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Arranging music for solo guitar

This month's blog post covers how I approach arranging music for solo guitar. This is directed towards musicians (and mainly guitarists) who want to understand how I think about arranging music for solo guitar. Parts of it are a little bit dense, but hopefully still accessible!

In preparation for everything I'm going to talk about below, take a look at this video of vocalist Bobby McFerrin, and see if anything he says in the video stands out to you:

I'll tell you what stood out to me in this video a little bit later on.

So, in general, I take a similar approach to both:

A) Arranging music I have composed for solo guitar, and

B) Arranging covers for solo guitar,

both of which I'm going to go into detail about below.

Guitar arrangements of music I have composed

Generally, when I compose music, I write it away from the guitar. This means that when I write music, I don't have a guitar in my hands. I believe that the music that I write without a guitar in my hands sounds more like "me" than when I write with a guitar in my hands. When you think about it, it makes sense. When we play an instrument we're familiar with already, we naturally gravitate towards what we already know how to do. So, when I am trying to compose music on the guitar, my prior knowledge of the guitar influences me in lots of ways. I start thinking about chord voicings I like, I start thinking of pieces of other tunes I already know, I start going for melodies that are 'guitar-like' (to my ear), etc...

Getting out of that mind-frame is tough! It takes me a little while to get my creative juices flowing to the point that I feel like I'm telling my hands what to do, instead of vice-versa (Thundercat speaks about "opening that part of [his] brain" in this video ). Conversely, if I sit down at the piano I find myself looking for what I want to hear a lot quicker than I would on the guitar, and I think it's because I'm less familiar with the layout of the piano, and thus less influenced by it.

What got me thinking about composing away from the guitar was something my Dad said to me one day. I was talking to him about wanting to learn how to put together good guitar solos and wanting to improve my improvising skills. He said to me "It's funny, I could always sing a guitar solo in my head, but I could never play one". The penny dropped for me - music is inside us, and we have to work out how to get it out! I am a firm believer in getting my technical abilities on the guitar as strong and as diverse as possible, purely because I want to be able to play anything I compose or hear (within the limitations of the guitar, obviously!).

Importantly, though, it is easy to forget that musical instruments are instruments. We play music through instruments - the instruments should not dictate the music! That's not to say of course that great riffs and ideas can be found from jamming and noodling away on an instrument. I'm sure many hits have been written that way, and I've heard stories of producers getting musicians in to jam together, and crafting a song out of what they do and don't like from the jam (read up on how Doctor Dre makes most of his beats if you want to know more about that). Joni Mitchell wrote songs around guitar tunings she came across that she liked, a practise also undertaken by a lot of percussive fingerstyle guitarists in the Michael Hedges vein.

I will say, though, that any guitarist I have ever helped with composition has benefitted hugely from not composing on the guitar. The real value in this is not only learning to break away from your routine choices on the guitar (i.e. the 'boxes' we find ourselves in on the fretboard) but that you also build up a better knowledge of how music works, and how music feels.

My approach to composing music

You may be thinking, "Okay, so if I'm not supposed to compose music on the guitar, but the guitar is the only thing I play, then how am I supposed to write music?" In my case, I do three things (and usually in this order):

1) I sing ideas, and record them into my phone

2) I expand upon them and write notes about them in plain English

3) I input them into Logic Pro

Let's start with number one: singing ideas and recording them into the phone. Everyone has a voice. Not everyone can sing well, and chances are if you're reading this blog, singing is not your main focus. BUT: Everyone can use their voice to convey ideas, and that's all you need it for. In the past, I have done songwriting sessions and lessons with people who weren't great singers, but they knew how to get across their ideas, and they knew what they wanted something to sound like. This is what is important!

