“Prelude No. 1 in C Major”—Transforming a Bach Keyboard Work into a Flatpicking Guitar Study

As this arrangement shows, Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major works quite well as a flatpicking etude.

“Prelude No. 1 in C Major” from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 is one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most famous compositions. This keyboard work fits nicely an octave lower on guitar, in open position, with only a few minor modifications—several of the bass notes need to be played in the original octave, as they would be too low for standard tuning.

While Bach pieces are commonly adapted for classical and fingerstyle guitar, the same cannot be said when it comes to flatpicking. But as this arrangement shows, “Prelude No. 1 in C major” works quite well as a picking etude. I find it’s best played with consistent down-up picking throughout, for a fluid and relaxed feel. This results in a challenging upstroke on the sixth and 14th notes of each measure, but the piece is meant to be taken at a contemplative pace, and with a little practice the upstroke will come naturally.


As for the fretting hand, while many of the measures are based around common open chord shapes like C and G7, some of the passages can be tricky. For this reason, I’ve provided occasional fingering suggestions in the notation. Work through these portions slowly and repeat each measure until you feel confident with the chord shapes. Also, check out the accompanying video for more thoughts on the left-hand approach.

The magic from this piece comes from letting the notes ring out to reveal lush harmonies and overtones, so you’ll want to hold each chord shape in the fretting hand whenever possible. This is easier in some places (like measures 1–4) than in others (the monster F#dim7/G chord in bar 28). In some measures there are repeated notes on the same string (bar 6), and in these instances keeping notes ringing on other strings is essential to maintain the sustain found elsewhere in the arrangement.

Take it slow and enjoy the complex harmonies created by these ringing chords. Not many of Bach’s pieces are adaptable to guitarists who play with a pick, so this one is well worth the time to learn and appreciate.


Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major flatpicking etude guitar lesson music notation sheet 1
Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major flatpicking etude guitar lesson music notation sheet 2
Bach's Prelude No. 1 in C Major flatpicking etude guitar lesson music notation sheet 3

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Alan Barnosky
Alan Barnosky

Alan Barnosky is a guitarist based in Durham, NC. He performs solo as a songwriter as well as in bluegrass and folk bands.

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