’ll share it on the I Love Ukulele Facebook page.
One final piece of trivia. Did you know that Tárrega composed the Nokia ringtone? Well, not really. In the 1990’s Nokia choose to use bars 13 – 16 of Tárrega’s Gran Vals (composed in 1902) as the ringtone for their new phone.