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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