How to Play Rolled Chords Musically on Classical Guitar
Any time we play more than one note at the same time in a piece of music, we have an option. We can play them simultaneously (at the exact same time), or we can play the notes slightly offset.
When we offset a full chord, we call it “rolling” the chord. This may sound like a slow strum, or several individual notes.
And how we roll our chords can add or subtract from the character of our music. Each moment in a piece of music has its own needs. And whether we roll a chord, and how we roll it, is something we can give special thought and consideration.
When we play each chord with intention and forethought, our music sounds better. Listeners may not know exactly what is different, but the music will sound more “right”.
First Things First: Right-Hand Fingerings for Rolled Chords
Usually, to roll a chord, the I,M, and A fingers (index, middle, ring) play strings 3,2, and 1. The thumb plays strings 6.5, and 4. In this way, it’s a PIMA pattern, with the thumb (P) playing through more than one string.
Occasionally, we may use the little finger as well, though the tone quality is often tinny and unpleasant.
Other fingerings are used for specific circumstances or musical effects. But the ones above are the most common.
Rule #1: Not All Chords are Rolled
Many guitarists fall into the trap of rolling every chord. But not all chords need to be rolled.
Just as we can decide how loud or soft we play a note or phrase (dynamics), we can also decide how to play our chords.
The more awareness we bring to our music, the better it will sound. And the better it sounds, the more we enjoy learning and practicing classical guitar.
Two notes at the same time
One common scenario is when we have just two notes, a melody and bass note, that play on the same beat. These we should almost always play together, not offset.
Which chords should we roll?
Once we decide not to roll every chord in our music, we’re faced with the question, “So which chords should I roll?”
This is an element of musical interpretation. Not everyone will agree on which chords to roll. But we can consider the function of each chord, and its place in the music.
Some pieces and styles have special stress on certain beats. This can inform our decisions. For example, the “sarabande”, a dance from the baroque musical period, has an emphasis on the second beat of each bar. In this case, we will usually only roll a chord on that beat, unless it’s a special circumstance.
Other pieces have chords on almost every beat. If we roll them all things get messy. So we will most likely roll only at the beginnings and endings of phrases.
We can also consider whether the chord falls on a strong or weak beat. Usually we won’t bring so much attention to a weak beat.
Each piece will present different options. Rolled chords bring special attention to a place in the music. If we roll too many chords, we become “The boy who cried ‘wolf’”. We raise the alarm so often listeners ignore it. If we don’t roll any chords, we leave a beautiful musical device unused.
Instead of choosing randomly, or just rolling everything, we can think of rolled chords as ornaments.
Rolled Chords are Ornaments
Rolled chords function very much like ornaments. They bring emphasis to a certain note or moment. We can use what we know about ornaments to inform our rolled chords.
Ornaments have rules. (And like all rules, these are sometimes broken. But they’re still helpful to know.)
Here are some (not all) of the rules for ornaments, which also often apply to rolled chords:
- It cannot alter the underlying rhythm and pulse
- The first note is long-short
- The rhythm is structured (more on this below)
- It demonstrates the psychological character and mood of the piece
And like ornaments, rolled chords accent a give note or moment. They mark the culmination of a phrase, or a change in mood.
When we think of rolled chords as ornaments, we’re more likely to give them extra thought and practice. In this way, we continue to learn and experiment.
Not All Notes are Equal: Bring Out the Melody
Very often, a rolled chord will contain a melody note. In this case, the chord is accompaniment, and adding emphasis to the melody.
If we have a melody note, our first priority is to make sure that the rolled chord doesn’t overpower the melody. To ensure this, play the melody through without the chord. Notice the relative volume of the note with the chord to the notes around it. Use this a guide when rolling the chord.
The chord should be quieter than the melody note, and the melody note should be obvious to the listener. The chord should sound like a different instrument or voice than the melody. and the chord should support, not “upstage”, the melody.
Atmospheric Rolled Chords
Not all rolled chords contain a melody note. Some chords are atmospheric, or accompaniment without melody. We often have these at the beginnings and endings of tunes, or between major sections.
Note: Geek Alert – much jargon to follow. Feel free to skim or skip this section.
When we have atmospheric chords, the harmony (the quality of the chord, i.e. major, minor, etc.) is the primary information we communicate.
As such, we can bring out the third of the chord. (This is music theory. If you do not know the third of the chord, ignore this. You can always return to it later.)
When we bring out the third, we need not accent it. But it should be clear and audible. (We can accent it in practice to get it in our ear, then rebalance later.)
The third of a chord is often the most interesting note. It tells us whether the chord is major or minor. And it is less often doubled in the voicing than the root or fifth.
Bringing out the third works for both rolled and unrolled chords.
Rhythmic Structure in Rolled Chords
Depending on the circumstance, a rolled chord may
- fall before the beat
- fall after the beat
- broaden the beat, by starting before and extending after
In renaissance and baroque music (music from before about 1750), rolled chords usually start on the beat. This puts the bass note squarely on the beat.
In later music, it often falls before the beat. In this case, the final note of the rolled chord lands on the beat.
To make this sound fluid and natural, we can “tuck” the roll.
“Tucking” the roll
When a rolled chord falls before the beat, we must start rolling within the preceding beat.
The preceding note, plus all the notes of the chord but the final one need to fit within the preceding beat. These we can distribute evenly, or put in a different rhythm.
Slow down and create a specific rhythm
To organize all the notes of the rolled chord in time, we must slow down and decide on the rhythm.
At a slow tempo (speed), we can play the rolled chord in perfect time and rhythm. Each note falls exactly where it should in relation to the others. Ideally we write this rhythm out and count it aloud.
Once we bring it back up to speed, it will likely be too fast to count aloud. But if we’ve done our work, it will remain structured in time. This will make it sound better to listeners.
Rubato in rolled chords
(This is more advanced. Skip and ignore if you’re not there yet. You can always come back later.)
Sometimes we need to slow down or speed up while rolling a chords (the musical term is “rubato“). When we do, we can think of each note of the rolled chord as a separate note, and place it properly in time.
We can use the same techniques here we use in melodies. Namely, subdividing and structuring the rubato.
While we usually roll chords from the lowest note up to the highest, we can also rearrange the notes of the chord.
We can change the note order for atmospheric effect, or to culminate the chord on a note other than the high note.
If the melody note is in the interior of the chord, this is useful. We can keep the melody in time while adding the accompanying chord.
Beautiful Rolled Chords Take Practice
At first, structuring rolled chords may be a mental challenge. In time, we master the most common scenarios. When we encounter chords in our music we can decide how to handle them, and draw on our experience.
The most important thing is that we consider each and every note in our music, and resist the urge to “space out” and play by rote. The more attention and presence we bring to our practice and music, the better we sound, and the more fulfilling music becomes.
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