Video Lesson: Learn a Klezmer Classic Arranged for Fingered Solo Guitar
Excerpt from the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Nick Millevoi
In the late 19th century, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe entered the United States, bringing with them rich cultural customs, including a form of traditional music called klezmer. Based on Joel E. Rubin New York Klezmer at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1915, New York “had the largest concentration of Jews in history”, making it “the major center of Yiddish culture, including klezmer music”. And while you could hear klezmorim—klezmer musicians—playing at weddings and religious occasions all over the city, one would not find an acoustic guitar, as the instrument would have no chance of rising above the enormous volume of clarinets, brass , strings and percussion.
By the 1970s, klezmer was poised for the revival that found most bands using the instrumentation of their musical ancestors. Over time, however, more and more musicians began to experiment with the form and brought in outside influences which created space for guitarists to make their way into the klezmer scene. In the 90s and 2000s, Marc Ribot, Tim Sparks and Bill Frisell established new ways of approaching Jewish guitar music with the release of Masada Guitars, an album in which each musician performs solo works from composer John Zorn’s Massada songbook. (See Sparks’ arrangement of Zorn’s “Sippur” in the January 2017 issue.)
While the guitar has yet to achieve special prominence in klezmer, players such as Jeff Warschauer and Yoshie Fruchter have argued for the instrument’s role in more traditional settings while experimenting with its place in klezmer ensembles. .
A Hora in name only
“Yiddishe Hora” is a piece written in the early 20th century by composer, violinist and conductor Alexander Olshanetsky. Despite what the title suggests, this piece is not actually a hora. A hora is a style of klezmer song that features a slow 3/8 tempo, usually leading to a freylekh or Bulgarian, which is a much faster piece you might know from seeing people doing a circle dance (also called a hora, which confused me for a long time) if you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding or seen one on the television. “Yiddishe Hora” is actually a terkishera type of midtempo 4/4 melody that comes from Greek music and features a 3+3+2 rhythm.
My close friend and longtime musical collaborator, Dan Blacksberg, is a klezmer trombonist, composer, teacher and host of the other radiant Podcast. While recording Dan’s album of the same name, I learned of his arrangement of “Yiddishe Hora”, in which I was given a solo electric guitar intro. Inspired by what I learned, I consulted Olshanetsky’s original, as well as a recording by the Bay Area Trio Veretski Pass, to create the solo acoustic version here.
For this arrangement, I tune the fifth string a whole step, from A to G, so that I can easily sound a root note on the G chord of the A section, while I play the melody in seventh position. As an introduction, I play the A section material once with a rubato feel (as seen in the accompanying video but not in the notation), using bass notes mostly on the downbeat of each bar, while I play the melody with improvised embellishments using trills, slides and harmonics.
Destined to dance
In the first measure, bass notes on the first beat, the and of two and four establish the rhythmic backbone of “Yiddishe Hora”. The music is intended for dancing, so rhythmic feel is important to the performance of any klezmer piece. I alternate between gently swaying eighth notes and straight eighth notes in order to convey each phrase. When playing this, I think it’s worth experimenting with rhythmic ideas that are both subtle and, like the best dance music, a little impossible to transcribe.
Get stories like this delivered to your inbox
The B section works well above the 12th fret. It gets a bit trickier to play this as written on a 12 fret guitar, but it’s possible and well worth the effort. If that sounds off-limits to you, just move the double-stops from strings 2–3 to 1–2 and everything will still sound good. Also note that to change the texture, I strum the sixteenth note triplets in bars 17–18 and 21–22 with my middle finger.
My favorite part of this whole piece is when the key changes in bars 25–31 to E freygishwhich is the name commonly used in klezmer for the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale, aka Phrygian dominant or hijaz. You can also think of this collection of notes as the Phrygian mode, but with a raised third – if the root note is E, it’s written EFG#ABC D.
As you progress through this arrangement, you may find it easier at first to avoid some of the embellishments. It’s a good approach, and I encourage you to not only add what I’ve arranged here when you’re ready, but, once you feel comfortable, consider adding some of your own embellishments to make it more personal.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.