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Bach Cello Suites: Cello range or bass range?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by juggahnaught, Apr 11, 2019.

  1. juggahnaught


    Feb 11, 2018
    Seattle, WA
    Lately I've been thinking more about classical music. I feel it's a fun way to enjoy playing bass by myself, which is something that has become harder with time.

    I've been looking at Bach's cello suite in G. It's a great piece and I think it's a technique builder on bass for sure. (I think it'll also help phrasing and articulation, which I feel have been difficult for me to perfect on an electric bass - I feel as though it's difficult if not impossible to approach the nuances of a bowed, acoustic instrument.) It's also just nice to play and listen to.

    The piece is written in cello register, but I have a six-string bass and I've moved it down an octave to be in bass range. Most videos I found have people playing it in the cello range, though. Is this normal? I can play it in the higher range, but I like being able to use the natural register of the bass. (That low C, mmm.)

  2. Learn it in both registers, really use the full range of your instrument. Great exercise for your brain and fingers.

    Also, learn to cross back & forth between registers throughout the piece. The sections that don’t sound nice in the lower register, play that bit in the upper register, and v.v.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2019
  3. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    On double bass, most people who play the suites with a bow play them in cello range. As a jazz double bassist, I play them in the lower register of the bass where pizzicato sounds most natural to help develop sound, fluidity, and articulation in the range where I spend the most time playing. There are a few places where a passage has to be transposed up for range reasons, but other than that I think it's a great way to develop technique in the lower register.
  4. I really would like to know what learning Bach is supposed to teach you.

    Some years back, I learned the suite in G and while it was an interesting exercise, I don't feel as though I got a thing out of it. Everyone says better technique, phrasing, etc. It took a lot of time and then I was like, ok now what.

    To me, the phrasing you want to learn is the phrasing you need for the type of music you play. If I wanna play like Pino, why do I need to learn Bach? I don't hear Bach in anything he plays. I do hear a lot of D'Angelo though because that's who taught Pino how to drag the beat.

    Besides that, most of the phrasing I heard from guys playing Bach on YouTube, sounded like notes fired from a machine gun. I only heard one version (performed on electric bass) of the G Suite that I actually thought sounded like music and not just notes. That was Adam Neely's version.

    Who knows... Maybe I learned something from it and don't realize it.
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2019
    IamGroot likes this.
  5. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    For me, learning to play Bach on the double bass teaches me a ton of things, from technique to intonation to phrasing and beyond. Part of the "beyond" is the understanding that Bach's way of writing lines is almost universal to western music; by this I mean that his melodic lines outline implied harmony by where they land on the downbeat of a harmonic change. If a person were to analyze the lines and write chord symbols above the pieces, the melodic intent would be unbelievably clear WRT the harmony that is being implied. This same relationship between melody and harmony exists in most genres of western music, from baroque to classical to jazz to pop and rock.

    Just from a technical standpoint, there is something so monolithic about these pieces that students tend to strive hard to "perfect" them, since every little flaw in performance stands out like a sore thumb. For me as a double bassist, there is a lifetime worth of material to learn from in the areas of intonation, fingering, and most important, lyrical phrasing that can be based on to other styles. Since they were meant to be played with a bow, working on the more lyrical passages in a fingerpicking style opens up a whole can of worms technically, just from trying to emulate the lyrical/legato nature of so much of them without the benefit of a sustaining device like the bow. (one example of my application can be found below - it is very imperfect, but I know I am better at all of these things now than before I began studying the suites years ago) As always, EEMMV.

    mikewalker, SteveCS, Papageno and 6 others like this.
  6. Epitaph04

    Epitaph04 Always overcompensating

    Jul 5, 2010
    Man I just learned it because I think its a great piece of music and it’s fun to play.
    Low Crow, SteveCS, J_Bass and 4 others like this.
  7. juggahnaught


    Feb 11, 2018
    Seattle, WA
    Me too! It's an incredibly nice piece; the player benefits are ancillary. It's just nice to listen to.

    Indeed. I find that even with a good grasp of theory and music, perfect pitch, and an early start in music, that Bach's approach to arpeggiation teaches me a lot about the things that I don't do and that I should be doing, if that makes sense. (I tend to arpeggiate in a linear fashion, which is fine, but he's better at different voicings and more contrapuntal stuff, which is a weakness of mine both in playing technique and in composition.) I appreciate his stuff because of his liberal use of tenths, open voicings, and melodic voice leading.

    One other nice thing to do is just play the chords on bass, using the voice leading and inversions; great way to discover new chord shapes. This piece is especially great for that, and it sounds nice to boot, especially as a slow, lilting waltz.

    As for the phrasing and legato - yes, you totally get it. We're on the same page. IT kind of sucks because I feel like when I play the piece, it's like throwing bricks against a wall - "BLUNK, blunk blunk blunk BLUNK....BLUNK" - granted, practice will help, but getting the phrasing right on electric bass will definitely be a chore. Your use of vibrato in your rendition is something that I may have to try to pick up, but I don't want to go crazy on the rubato as so many people do.

    That Bachrilege video wasn't terrible! I understand where you're coming from about the mistakes (and we all get better with time, I know it's an old video) but as someone who wants to pick up the upright at some point in time (maybe this year?) it's something to aspire to.
    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.
  8. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    A google search for "site:talkbass.com bach cello" will turn up some other threads that you might find interesting.

