Glass Noodles – adapting a Philip Glass arpeggio approach to guitar

I tend to get a lot of playing ideas from sources other than guitar.  A primary source of influence is film and one of my all time favorites is Mishima. To me, Philip Glass’ score works brilliantly with the subject matter and helps create a powerful experience.

Here’s a lesson post on some cool approaches I borrowed (read: stole) from Glass that might provide you with some inspiration.

I’ll post the exercise first and then add some color commentary.

A link to an mp3 is here:  Glass Noodles122bpm

First thing’s first – the  triadic* chord progression (see note at the bottom) is  G Major, G# diminished, A Major, A# diminished, B Minor, G Major, B minor, B Diminshed, B Minor, G Major, B minor, B Diminshed. (Note: The second bar repeats – I just forgot to put the repeats in).

I’ll start with a technical issue and then go into the theoretical things to grab.

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If you want it hypnotic –   you’ll have to lose the pick.

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Part of the sound of this is the hypnotic repetition and a large part of that sound come from a uniform attack.  You can sweep pick all of these arpeggios as well – but for a more legato sound it’s best to approach all of these with fret hand tapping (i.e. all hammer ons and no picking).  From a technical standpoint the real challenges here are 1. keeping the attacks uniform (i.e. all of the note volumes are even) and 2. playing it in the pocket rhythmically.

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Getting the maximum effect of something like this requires  sequencer like articulation and timing – and that alone makes this something worth studying.

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As a starting point you’ll probably want to mute the stings to prevent open notes from ringing out (I just use my picking hand – some people use a hair tie or a piece of cloth.)

For uniform attacks – you’ll have to have very clean hammer-on technique with the fingertips hitting the strings instead of the pads of the fingers.   If there’s any slop there – it will come out in the arpeggios.  One other thing to note is that the notes should be lifted off and not pulled off.  If the only sound created is by the individual fingers hitting the strings – you will have a more uniform sound (which is totally the goal here).

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Here’s a good way to visualize the fret hand finger motion you’re looking for.

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Put the palms of your hands on a table.  Now without lifting the palms up, tap your fingertips one at a time on the table starting from the pinky and ending on the index.  You’ll notice that the fingers stay curved and that the large knuckle of each finger is responsible for the tapping.  This motion is what you’re looking for in this process.  You should also notice that you don’t need to hit the fingertips very hard against the table to get a crisp attack.

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You should strive to get volume with the minimum amount of finger pressure.

The more relaxed you can keep your hand, the easier this will be.

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You can add some compression to make help make the attacks more uniform as well.  I typically don’t use a lot of compression as I like to play very dynamically and find myself adjusting volume and tone a lot when I play – but a compressor plug in will make all of this easier to play.

This approach gets counter-intuitive at the G major arpeggio (the second arpeggio of bar 2).  For a technical stand point this is the trickiest part of the passage. (Note:  The numbers under the notes indicate fret hand fingerings.)
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I am used to playing the G major arpeggio as a 5 string form – which usually uses the 3rd finger as a barre on the 12th fret, but barring the B and G on the 12 fret completely breaks up the sound and makes it impossible to get the tapped sound of the other notes.  To get around this – I use the index finger to fret the G  so each note gets a unique attack.

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This is one of those deceptive exercises.  Playing it at 60% will not take very long – but the difference between 60% and 100% is HUGE.

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Playing everything  with correct timing and really articulating every note will take a while.  Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t happen right way.

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The key here is to plan on spending a lot of time playing the arpeggios really slowly to make sure that the timing and volumes are 100% from the beginning.  You can read some of my posts on practicing to get a sense of the best way to start working on something like this.

Now some theory observations:

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If you sharp the root of a major arpeggio – you get a diminished arpeggio.
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This doesn’t sound like much – but look at the first 3 arpeggios.  By making the G a G#, you get a nice chromatic motion on the B string leading into the A Major Arpeggio.  You can also notice that the A# in the diminished arpeggio after the A major arpeggio leads right into the B Minor arpeggio.  This is a great way to sequence between 2 Major Arpeggios a step apart (Like G major and A major).

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If you sharp the 5th of a minor arpeggio – you get the root of a major arpeggio.

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Again a small thing – but by using this you get  a nice voice leading between the B minor/G major arpeggios in bar 2.  Also notice the chromatic motion on both the G and the high E string.   This continues the chromatic movement that occurred on the B string between the first 3 arpeggios.

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If you flat the 5th of a minor arpeggio – you get the 5th of a Diminished arpeggio.

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Check out the last arpeggio in bar 2!  By continuing the downward chromatic motion through the  G Major – B Minor – B Diminished – a sense of urgency is created and then the last point –

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There’s mystery in keeping it unresolved.


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In the Mishima soundtrack (you HAVE put the movie in your Netflix Queue yes?) there are a number of moments where at the end of the arpeggio flurries – it ends on an unresolved chord.   Here I’ve repeated the last arpeggio fully and then ended on the lower F on the last repeat.  If I was making a song out of these ideas – I would continue with the type of figures and ideas that have already been presented here and possibly resolving them.  But here in this context – ending on the F – just leaves a giant question mark and makes it interesting.  If you don’t believe me – watch the film!

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*Note: If you move away from triads – there’s another analysis here:

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The notes of G# diminished are can also be seen as the 3rd, 5th, and b7 of an E7 arpeggio.

Therefore: If you sharp the root of a major arpeggio – you also get the 3rd of a dominant 7th arpeggio (with no root).

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This would make the chord progression   G Major, E7, A Major, F#7, B Minor, G Major, B minor, B Diminshed, B Minor, G Major, B minor, B Diminshed.

The bass motion would be what determines the actual chord progression.  I believe the bass motion followed the chromatic motion but the E7->A and F#7-Bm are pretty standard analysis for a chord progression like this.


More posts soon.  Please feel free to post any questions or comments you might have or e-mail me at guitar.blueprint@gmail.com.

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4 thoughts on “Glass Noodles – adapting a Philip Glass arpeggio approach to guitar

  1. Wow, thanks for this. I have been listening to Philip Glass for ages but never thought about his music on guitar until I heard the Mishima soundtrack. Thanks again for this.

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