From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Alan Barnosky
Matteo Carcassi’s 25 Etudes, Op. 60 are a rite of passage for the advancing classical guitarist. A set of 25 relatively short pieces designed to serve as progressive technical studies, these exercises are demanding even for experienced players. Some of them focus on fretting-hand dexterity or coordination of the picking fingers; others on perfecting sustain, slides, and pull-offs. The etudes were not written to be played with a pick on a steel-string guitar, yet some of them work surprisingly well that way and can even help improve flatpicking technique—even for non-classical guitarists.
Carcassi was born in Italy in 1792 and toured Europe for many years as a guitar virtuoso and composer. There is not much known about his life, and while he wrote a massive list of compositions, 25 Etudes is one of his few enduring works. This collection is primarily used for instructional purposes and is rarely performed, so Carcassi’s music, once revered, is now largely unknown to wider audiences.
The majority of the classical guitar repertoire requires a fingerstyle approach to accomplish things that are impractical to play with a pick, such as widely spaced chords, simultaneous bass and melody passages, and tremolo. Plus, the classical guitar, with its nylon strings, wider fingerboard, and lighter construction, almost feels and sounds like a different instrument than the steel-string.
However, in some instances, classical guitar music can be adapted for steel-string and provide new insight on technique. Carcassi’s “Etude 13, Op. 60,” which features a droning high-E string with arpeggios that move underneath, serves as a perfect example. When played with a pick, “Etude 13” becomes a lesson in two essential techniques: alternate picking and cross-picking. Alternate picking is a strict down-up-down-up approach where the downstroke always lands on a downbeat. Cross-picking means individually picking notes across three or more strings. In bar 1, I play the first six notes with alternate picking, while the next six notes are an example of cross-picking.
Etude literally means “study,” and as such this piece takes some time to master. At first, it may help to work on it using only strict alternate picking throughout. Maintaining alternate picking can be tricky through the cross-picking sections, but this is how most flatpickers approach cross-picking and is an important skill to develop. Once you’re comfortable with alternate picking, try incorporating the down-down-up approach shown in the transcription, which accents all of the bass notes with a downstroke to bring out the melody. Picking the melody notes (indicated with downward stems) with a bit more emphasis than the other notes will further highlight the melody.
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Flatpicking “Etude 13” offers a unique interpretation—the alternate picking pattern provides a natural rhythmic bounce that a traditional fingerstyle approach loses out on, and the switch to down-down-up makes the melody shine at crucial spots. Not only is it a study for the right hand, but also the left, with abundant position shifts throughout. (See the standard notation for my preferred fingerings.) It’s fun to play, deceptively tricky, and great for building technique—in other words, the perfect guitar etude, even with a pick.
Alan Barnosky is a roots guitarist and singer-songwriter based in Durham, North Carolina. alanbarnosky.com