Compositional Ideas: Pedal Points and Ascending Tones

We are going to look at extracts from Bach's "1st Cello Suite," "Prelude" and "Courante," see how Bach uses pedal points, then look at how we can apply this in our own playing.

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This is a neoclassical tool we can use in lead composition. We are going to look at extracts from Bach's "1st Cello Suite," "Prelude" and "Courante," see how Bach uses pedal points, then look at how we can apply this in our own playing.

Here's the extract is from Bach's "Prelude" in his first "Cello Suite."

Figure 1

You can see that from the second beat of this example, Bach is using the note D (fret 7 on the G string), and then chromatically ascending from D, and going back to D each time.

Have a go at playing this extract and see how you find the sound. You should find it sounds like increasing tension. Also note the position changes we have to do, moving the ascending notes onto the next string (in beat 1 of the second bar), and shifting the pedal point (D) a string lower, which allows us to use a greater range, and also to extend the time that we can use this technique to increase the tension.

Another thing to note here is how Bach sets this up. The two notes at the start are chord tones to the pedal tone D. Bach wrote this piece in the key of G major; in this key, the chord built from D is D major, which has the notes D, F# and A. So Bach plays F#, A then resolves down to D, before using D as a pedal tone and ascending chromatically.

How can you apply this to your playing?

We can take the principles that Bach used for this section of music and apply them to our own soloing. For example, you could sweep through an arpeggio, then move from the lowest note in the arpeggio into a series of chromatically ascending notes, using the bass note as the pedal point.

Example in D minor:


Adding another level to this idea

In the third piece from the first "Suite," "Courante", Bach uses this technique again, with a twist on it:

Figure 2

You can see in the second and third bar that instead of a pedal point (or single note), Bach is now using a pedal phrase (circled in blue):

Figure 3

With the following notes moving round the pedal phrase (circled in red):

Figure 4

Again, changing up a string with the red circled notes allows us to use a greater range - this example requires more from our hand than the first one and wouldn't be able to (easily) stretch up to the high frets. 

Here is a second example from later in the same piece:

Figure 5

The pedal phrase is easier to see here as it is on a separate string (circled in blue, ascending tones in red):

Figure 6

In both examples, the first moving tone (circled in red), is the next note up in the scale from the highest note in the pedal phrase (circled in blue). So when the highest note in the pedal phrase was E, our first moving tone was F# (figure 2); and when the highest note in our pedal phrase was A, the first moving tone was B (figure 5).

In both these examples, the phrase moves:
  • Low to high
  • High to low

How can you apply these ideas to your playing?

As in the last example, create a short pedal point phrase, and use the next note up in the scale from the highest note in your pedal point phrase as the first moving note

Example in E minor:

Figure 7

So in this example the pedal phrase is:
And we are working in the scale of G major. A is the highest note in the phrase, so my first moving note is going to be B. Simple!

Closing Remarks

So we've gone through an analysis of how Bach uses pedal points in two different ways in two different pieces, looked at how we can use these ideas in our own playing and also looked at a couple of examples.

I'd love to hear your thoughts/ideas - post a YouTube link or ask a question in the comments and I'll answer it as quickly as possible!

About the Author:
Sam Russell is a professional musician based in West London. He has recently published several books, tab books of Bach's "Cello Suites" for electric guitar. Find out more for free on
Exclusive discount for Ultimate Guitar readers: Get a discount on your books with the code: UGFEBX2 at the checkout (valid until March 5th 2015).

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Well that was an awesome lesson! Thanks a lot A lot of the sounds I was wanting to make on guitar used this technique but I never realized how to get them out.
    I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'll be posting some more neoclassical ones, so keep your eyes peeled
    This lesson is so epic it's been here for over two weeks. It is simple enough to understand for someone with a beginner's grasp of lead guitar, and simple enough to be applied easily to other keys and modes and of course embellished to any personal degree. Great job author.
    Thanks dude, I appreciate that! I'll be posting some more soon. If you could give it a share on fb etc, I'd be most grateful!
    I wish the ever returning influence of Tom Hess would just die already. No hate to Sam Russell for an actual lesson, but Hess was banned from this site for a good reason, and that's cuz he kept running ad campaigns instead of articles.
    How is this an ad campaign? I thought the lesson to be awesome and on par with a Jens lesson. I love when the theory in songs is explained. Thank you for taking the time to explain this to us Mr. Russell
    I've spent a lot of time working through these cello suites, writing them out and analysing them. Please don't go spewing hateful things over something I've taken so much care to create and share with others. If you don't like it, that's totally fine and you can have your opinion, but bitch about me someplace else.
    I think you guys are missing my point, its not that fact that he advertised, its the way he advertised. Like, everything before the last 'about the author' bit is absolutely fine by site rules, and its a good lesson, already said that, the problem is the 'exclusive discount coupon' bit. It's consumer friendly to be a dude with skills to share rather than some bloke with blatant things to sell. Just be wary of why he was banned, and leave it at that. You don't need my approval, obviously, but we do get a lot of 'pupils of Hess' who like to plug their stuff on here, and its a shame, cuz they often put out good content marred by this controversy:
    I think in this case, Sam has provided a complete and concise lesson. There's no 'upsell' to get the rest of the lesson. He's contributed quality, self-contained content to this site. At the end, he indicates that he's a professional with additional knowledge to share for a fee with one link to his site. He also gave this community a discount. No issue in my opinion.