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Guitarist - Composer - Arranger

(7) Variations

I’m a long time student and teacher of tango guitar. This series of articles is for tango guitar students and guitarists interested in pursuing tango. Contact me for more information on lessons and workshops.

This month we’re looking at variations, one of the classic elements of traditional instrumental tango arrangements. Variations, usually made up of 16th notes, are a staple of the tango orchestra sound and are principally played by the bandoneon, (although they can be played by other instruments), and often come at the end of an arrangement. Variations are based on the melody (see ‘theme and variations’ in classical music). Tango guitarists play 16th note variations and there are many examples of guitar ensembles where variations are played by more than one guitar in harmony or in octaves. We play them over tangos and valses. Milongas, because of their tempo and feel, don’t really use variations – in most cases the melodies are already made up of rapid 16th notes.​

Three suggestions about variations: 1) learn the classic ones because it’s good to know them. 2) use them as exercises for building technique and speed and 3) eventually, create your own.

Step One – Listen to a few classic variations:

Quejas de bandoneón – The variation is based on the B-section melody and appears at 1:45.

La cumparsita – The variation is based on the A-section melody and appears at 2:40.

Canaro en París – The variation is based on the A-section melody and appears at 1:41. Listen how the variation gets passed around the quintet!

Now let’s hear what a variation sounds like in a guitar ensemble:


The variation is on the B-section melody starts at 17:57.

And (a superhuman) variation on solo guitar:


The variation is on the second half of the B-section melody and starts at 3:45.

Step Two –Transcribe and learn

Although there are a few instances of variations that were published with the tango sheet music, most often that’s not the case. This is a good opportunity to emulate our jazz friends and transcribe from the recordings. In the case of classic tango variations we usually find slight ‘variations on the variations.’ In other words, listen to several recordings and you’ll find some slight differences in what are the ‘same’ variations. Don’t let this throw you – what’s important now is to learn variations. Write them out, memorize them, and make them part of your practice routine. It’s fine if you can’t play them really, really fast. Most of us can’t play them any where near the tempos that pianists and bandoneonists take. Some variations aren’t practical on guitar and rather than use them in your playing, you might end up practicing them to improve technique.

Step Three – Create your own variations.

I wouldn’t recommend going down this road until you’ve mastered several classic variations and feel that you’ve incorporated the main elements of tango guitar: the elements of accompaniment and melody and other idiomatic material like fills. It’s worth listening to and learning a good number of variations before you take a stab at creating one. This way you have a better shot at creating something that sounds like a tango variation rather than a Charlie Parker solo or a Vivaldi sonata.

Most of all – take a deep breath. We are officially in virtuoso territory and there are no shortcuts. Take your time, practice slowly, and enjoy the ride!

Have questions about variations? Contact me…

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