In my case, when a musical idea comes to be, it mostly happens either when I'm out doing something in a noisy environment (e.g. walking around Dublin), or when I'm in bed and relaxed (e.g. in bed, and relaxed). Don't ask me why this is - there is no solid reason I can think of as they are polar-opposite scenarios - but I've noticed it more and more over the past while. In terms of the ideas, it could be anything at all. It could be a vocal line that I am imagining a singer singing, it could be a bassline or a rhythmic pattern or a Glenn Miller-style brass section idea or a four-to-the-floor groove... the point is that it doesn't matter what the idea is or how it comes about. What does matter is that you record it somehow! One thing I will always have with me is my phone to capture any ideas I come up with. Most phones have a feature called "Voice Memos", or something similar, and I think they are the handiest thing for musicians. If you don't have this feature on your phone, get a pocket recorder/dictaphone. Since age fourteen, I have recorded almost every single idea I've come up with, and I have them stored online in a Google Drive. To this day, I store all my musical ideas in that drive, and I usually title them in a way that I'll remember what they were (e.g. "ChetAtkinsStyleLick.mp3", or "CoolFirstPartBadAfterwardsPopSong.mp3"). I would advise giving them all a title if you're going to do this, because having a folder full of files named "New_Recording.m4a" will be a deterrent to you listening to them and learning from them.

Another thing to mention is this: Almost everyone in the world hates the sound of their own voice. There are several reasons for this (you can read about it here if you like!), but a crucial thing is getting over the initial awkwardness of listening to yourself speaking, singing, or otherwise, because you will be the only one listening to it. Even more saliently than that, you will more than likely be the only person able to decipher an idea that you have sung yourself. Long story short, use the voice memos and learn to live with listening to yourself sing, because it pays off!

My folder of ideas, dated & named (please don't hack me)

Number two: Expand upon the ideas, and write notes out in plain language.

If you have ever read a musical score, or a play, you'll know that certain directions are so important to a movement or scene that the writer has essentially highlighted the important points with specific instructions. Musically, I'm thinking of things like written dynamics and instructions. These concepts are usually written in Italian musical terms (e.g. "andante", "mf", "diminuendo", "scherzando", etc). I do the exact same thing to my pieces that I write, but I write these notes in plain English. An important thing to understand here is that I'm not talking about writing out a score or notating the music or anything like that. I can't read or write music written on a stave. I did the basics in school, enough to pass my exams but I depended totally on my ear. To this day if you put a score in front of me I will struggle to tell you what key it's in let alone how it sounds. Not being able to read or write music has not been a hindrance to me at any point, but that's not saying that it's unnecessary either. The more skills you have, the more diverse you are! What I mean by writing notes out in plain language is that you essentially write instructions for yourself in terms you understand about how to play the music.

As I play around with the ideas I have composed, naturally they evolve and change, and other musical ideas attach themselves until the skeleton of a song/tune is there. I write and rewrite the chords of the piece, or sometimes the melody notes, or sometimes a mixture of the two, and I will circle and highlight parts of what I've written for different reasons. I will usually write in things like "make sure the slide here is smooth", "emphasise the low strings here", "control this part a lot and make the melody sound 'bouncy'", "you tend to strum too hard here", etc... whatever is important to the feel of the piece!

These directions are particularly important when you're recording because it's so easy to be concerned with not making mistakes versus nailing the feel of a piece of music. When you are going in to record your music you should have it to the point where you know it intricately and can instantly get into the groove, but I still like having these with me as guidelines, and for the mental side of recording.

Number three: I input everything into Logic Pro

The first time I actually hear any of the music I have composed (apart from in my own head) is when I write out the parts in a program called Logic Pro. I like using this software because it's easy to use, has a wide range of sounds, and I'm adept enough at using the MIDI input system to write in my ideas. There are a ton of alternatives out there like Pro Tools, GarageBand, Audacity, Abelton, Reaper, and many more. If you are not familiar with MIDI, it's a system whereby you can instruct a virtual instrument to play the music you have written into it. The layout on-screen is like a giant piano on its side, and you draw in bars that correspond to time and pitch. Many people hook up a keyboard with a MIDI connection to play in their ideas into Logic, but I choose to instead draw in bars, as I find it faster than using the keyboard.