    He plays a lot of those arpeggios by holding the left hand in position for the chord and letting the notes ring out for as long as possible. It's pretty, but difficult, for me at least! Maybe it helps to have some background on (non-bass) guitar.
    Reg Braithwaite likes this.
  9. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    For what it's worth, I split the difference and play it a fifth down, in C. That makes the range F1--C4, if I remember right. And the open G comes in handy in a few spots

    But of course you should absolutely play it however you like it best, and if that's different from how anyone else does it, all the better.

    I've been meaning to work on the rest of the first suite but haven't gotten around to it.
  10. DoctorZee

    DoctorZee Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 27, 2018
    New York / New Jersey
    If I recall correctly, didn't he transpose it to a different key so it fit better in the bass guitar range? I could be mistaken.
  11. bfields


    Apr 9, 2015
    Ann Arbor, MI
    I think we're talking about this video:

    It's in G, on a 5-string with a high C.
  12. DoctorZee

    DoctorZee Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 27, 2018
    New York / New Jersey
    Yep, I must have been thinking of some thing else. Carry on!
  13. BassChuck

    BassChuck Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    When I was a trumpet player, I played them on Trumpet. When I was a French Horn player, I played them on the Horn. As a bass player I play them on bass.
    In all cases, play them in the working range of your instrument.
    These arguments about 'Range' would never be an issue if Bach had simply named them 'Unaccompanied Suites".
  14. IamGroot


    Jan 18, 2018
    I agree. I learned zip from the cello suites, but the violin suites opened up a new world. That and Charlie Parker were my breakthroughs.
    Cliff Colton likes this.
  15. While it is always good to have versatility on your side, the purist in me says CELLO range all the way. If Bach had wanted it 8basso he would have written it so. Not too long ago I had to learn a bassoon accompaniment for vocal and practiced it as written... only to learn that bassoon's register sounds an octave higher than written... and then relearned it in the proper octave... which I ultimately liked better any way.

    Getting back to the Cello suite, I another reason that I like the upper cello octave is because I think the piece stylistically calls for a female voice of that register. JMO
  16. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Bach was well known as a self-plagiarist, refactoring and reusing excerpts of his own work into new pieces or transcribing essentially the same thing for many different instruments, ensembles, purposes or styles. IMHO, adapting and transcibing Bach to work on any given instrument is more in the spirit of the man himself than sticking rigidly to dogma. YMMV

    As a sidenote, Normal Carrell wrote an entire book, 'Bach the borrower' (1967), on the subject...
    bassrique and Papageno like this.
  17. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    On the question, I play in the bass range, so as if written for the bass, 8va. I play on a 4-string standard tuning so the low C and D get played an octave above the score, everything else where written.

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of TB, I have to say I really don't like this. The thing with the suites is that a lot of the decisions on form and articulation are left to the discretion of the performer. But you have to commit to a form and stick to it. This has no consistency of form. It is poorly articulated with several flubbed, missed or wrong notes and the rubato is overdone to the point of parody. It sounds pretentious. I know he says it's a work in progress, but... Anyway, that's just what I think, and YMMV.
    Les Fret and Reg Braithwaite like this.
  18. Many composers borrow from themselves. Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Alfred Reed, Percy Grainger and too many others whose excerpts I remember, but not the sources.

    Needless to say, we often adapt pieces written for one instrument to another. However, one cannot deny that a "Cello suite" had the cello in mind.
    SteveCS likes this.
  19. Reg Braithwaite

    Reg Braithwaite

    Oct 21, 2018
    If you don’t like Bach to begin with, it teaches you to suffer through music you don’t enjoy just because a bunch of other people worship someone who has been dead for centuries. It teaches you that practising is a chore, to be suffered in the hope that something else you do will be improved, someday, maybe.

    Mind you, if you listen to Bach and feel transported, if your brain lights up... Then learning to play Bach teaches you how to interact directly with the music, to “listen to it with your hands as well as your ears.”

    But frankly, it is not for everyone, and just because it is good music, or historically important music, or music that can be useful for practise, does not make it worth learning. We all have so many hours on this ball of rock, and way more music we could learn than hours to learn it.

    So... If it isn’t your cup of tea, dash it out and refill with something that lights up your brain. Life is too short for learning music you don’t enjoy.
    SteveCS likes this.
  20. Reg Braithwaite

    Reg Braithwaite

    Oct 21, 2018
    With respect to register...

    I started learning the first prelude in the 1970s on double bass, I can’t remember for certain, but I believe I played it in a very popular transcription in the lower range, transposed to C.

    I stopped playing for decades, and when I returned to bass two years ago, I picked the prelude up again. After a while in C and the lower register, I got restless and started playing it in G, but in the cello register. I play an acoustic bass guitar, and the instrument resonates better in its upper register.

    Then I started fooling around and restrung my instrument ADGC, and it sounded better. Lately, I added a hipshot and play it in ADGC one way, GDGC another couple of ways, and even ADGC but dropping to GDGC on the fly for the final section.

    Although I still play it mostly in cello register, there is something magical to me about ending the piece on a G below the piece’s low C. And yes, this can be done with BEADGC, but the sound of a lower open G is special, and there are some digressions with harmonics that would require false harmonics if I didn’t have an open G...

    But where are my manners?

    This is not about me, but about you and playing it on a BEADGC instrument (which I presume is an electric bass guitar). It probably sounds wonderful an octave below the cello, and you don't have any problem hitting the lowest written notes, a D, C#, and C.

    That being said, there is a dramatic place—bars 20-22—where the C# and C are used, and the open C on the cello rings beautifully. On the B string, you'd have to stop the note. I suggest learning to play it in BEADGC, and then if you are open to playing with the tuning, try tuning the B up to C, giving CEADGC.

    The low C might ring wonderfully, just as it does on a cello.

    Good luck!
    Last edited: May 1, 2019
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