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Free Course: Sunburst - A Modern Masterpiece

Free Course: Sunburst - A Modern Masterpiece

GRAMMY-winning guitarist Andrew York breaks down one of his most iconic and inspired compositions, Sunburst.

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Ever since the album “Perfect Sky’s” release in 1986, Sunburst by Andrew York has become a staple of the modern classical guitar.

In this article we will go in-depth on everything you need to know to play this piece just as the composer intended.

Read on to find out more — and click here to watch the associated lesson for FREE inside tonebase. 

Introduction

York wrote Sunburst in 1986 and recorded it on his first album, “Perfect Sky,” with steel strings, though John Williams later recorded it with nylon strings. Tune the first and sixth strings to D for this piece. 

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The D tuning allows for a constant drone in the bass. York plays the melody, this ascending D scale, almost entirely on the second string so that the first string can also be a drone. York’s initial idea was for this piece to remain in D throughout, a bit like an improvisation over and Indian raga, but he eventually wanted the variation in color that comes from other key centers. Since open strings tend to be louder than fingered strings, don’t let the high D dominate (this is tiring for the listener). Put more attention into the second string where the melody is, letting the filler material subside. 

sunburst by andrew york

The first tonal shift is to F lydian, with the original melody now beginning on the raised fourth scale degree (B). The progression then briefly tonicizes the key of G before returning to D. 

sunburst by andrew york

B section

In the B section, which returns to D in the bass, York resolves seconds to thirds while descending down a D major scale in the upper voices. A sixteenth-note figure in the bass foreshadows what is to come later in the piece. Then, in the sixth bar of the B section, two harmonics outline a plagal cadence. This is a movement from our IV chord (G major) to a I chord (D major). Three bars later, York introduces a C-natural (with an A in the bass, this forms an A minor chord, a minor dominant in D). 

sunburst by andrew york

After the second ending, York introduces a rhythmic pattern that’s commonly found as a piano montuno in salsa and other Afro-Cuban styles of music. York attributes the idea to use this rhythm to Pat Metheny’s piece “Phase Dance,” which he released at a similar time to Sunburst.

John Williams offered York a few fingering suggestions when he recorded the piece, including the F-sharp on the fifth string in the third bar from the end of page two. Many of the passages are cross-strung, so they require careful practice with the right hand. The notes are slightly overlapped to create a bit more reverb in the sound. 

sunburst by andrew york

Ostinato section

York has observed that many players struggle to play a clear hammer-on with the first finger in the context of this passage. Don’t ghost the D in the second beat – make sure it’s clear and grooving. “What makes this phrase successful is when the rhythm is very consistent.” Even very good guitarists sometimes tend to hammer-on a bit too early. 

sunburst by andrew york

Popular music

In York’s opinion, classical music tends to lack an awareness of modern musical styles. Incorporating popular music styles like jazz, rock and roll, and Latin music into his pieces allows York to keep the music relevant. These styles typically have very high energy and excitement that classical music sometimes lacks.

This ostinato requires an awareness of groove. Clarity and timing are the two most important aspects of this groove. In this case, it isn’t bad to hear the percussive sound of the hammer-on. Decide how much of it you want to hear.

Relaxation is required to maintain good technique and a focused sound. Hammer-ons do not require brute strength, only speed of the finger. 

Adding the melody

After two bars of ostinato, the theme appears. The first notes of the theme are B, C♯, and D (the first three notes of the opening melody). The second time we hear this theme, a pick-up note is added for more interest. Repetition is a powerful compositional device that strengthens ideas and gives the listener something to grab onto. However, repeating something the same way may cause listeners to pay less attention to what they’re hearing. 

sunburst by andrew york

The triple-meter passage in 3/4 begins with the IV chord (G major), and traverses through V and back to I. When the ostinatos return, remember to keep the hammer-ons clear.

Take time with the barred hammer-ons and use a downward sweep of the thumb for the harmonics marked with p and an upward arrow. Plucking here sounds a bit too polite. Don’t obsess over the quality of the multi-string pull-offs here; the energy is what’s important. 

sunburst by andrew york

Don’t underestimate the importance of the following pause; we need time to dispel the energy that has been building up.

Recapitulation

A common trap in the melody is for players to shorten the second bar of the piece to a 7/8 bar and put the last note on the downbeat of the next measure. Even though there is no note on the downbeat of measure 3, be sure that you are feeling the subdivisions and not short-changing any beats.

The coda should build significantly into the last figure. York begins with free stroke in the thumb and moves to rest stroke to intensify.

York wrote this piece in his 20s, when “life seems simpler, and we have an optimistic outlook.” Give each section its own character, and make sure you have a clear understanding of the form. This isn’t just a piece with a charismatic theme and a busy middle section. It’s a collection of elements that must fit together and move forward toward a goal. Look deeply into how these elements relate for a more rewarding experience for you and your audience.

Conclusion

As you can see, York’s approach to blending diverse influences with vibrant youth give Sunburst its qualities that make it so memorable.

If you’d like to watch the lesson on this topic for free, just click here.

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