18 FebArrangement in 10 (not so) Clear and (Deceptively) Easy Steps!
Recently several of my guitar students have asked for assistance taking the first steps in arranging percussive guitar covers of their favourite songs. It got me thinking about a means to convey what is an incredibly (perhaps infinitely) deep and and complex process in a simple, clear, and – crucially – unintimidating way. So, with that in mind, and assuming you know the basics of playing in the percussive style, here’s what I came up with; my 10 step quick start guide to percussive guitar arrangement!
1. Identify chord progressions. Don’t worry about the exact voicings, just get the overall shape of the harmony.
2. Identify the lowest ‘important’ note in the piece. Sometimes this is just the tonic, other times this will be a specific note in the bass riff, or maybe there’s not any ‘important’ low notes (the piece is played on a mandolin, for example) in which case just choose something logical (usually the tonic again)
3. Using a combination of tuning and capos, get your 6th string to the note defined in step 2. Tune the rest of the guitar so it sounds acceptable (don’t stress about using established open tunings etc.)
4. Experiment with several different ways of playing the chords defined in step 1. If a particular voicing is just begging to be played but the tuning makes it inconvenient/impossible… change the tuning! Repeat this process until you land on a strong clutch of chords that both sound shweet and aren’t hellish to play.
5. Identify the time signature and the main stress of the beat. This will usually be the bass and snare drums.
6. Experiment with different ways of playing the rhythms defined in step 5. Most importantly, try to find different areas of the guitar to play them on.
7. Gradually integrate the chords and rhythms. Experiment with the different combinations you came up with in steps 4 and 6. If needs be, remove elements until chords/percussive rhythms synch up, and then add them back in.
8. Fill in the gaps! If there’s an awkward chord change, or a specific beat/drum sound you’re regularly missing, isolate the section and experiment with alternate ways of performing it. Perhaps this will require a position change, or a reduced/simpler chord shape, or a complete re-working! Trial, error, and practice will make this step second nature in time.
9. Add the melody. If you’re singing, this step is essentially just a butt-load of practice. If you’re arranging an instrumental, start picking out the melody line within or nearby your existing chords.
10. Bang your head against the wall as you realise that a certain note would be so much better placed is you retuned the 2nd sting up a semi-tone… Return to step 3 and/or get a beer.
TL;DR – Let your ear be your guide; keep a beer by your side.