What is good about writing out the parts in Logic is:

- I get to hear the music I've written, close to the way I imagined it

- I don't forget any of the parts I've written

- I can use it to refer to when I am in the process of arranging the piece

- I can play around with the piece without having to re-arrange it (in case I end up not liking something I have changed)

- If, in the future, I want to use the piece of music I have written for a different purpose, I have a basic arrangement done, ready to go.

What the tune looks like when I input the parts into Logic

At this point, something you might be thinking is "Hold on, you haven't actually talked about HOW you compose music. Where do the ideas come from? How do you write a chorus, or a verse, or a riff?"

Honestly, I can't explain that, and not because I don't want to! It's because I don't know how to. The reason I struggle to explain my compositional style is because I am self-taught, and everything I have ever done has been instinctive. Trial-and-error, over and over and over since I was fourteen, going on what sounded right to my ear, and what felt right to me. Even prior to that, I was subliminally being exposed to melodic patterns, form, rhythm, and more (read my first post about Irish music for more info about that). I intend on writing an article in the future as best I can about how I compose music, but this post concerns arranging music for solo guitar, so we'll stick with that for now!

Arranging music for solo guitar.

Arranging music is little bit like packing a van full of furniture. If you have a van with enough space to load a certain amount of furniture into it, there is more than one way to pack the van to make it all fit in. Sometimes you have to get creative to make all the furniture fit, and there are also ways to pack the van so that not all of the furniture fits, even though there is enough space! We also have to take care that some of the more delicate furniture doesn't get broken, and that none of the furniture will become damaged in transit. It's the same with music. The piece of music is the van, and the individual musical lines are the pieces of furniture. It's our job when we have music to arrange, in any capacity, to see where we can distribute all of these ideas, and how to make them fit as best we can.

Now, here's where Bobby McFerrin comes back into the picture. This is the important part from the video at the beginning of this article:

"What I don't sing, you hear. Your mind makes up for the spaces. I give you enough information when I sing, and what I don't sing, you hear it anyway."

This is where music and packing furniture differ, hugely. Your mind won't make up furniture where there is none, but it will continue to 'hear' musical ideas when they're not actually there if they have been well-established. This is my secret to arranging music for the guitar! For example, if I want to introduce six musical ideas into a guitar arrangement, I'm not playing those six pieces the entire time, I am giving you enough of the idea to establish the idea, and then I weave in and out of the ideas at different times. That way, when I come back around to the part I want to play, it will fit right back in, as if it were never gone.

Before I talk a bit about what I do to arrange music for the guitar, I want to make you aware of something: It is possible to play any song or tune as a solo acoustic guitar piece, but not every song suits a solo guitar approach. It's hard to give a definitive yes/no to which songs will suit, and which won't, but there are a few things I look for in a song.

When I hear a song or a tune that I want to arrange, it almost always has:

- Distinct and melodic lines (this goes for basslines, melodies, riffs)

- Lots of movement and richness in the chord sequences

- Good dynamic differences and changes within the song already

Part of the issue is that a lot of music is repetitive, and repetitive music generally does not suit guitar arrangements because the two combined get boring very quickly! A lot of modern pop music in particular is not built on musical lines and hooks, but is instead built on arrangement changes over repetitive chord patterns, and vocalists showcasing a powerful/emotional/rhythmic vocal part. This is fine when it comes to vocal music (and other types of layered music) because you can keep it interesting by changing the instrumentation, building up to a drop, adding in layers, etc... We don't have anything like that palette of colours as a solo guitarist, so we have to be clever about how to use the limitations of the guitar to our advantage.

