by Teja Gerken

For many classical-guitar students, tackling the “Bourrée in E minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is a rite of passage from playing mere exercises to playing music that many non-musicians will recognize and appreciate. Bach wrote the Bourrée sometime after 1712 (the exact date is unknown) as part of his Lute Suite No. 1, and it was adapted for guitar in the 20th century, after the instrument earned acceptance in classical circles. Andrés Segovia recorded a version of it in 1947. Since then, the piece has made its way onto countless classical guitar recordings, and it has a firm place in the repertoire.

Classical guitarists aren’t the only ones to cut their teeth on the Bourrée. British rockers Jethro Tull included a jazzed-up band version on their 1969 album Stand Up. Their decidedly nonclassical performance provided the blueprint for an arrangement often performed live (but never officially released) by Michael Hedges—playing flute!—and electric bass virtuoso Michael Manring.

Thanks to its popularity outside the classical realm, referring to the piece merely as “the Bach Bourrée” will generally allow people to recall the correct tune, but you’ll probably want to be more specific when trying to impress your classically trained friends. This is because “Bourrée” actually refers to a dance popular in France’s Auvergne region during the 17th century, and the name has been used for countless compositions of the Baroque period.

If you’ve never played or studied any of Bach’s music, the Bourrée in E minor makes for an excellent introduction. Even though it isn’t overly complex or difficult to play, it is a beautiful representation of Bach’s sense of harmony and counterpoint, with distinct bass and melody lines moving so perfectly against each other that it may give you the chills as you play the piece. If you’re having difficulty with the independence of the movements, try learning the melody and bass line separately, one at a time, fusing them together after you’re comfortable with each. Pay special attention to the fingering in bars 17 and 22, as it’s easy to get your fingers tied up in knots if you’re not careful.

Even if you’re not a classical player, mastering pieces such as this offers a great learning experience for any fingerstyle guitarist, because it not only teaches picking-hand techniques that are independent of set patterns but also demonstrates excellent form and structure.