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Guitar part for "The Plow That Broke The Plains"
by Virgil Thomson

Two of the six (6) movements of Virgil Thomson's "The Plow That Broke The Plains" use the guitar as a part of the orchestra. Another movement has a banjo part which can be played directly on the guitar. All three of these parts are presented here in tablature for guitar.

This modern tablature uses only common keyboard characters - no graphics. It's very simple and instantly usable. Click here for some general comments on the modern tablature, including tips on printing it out perfectly.

These are the links to the tablature. For convenience, each movement has been assigned a short ID.

PLOW3B: Movement 3. Cattle. Guitar part in original key, Bb.
PLOW3A: Movement 3. Cattle. Guitar part transposed to A.
PLOW4: Movement 4. Blues (Speculation). Banjo part in guitar tablature.
PLOW6: Movement 6. Devastation.

You'll notice that the guitar part for the "Cattle" movement is given in two (2) different keys. The reason behind this is actually the main reason for putting up these pages in the first place. Maybe I can save a few guitarists some of the headaches I suffered when I played it with a local (Washington, DC) orchestra in the mid-1980s. Here's what happened.

A flutist friend told me the local orchestra she played with, called the Shoestring Orchestra. The Shoestring Orchestra was directed by John Webber, and was based on Capitol Hill. They were doing this piece by Virgil Thomsom, and the conductor wished he could find a guitarist. Of course, they could get by with a pianist, but an authentic guitar plucking, strumming and boom-chucking along in this piece of Americana would be nicer.

To this day (year 2000) public performance scares the bejabbers out of me, and it was only worse then. But I figured: I'm a pretty good guitar music reader; it's not like it's the Berlin Philharmonic; and I'd be just one player in a large group. So what's to worry about?

Let me count the ways.

1. I show up at the next rehearsal and John hands me a wad of papers and asks, "Can you read from a score?" In the case of "Cattle", that's 10 pages. And even if guitarists did have computerised, automatic page-turners, spotting the guitar part amongst all the others in a score is not a trivial matter. Heck, it's hard enough just seeing where one system ends and the next one starts. Never mind the reduced copies. Never mind the washed-out spots in the copies.

2. This movement "Cattle" - based on "I Ride An Old Paint" - was in the key of Bb. Whoopie ti yi. As you know, this is not exactly a guitar-friendly key - even when the composer is a guitarist.

3. The rest of the orchestra takes off in 6/4 while the guitar plods along in a different time signature - 3/2. Admittedly, this is not a big deal, but it doesn't do much to put a first-time orchestra player not keen on sticking out at ease.

4. In movement 6, "Devastation", the guitarist waits 106 measures before he comes in. That the conductor gives him a "cue" 8 measures in advance wasn't too much help to this tenderfoot. ("You mean I'm supposed to play now???")

5. True to its name, movement 6 had a few big, fat, impossible guitar chords. One measure even had 7-note chords!

6. I showed up with my guitar tuned pretty good to A440 - which meant that I was a half-step flat to the rest of the orchestra! I still haven't figured out that one.

At that point in my life, and up until the early 1990s, I believed a guitarist was obligated to play every note printed on the page. If he couldn't, then he wasn't a guitarist, right? Man, I used to struggle mightily. A guitar friend and teacher named Christiaan Taggart at a string conference I attended several times (early 1980s) would say, "If you can't play it - leave it out!" I live by that now, although at the time I was scandalized.

Anyhow, when I took the Thomson score off to finger up the guitar part, I still adhered to my old notion that you had to play everything possible. Not surprisingly, the final results came off something like a wrestling match. (Not that guitar pieces we all call "easy" aren't a struggle.)

Some years later it hit me that, if I had transposed the piece to trusty old A and slapped a capo on the first fret, the thing would probably have been a lot easier to play. That couldn't have occurred to me at the time because classical guitarists don't use capos, humph.

More recently it occurred to me how easy it would be to do the transposition to A. Just convert the original in Bb to tablature; write a quick program to subtract 1 from every fret number; and... voila! (Ok, so I had to do some conversions to or from open strings manually.)

Here are the results. I hope some guitarists will get a chance to play The Plow That Broke The Plains. Suggest it to your local orchestra. You also might have fun playing along with a recording - maybe not the most profound experience, but there are a lot worse things to do with a few spare minutes of your life.

To the copyright holders of this work: I'd like your permission to make these guitar part tablatures freely available. I hope it will be seen as increasing the value of your piece. Please let me know how to show your credit line.


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