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The Highwire Hornpipe

for guitar students

About “The Highwire Hornpipe”
The Highwire Hornpipe is what you might call an exercise or an étude (which is French for study), since it is a melody played with the fingers, fretted entirely on the high E string, and played against a droning, open-string bass. Technically, you could play this piece in any tuning, but the strings that are not being fretted resonate sympathetically as you play the guitar, and the faint Esus chord that rings underneath this piece helps make it work. The plaintive drone of a sus4 chord is something we associate with Celtic guitar music.
On the recorded version of this piece, I play it on a 12-string guitar that is tuned 3 steps low, so it actually sounds in C#. The piece works fine on a 6-string, though if I have the choice I choose the 12-string.
The 1st section of the piece is a fiddle-tune AABB form with a slower melody, and the 2nd half is also an AABB, but with a much faster melody line. The slower melody part is actually played with only one finger of each hand. Oddly enough, I use the ring finger of the right hand to play it, and the 2nd finger of the left hand, though I suppose there would be nothing wrong with using a different finger of either hand if it suited you. The left hand finger stays on the fingerboard, and the melody notes are all slurs and slides, almost like a dulcimer. In measure 1, I pluck the string once for the 2nd fret note, then slide down to the ø note, and then a pull-off sounds the open string. The next ascending phrase also sounds 3 notes with just one plucked note. A hammer-on and a slide then add the other 2.
The faster section requires some left hand agility, especially with the 4th finger. In measure 31 you have the 1st finger on the 5th fret (above the capo) and then you trill the 7th fret (I use the 2nd finger for this) and then the 10th fret (with the 4th finger.) I leave the 1st finger in place on the 5th fret, but if your reach can’t span 5 frets you can jump up and then back down and you won’t lose much. On the final phrase of the B part of the 2nd half (measure 52), you play frets 3, 5 and 7 as a triplet and then play fret 8. I use left-hand fingers 1, 2 and 4 for the triplet, and then slide the 4th finger up to the 8th fret and then back down to 7.
When I perform this I usually speed up the 2nd half for the last time through. The way this piece is constructed it can be played very fast and has a lot of drive, which is what fiddle tunes are all about. We guitarists have spent many years trying to play fiddle fingerings on a guitar fingerboard at high speeds, and it is refreshing to play a “fiddle tune” that was created for the guitar.
(Recorded on WP#105 Solo Guitar Sketchbook in 1989. Also on DVD-01 One April Night in 2004)