Most of the time I’m playing guitar in a band context, but occasionally I get to play unaccompanied solo guitar arrangements. Here are my top 7 tips for creating interesting and memorable solo guitar arrangements.
1. Transpose the Melody to Different Octaves
The natural tendency is to place the melody as the top voice in your arrangement. Think about the soprano section in a choir or the first violins in an orchestra. However, moving the melody to different octaves can create interest in a solo guitar arrangement. Much like a great choral arrangement, the melody will pass from voice to voice.
2. Use Guitar-Specific Techniques
Take advantage of techniques unique to the guitar…harmonics, hammer-ons and pull-offs, open string licks, bending, etc. The guitar has so many idiosyncratic articulations available to exploit. Get creative and you may find the magic ingredient that makes your arrangement a winner.
3. Think in terms of Voices
This is a huge shift in thinking that will completely alter your approach to the arrangement. Imagine each string or register as a different voice in a choir. Keep the voice leading smooth and practical. Make it your goal to give each voice an interesting part in the arrangement.
Some arrangements may have one voice providing the melody while the other voices provide the harmony. Maybe rather than using a static harmony, you can have the voices moving in polyphony (where each voice is a unique melody that all add up to an interesting harmony). There are tons of ideas to explore in this arena.
4. Use Suspensions and Anticipations
It’s not a fixed rule that every voice has to move to the next chord at the same time. Experiment with suspensions (holding on to the previous harmony in one or more voices) and anticipations (arriving to the new harmony a bit early in one or more voices). These techniques create energy and make the harmonic resolutions much stronger than they would be otherwise.
5. Experiment with Alternate Tunings
If you’ve never tried any alternate tunings, stop reading this and GO DO IT NOW. Actually, read this next part, then go play. Some of my favorites are:
Drop D (D A D G B E)
Open D (D A D F# A D)
Drop C and G (C G D G B E)
Open E (E B E G# B E)
Open G (D G D G B D)
I used DADGAD for my arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision” which you can hear at the bottom of this post.
This short list will get you started, but I would suggest that you also create your own alternate tunings. New worlds will open up to you. Your guitar will feel like a familiar friend that’s somehow….different than you remember.
6. Listen to Great Solo Guitar Arrangments
Be inspired by the greats. Some of my favorite solo guitarists are Tommy Emmanuel, Doyle Dykes, Chet Atkins, Tuck Andress, Lenny Breau, Adam Rafferty, Joe Robinson, and Andy McKee.
Familiarize yourself with some classical guitar repertoire as well. Every single piece of classical guitar music has something to offer in terms of learning to arrange for solo guitar. A quick “classical guitar” playlist search on Spotify should get you to where you need to be.
7. Listen to Great Choral and Orchestral Music
Guess what? The best music in the world doesn’t usually have any guitar in it.
The choral and orchestral music of the past 500 years or so is, objectively speaking, the most beautiful and best music in existence. A bold claim..I know. (I could defend that claim, but I’d need to start a philosophy blog or have you over for a drink around the firepit to do the conversation justice.)
Pretty much everything you need to know about music, J.S. Bach can teach you. Seriously. Tonal harmony. Polyphonic voice leading. How to write a compelling melody. How to harmonically set a melody. Modulations. Composing music that brings lyrical text to life. Etc.
It can seem daunting if you’ve never listened to orchestral or choral music, but trust me…it’s worth the effort. There’s gold in them thar hills.
Give these tips a try on your next (or first) solo guitar arrangement. As an exercise, try to make an arrangement of a super simple melody where you use 2 or 3 of these tips. Something like “Happy Birthday” or “Amazing Grace”.
As promised, here’s my solo guitar arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision”. See if you can pick up on any arrangement ideas here. And let me know if you have some ideas that I missed. Drop a comment below.