‘The Earle of Salisbury’: Learn John Renbourn’s Classic Arrangement of a Renaissance Keyboard Piece

It can be a challenge to play keyboard music on guitar, but we share Renbourn's clever fingering strategies to keep the music smooth and flowing.

Great guitarists like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were heavily indebted to classical music in their development of the style that came to be known as “folk baroque.” In the case of “The Earle of Salisbury,” from Renbourn’s 1968 album, Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte, the guitarist went as far as to transcribe a Renaissance keyboard piece, William Byrd’s “The Earl of Salisbury,” for steel-string guitar. 

The notation here is based on Renbourn’s original studio recording, on which the melodies are reinforced by glockenspiel. But the guitar part works just as well on its own. And given its brevity—it’s comprised of just two repeating eight-bar sections—the piece serves as an excellent introduction to classical repertoire, whether you’re on nylon- or steel-string guitar. 


It can be a challenge to play keyboard music on guitar, but Renbourn clearly came up with some clever fingering strategies to keep the music smooth and flowing, as it should be played. For instance, as seen in bar 2, he starts off in the fourth position and uses the open B string (on beat 4) to buy himself time to shift down to the open position for the D chord at the top of the third measure. 

In terms of the picking hand, Renbourn plays with a classically informed technique, using his thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers, and running melodies with alternating strokes of the index and middle—that is, except for on the first beat of the piece, where he articulates the A minor chord by brushing the strings with his thumb.

Feel free to experiment with various picking-hand fingerings, and keep in mind that your main job here is to bring out the melodic strands that occur in the different voices. For instance, the melody starts in the highest (up-stemmed) notes, but then moves to an inner voice in bar 2 (down-stemmed notes starting on beat 2); in the last half of bar 7, the melody suddenly appears in the lowest voice. Make sure to add a bit of emphasis to these melodic notes. 


Take a moment to appreciate the composition’s stirring tonality as well. Though it’s in the key of A minor, some of the notes, like G#, F#, and C#, are borrowed from the parallel key of A major, with its three sharps. And instead of the expected i chord (A minor), the piece ends on the I chord (A major)—a type of expressive cadence known as a Picardy third.

If you enjoyed working on this piece, I would suggest learning other selections from the era; Renbourn’s instructional video Medieval and Renaissance Music, available at guitarvideos.com, is a great place to start. And if you’re equal to the task, try arranging keyboard pieces for yourself on guitar.

AG 320 JAN/FEB 2020 - Molly Tuttle

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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