Arranging for the Guitarby Eric DiVito
The art of arranging is a unique and often under recognized and under appreciated task. Very often the arranger’s task goes unnoticed by the non-musician and their role is often taken for granted as they aren’t the original composer of a piece of music. What many people don’t realize however, is that the arranger’s task can actually be more in depth and often much more tedious than that of the composer. The arranger must in essence “re-compose” a piece of music, and often make it work for instrumentation not originally intended by the composer. They must also stay within certain guidelines and restrictions of the instruments, or perhaps the particular level of musicians who will be performing their arrangement.
Often it is the job of the skilled arranger to allow for a piece of music to be appreciated and performable by a wide variety of musicians on various instruments and of varying degrees of musical ability. Some topics that we’ll be focusing on, which are essential to the arranger are: Orchestration, musician ability, tunings and key (signature), texture, and reharmonization.
At the same time, and perhaps the most difficult part, the arranger’s job is to create something that is uniquely their own, while at the same time conveying the original intentions of the composer. They get to put their own creative stamp on someone else’s work. The more one studies arranging, the more they appreciate the skill and creativity involved and the more they may become inspired to begin finding their own unique style as an arranger. As a guitarist, knowledge of arranging also allows us to perform more music on the guitar and to have a more varied repertoire and not limit ourselves to only perform music originally conceived on the guitar.
The first topic we will look at, which is often the first thing an arranger needs to think about, is orchestration. The arranger needs to consider which instruments he or she will be writing for, and how that differs from the instrumentation of the original work. Perhaps they are a taking a song written for voice and guitar and arranging it for a string orchestra, or maybe they are taking a work written for a rock band and arranging it for a choir. Or perhaps, as in the case we will focus on here, they taking a work and arranging it for guitar. This provides some automatic limitations, as the guitar is limited to only six strings, and is to be played by only one musician. Perhaps though, the arranger chooses to arrange for two guitars, or guitar ensemble, or even guitar with voice. There are also the options of the twelve-string guitar or tenor or baritone guitar to think about as well as electric, steel, or nylon string. Each option may come with its own unique characteristics in terms of sound, range, sonority, and tone.
Another factor that the arranger considers is the level of difficulty of his or her arrangement. Often times arrangers may be commissioned to write arrangements for a specific group, say an elementary school band, or a high school choir, which of course automatically suggests possible limitations in terms of range of notes, technical ability, and musicianship. When arranging for the guitar, similar considerations should be taken. Is this for a beginning guitarist who might not be classically trained or experienced playing counterpoint on the instrument? Does it use extended techniques such as artificial harmonics, tricky barring, or fast right hand passages? Is it in a key that may be tough for a beginner in terms of sharps and flats as well as fretboard positioning? Or perhaps it is a simple arrangement that although not too demanding, will be playable and enjoyable by the young guitarist. These are all factors to consider.
Texture, one of the main musical elements which will be an arranger’s stamp on the piece, is also afforded many options when arranging for the guitar. Perhaps the arranger wants to take a simple melody and add variety by setting it in different textures. Some options may include a simple homophonic texture, or perhaps a more elaborate arpeggiated texture, or am Alberti bass note accompaniment setting. Maybe the arranger chooses to use more complex counterpoint by composing counter melodies to be intertwined with the original melody. Or perhaps, just a simple statement of the melody on a bass string gives it that cello-like sound the arranger is seeking or an octave or two higher on the first string with some heavy vibrato gives it the vocal quality they are trying to capture. These are all factors to be considered and explored by the skilled arranger.
The last element we will focus on in the arranger’s toolbox is reharmonization – that is changing the harmony of the piece in some way. This can be done by simplifying the harmony, which is sometimes necessary when arranging for the guitar
Tuning and Key
Another factor to consider is tuning and what key to put the work in. As guitarists, we know that certain keys lend themselves better on the guitar, such as E, A, Bm, or keys that allow us to use more open strings. These open strings not only provide a richer, fuller sonority, but also can be easier on our hands from a practical standpoint. Using open strings also opens up different possibility to use different textures, since our fretting hand is free to play other notes while our hand can play open strings. Does putting it up to a higher key add something to the sound? Perhaps modulating to a different key adds a nice effect to the piece that the arranger desires. Perhaps the piece is being arranged for guitar with voice and the vocal range of the singer needs to be considered when determining the key signature. As far as tuning, there are also many options to consider. Does standard tuning work best? Perhaps an open tuning – such as open G will allow for a more authentic sound of the original work or if it is a modal piece, will keep it more in the original style. Or perhaps drop D tuning will allows some for some lower notes to be played, or maybe it will allow the arranger to keep the original key.
The tuning can affect the playability of the work, as well as the sonority of it, depending on how high or low it will allow us to play. In some cases, even re-tuning just one or two strings will allow us to play something that was otherwise technically impossible on the guitar.
due to its limitations, or perhaps by using more sophisticated harmony, such as chords with more extensions to add color or dissonance. The arranger may also choose to use reharmonization to hide or disguise the piece in order to make it more unique or original. Perhaps they want to use a chromatic bass line as the melody is played, offering a complete reharmonization and added motion to what the original harmony was or to add a shocking or unexpected change to a familiar piece.
A thorough knowledge of music theory and reharmonization techniques is recommended when considering these options. Knowledge of which types of harmonies are common practice of certain styles of music is also recommended. This is where the real work and fun begins when coming up with your own arrangements.
These are just some of the many considerations an arranger makes when arranging for the guitar. Over time, he or she will have certain techniques that they use in particular situations and that they favor, as well as know which techniques are appropriate in what their musical effect will be. With experience and much practice, these techniques will help provide the arranger with their own unique creative signature as they arrange. And of course be sure to study plenty of scores of arrangements that you like, so you can see what was done and learn how to emulate those techniques and your favorite arrangers.