I get asked quite often about how I approach fingerstyle guitar arranging, and suddenly – this simple idea came to mind.
I hope this gives you a little “AHA!” moment – to brighten your day.
Disclaimer – there is always “more than one way to do it”. Here’s one approach that I use, 90% of the time.
The Dark Ages Way of Guitar Arranging
Most guitarists come out of a “chord” approach, which leads to picking patterns on the chord, and ultimately “jimmying” little melodies on top.
For example, if you are playing an open position C chord, you sooner or later mess around with lifting your first finger on & off the B string, or using your pinky on the high E string.
If you have done this, you know what I am talking about.
In order to understand the way I approach arranging – you have to throw away this “jimmying melodies on top of the chord” idea completely!
The New Age, Enlightened Way of Guitar Arranging
Melody is king. What do I mean by this?
Please understand, I grew up on Jimmy Page guitar solos (when I had hair I wanted to be him) and later fell in love with George Benson – and Wes Montgomery – not to mention all the jazz greats (horn players, pianists, singers, etc)
When a melody is played by someone who is playing melody ONLY (forget about fingerstyle for a moment), it has to posses certain qualities:
- The Blues Feel (depending on context)
- Proper Rhythmic Accents for the Style
- Delicious Fat Tone and Touch
- Touches listeners hearts
Melodies have to “sing”. There is a HUGE difference in playing a single line melody that makes people’s hearts sing vs “plunking out the notes.”
You may need to get up (oh no I’m scared) past the 4th fret!
So – imagine that you are playing LEAD guitar, melody only – and you have to pour your heart into a melody, bending strings, sliding – making it sing. Yes, you may have to practice a melody a LOT to find your “interpretation”.
Examples, off the top of my head, of “lyrical melody playing”:
- George Benson – “Breezin” & “This Masquerade”
- Wes Mongomery – “What’s New”, “Portrait of Jennie”
- Jimmy Page – “Stairway To Heaven”, “Since I have Been Loving You”
None of these are icy cold, precise melody statements. They all touch the heart and have “love” woven in an ingredient.
Step 1 – Get Your Melody ‘Singing’
This is your starting point – play a melody with no accompaniment. Make it sing…break all the rules your teacher told you.
For example, does it “sound” better on the B string, but is it easier on the E string?
Make the choice that sounds better, sings and will move the heart – rather than the easy and convenient one.
Listen to your own playing with your heart – not your head.
Oh – and are you playing the rhythmic accents exactly where you what them?
Yes, syncopations and exact phrases are hard to figure out….but don’t cop out!
Get that melody sounding as much like the original as possible – or as close to your intention. Don’t settle!
No matter how incredible your “arrangement is” – if you leave out the crafting and playing of a great melody – your arrangement will fall flat on it’s face.
Many fingerstyle players do not pay enough attention to this.
Step 2 – Your Bass Desires
Now comes the part where you use any finger available or open string to try and grab the bass note of the chord on (lets say) beat one of every measure – WHILE playing that lyrical loving melody.
Don’t go for chord shapes. Do go for lyrical melody – with a bass note added.
The more this comes into focus, see if you can plop out a rhythm with the right hand thumb, against the melody. Some combinations may be rhythmically tricky.
You may need to look for new left hand fingering solutions for the melody – but do your absolute best to retain the feel.
Step 3 – Fill the Middle
Without losing the lyrical quality in the melody, and keeping a firmness in the bass now you’ll look for possible places to play one or two notes of a chord in the middle.
The middle is “subservient.” Imagine if you spoke all the time (the melody) and had a servant by your side constantly saying “yes” in the pauses. That’s what the middle does!
Step 4 – Put it on a low flame, and let your soup “cook”!
The top, middle and bottom will come into focus slowly. Go for your unique blend of lyrical melody, groove, middle, and comfort.
The separate parts will start to “blend” and it will start sounding like an arrangement.
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