In the jazz tradition, there is a long history of musicians covering classical music—Duke Ellington’s interpretations of Grieg and Tchaikovsky works, and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s takes on Bach compositions are just a few of the instances that come to mind. Jazz guitarists have also drawn from the classical literature, and perhaps the most famous instance is Eddie Lang, with his unaccompanied chord-melody version of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” (Op. 3, No. 2).
Lang recorded his Rachmaninoff arrangement May 29, 1927, and it was simply titled “Prelude” when it was first released as a ten-inch on the OKeh label. The piece is now available on a number of compilations, including Lang’s Jazz Guitar Virtuoso (Yazoo) and Pioneers of Jazz Guitar 1927–1939 (Retrieval), among others. I’d highly recommend grabbing one of these recordings before delving into the transcription here.
While Lang did take many liberties with his interpretation—transposing it to the guitar-friendly key of E minor, distilling the massive chordal structures, and composing his own ending—he maintained the dark and brooding atmosphere of the original prelude. Lang played the first section (bars 1–16) with a loose rhythmic sense. Note that in the Rachmaninoff score, the eighth note is the basic pulse, but here it is the quarter note, for the sake of readability—especially in bars 12–15, where Lang toyed with the meter.
The section lends itself to being played either with a pick, as Lang did, or fingerstyle. Whichever approach you choose, it’s critical to have the chord shapes firmly at your fingertips. Listen to Lang’s recording, and try to emulate the gravity of his approach, his ability to make the chords sing. Be careful to avoid sounding choppy when switching between the voicings, especially when leaping to eighth position from third in bar 9.
Lang played the more agitated second section (bars 17–35), with its insistent triplets, at a stricter and more urgent tempo. This part, which is best played fingerstyle, asks a bit more of the picking hand. If you want to use a plectrum, then you’ll have to go with hybrid picking, playing the lower note on each beat with the pick and the higher with a finger. Let all of the notes ring throughout and, again, strive for evenness when changing chords—with fast-moving voicings higher up the neck, bars 24–25 might require special attention.
Lang’s original ending is seen in the last several measures. As shown in bar 38 through the first half of 39, he cleverly moved a single chord shape in half steps atop a constant low E, exploring the resulting tense harmonies. He ended the arrangement by settling into a more consonant Em chord, played first with fretted notes and then natural harmonics. Certainly learn this part as written, but you might also take the opportunity to compose or improvise your own ending to this classic piece.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.