As a good example of this, take a listen to Tommy Emmanuel talking about why he would choose not to arrange Ed Sheeran's song "Thinking Out Loud" for solo acoustic guitar (go to 7:40 if the video doesn't start there):

Arrangements for guitar come into existence, in my eyes, when the interpreter (i.e. the musician) takes a piece of music and adapts its intricacies for the guitar while still retaining it's essence. Crafting a guitar arrangement is not about replicating the musical lines in a song exactly as they are on the recording onto the guitar. It's not going to be possible in most cases to recreate a song note-for-note. Think about it - no matter what we do, we're limited on the guitar to a maximum of six notes at any one time. That's not a lot of notes! Plus, the guitar has a very limited frequency range, which can only be partially extended by altering the tuning, or adding things like extra strings. There are different pedals that can offer extra frequency opportunities, but I'm talking about unamplified guitar arranging for now. We also can't recreate percussive parts too well on a guitar. Apart from strumming and picking the strings, the frequencies are limited to our hands hitting off the different parts of the body and the strings, the snap of the strings against the frets, and very little else! There is some capacity to imitate kick & snare patterns, but it's almost impossible to recreate much more than that without attaching extra percussive tools.


Above all else, solo guitar arrangements need to keep moving to stay interesting. Your listener can't keep hearing things in the same frequency range, or they will get bored. Remember, our goal is not just to play pieces on the guitar, but to arrange them for guitar! I will take you through some of my guitar arrangements, (even though there are much better arrangements than mine!) because I know them intricately.

First, let's look at my take on "Love On Top" by Beyoncé:

If you don't know this song, click here to hear the original by Beyoncé

What drew me to this song first was the groove, the great chord changes, and the strong climbing melody - it suits my style on the guitar perfectly. There's not so much going on at any one time that you couldn't fit everything in, but there's similarly lots to pick from and to use; it's such a well-produced song.

One of the main features of the song is the four key changes at the end, going from C up to E. That, to me, was an important part of that song, as well as being musically interesting, and technically challenging. Another thing I've done in the arrangement is to try to recreate Beyoncé's vocal acrobatics in the middle of each chorus by using octave slides, because they thicken up what would other be a lonely high note run. I also kept in the rich extended chords as much as I could because I love how they move. This song has lots of great chords, including Motown-style 4/5 chords (e.g. F/G in the key of C), and some unexpected jazzy substitutions in different areas.

Keeping the dynamic limitations and the frequency range in mind, note how it starts gently, and stays in the lower part of the neck for the first verse. This is a great tip in general for playing solo guitar pieces, and solo guitar concerts. If you hit your listener hard at the start of a piece or at the start of a performance with all the frequencies you can get from a guitar, you will tire out their ears quickly, and fail to establish any kind of a groove, therefore having nothing to build upon. So, to start off I usually take it easy before building up to playing a little bit harder in the chorus.

You'll also notice that in the pre-chorus part, I move into the middle of neck, and then during the chorus I am up on the "dusty end" of the guitar. Because I am following the melody as it is sung up and down the neck, it is essential to maintain the chords as they are voiced in each position. This means that if you're playing a low Bmaj7 at the bottom of the neck, and in the next cycle of the chord progression you are up the high end of the neck and it comes around to the same Bmaj7 chord, it's your job to find a higher voicing of Bmaj7 that will also let the melody stand out. This isn't easy to do if you don't have a good grasp of where to find chord voicings on the guitar neck, but as long as you know where notes are on the neck, you should be able to shift them upwards note-by-note to find new shapes. There is also a system I show a lot of my Skype students how to use called the CAGED system. With this system you find the same chord as five different shapes up and down the guitar fretboard, and you can build on your chord shape knowledge from there. It is generally explained very badly online, but it's actually a really simple idea once you see it in practise. It is actually impossible not to play a chord (of any kind) in one of these five shapes!

Here is another arrangement of mine that I did for Christmas 2016, "Santa Baby"

I liked the slow "doo-wop" style backing in that song, and I emulated it by playing its rhythm in the bassline. I also loved the voicings of the horn section that comes in whenever Eartha Kitt takes a short vocal break, so I felt that it was important to voice them as similarly as I could. Another thing I did to keep the tune moving was to throw in more passing chords than the original had. Passing chords are extra chords you can put into a chord sequence to keep it moving in the same direction with a little bit more musical colour. For example the second time around in the chorus where there should be a G/A to D, there is a quick touch off a Gm9/A on the way down to D. In the second half of the tune, where the chord pattern in the original sits on an F# chord, I decided to alternate the bassline between F# and A# before hitting an E7b5/F# to signify that it was going to jump to a B chord. You'll also hear where instead of the very pretty bell-like orchestral section in the original after "Hurry down the chimney tonight" the second time around, I replaced with a quick guitar lick based on the notes of the original. I chose to do this because the rest of the tune is a laid-back feel, and it gives a quick flash of contrast to the tune before returning to the groove.

Some generally applicable tips to your arrangements would be these:

- Your melody is the most important part. While you can establish a groove and keep it going in people's heads without having to play it constantly, this is not true for the melody. You will sometimes have to sacrifice certain parts to make the melody stand out, but your listener will keep the groove going in their head if it's well-established. If you think about it, without the melody what you are playing is just a backing track, not a guitar arrangement!

- Keep the melody as it was written, but feel free to change everything else. Take the chords and reharmonise them. Change the time signature. Change the emphasis in the groove. Go from in time to free flow, or vice-versa. Change everything and anything you like if it works for you, EXCEPT for the melody. There is a caveat to this:

- Identify which parts of the backing are essential, and keep them in. Put it this way - if you left out a certain piece of musical information from a song, would it still be recognised as the same piece of music? Imagine if you were to play the first theme from The Simpsons with a straight C chord (C-E-G) instead of a C lydian chord (C-E-F#-G)(also known as C +b5 or "C with an F# in it" as I would call it) - it wouldn't sound at all like The Simpsons!

- One more thing about the melody. I generally try to keep the melody on top (i.e. the highest note I'm playing), as it is most prominent there. It may be useful at some point to shift this on it's head and to play a lower melody line, but 80% of the time my melody line will be the highest note I am playing. Remember that the average listener hears the melody of what you're playing, so you want to keep it as obvious as possible in most cases!

- Take advantage of both the what the guitar is good at, and things the guitar can do that other instruments cannot. For example, guitars are the only instrument where you can get very creative with harmonic flourishes (also known as harp harmonics). Guitars are not as good at sustaining notes as pianos or violins, though. On the other hand, you can also play the same note in different positions to continue the flow of a musical line on the guitar. To see what I mean, try to play the C above middle C anywhere else on a piano - you can't, because there's only one option. Now, see how many places you can play it on the guitar! This is a sound unique to string instruments (and some reed instruments), whereas woodwind, brass, and keyed instruments cannot do this.

- Following the harmonies in the original piece of music is generally a good idea, as your listener will (either knowingly or not) expect the harmonies if they are especially prominent. Again you don't have to be totally on the money with the order in which the harmonies are voiced, so long as the chord is correct (i.e. if the harmony is a Cmajor6 voiced E-G-A-C, it doesn't have to be E-G-A-C exactly on the guitar, it can be any combination of that as long as the melody stands out).

- In saying that though, reharmonising a piece of music can also be really cool if you know how to! This isn't a solo arrangement, but here's a Vulfpeck tune called Back Pocket I recorded with some friends of mine where we reharmonised the third verse (around 1:56) to give the song a bit of extra movement. Reharmonising on the guitar is a particular challenge, but things like using relative minors, substitutions, and passing/approach chords can add a lot to an arrangement. For a good example of all of these, take a listen to Sönke Meinen's take on The Long And Winding Road by Paul McCartney, or Tommy Emmanuel's take on Somewhere Over The Rainbow. You'll hear how the melody is always obvious, but the feeling of the music changes with the different chord choices.

I hope some of this stuff works for you, and helps you to arrange music for guitar, or whatever instrument you are playing!

Is there anything you do when picking or making your arrangements? I'm always interested in hearing other approaches and ideas, so if you have any please leave them in the comments below.

Bonus video: more Bobby Mc Ferrin wisdom

Also, something to listen to:

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