Monday 1 August 2011

How far do you take your arrangements?

Anyone who has arranged a song for fingerstyle guitar will tell you it is a labour of love. Generally, particularly for rock and pop, you work out the chords. If there is a signature bassline for the song then you'll make a resolve for that...if the bass isn't prominent you might just fall back onto some bassline that fits the genre - or one that you know you can play easily and reliably without thinking! Add on the melody, which generally involves forcing some crazy thumb independence into your brain on the right hand, and then some bizarre fingering solution for your left that you've never used before. Fill it all out with something in the mid, arpeggio or a finger flick, just something to give it a bit of fullness. Sometimes a distinct plucked melody on bassline works fine; the options are endless, the end result is "you".

Initially you are pleased to get out anything, and to be actually able to play it too. Then you start getting increasingly trickier. Yeah, okay, you pat yourself on the back for coming up with an amazing resolve that "no one else could ever have thought of" - don't get too much of a head swell, there will always be the next guy who will come up with a better arrangement than you.

Now this might be coming down to a quantity-versus-quality discussion, or at least a trade-off between the two...but I'm in the final throws of another arrangement and I'm not sure how far to go. For instance, for a standard verse-chorus rock song, each verse is identical except for the singing. You could play the same verse identical and maybe nobody will notice (except for you) that you missed out some subtlety. Some subtlety might be easy and worthwhile, like there are some extra syllables of the some note - not hard to do. The other day I found a verse that dropped one note down a tone in the lyrics...the note forced me to go behind a barre chord, which meant I had to reform the method without the barre, which then disrupted my left-hand right-hand craziness that I had burnt into memory...

A lot of work for one note!

Now I Naudo would do it...however this time I don't think I will. When I look back at earlier arrangements they were verse-for-verse chorus-for-chorus identical. As I started to get a bit better at creating and playing crazy fingerstyle arrangements I discovered I was more able to mix it up a little between verses without any major re-learning/disruption. It's a carefully paced progress...if I try too far beyond my skill level at any time I might lose interest, be left with incomplete arrangements (ha, got a few of them)...if I don't push the boundaries a bit I won't be improving my skill level.

Perhaps there needs to be a time rule. Each arrangement may only take two months from start to fluently playable. The two months may be stretched over a year...noting that "two months" for me means about 3-4 hours a week for 8 weeks on the job at hand.

That way, whatever you can fit in two months is what you should aim for. To start with, it might not be a lot. At the end, in two months, you have captured every subtlety, solo, inflection, nuance of the song!


  1. Hi!
    Current topic for me. I'm practising my very first, 95% finished arrangement these days. I've got some unfinished song, but never got this far.
    My concern is that I can't listen to it objectively to notice the weak parts.
    My wife can't help me, I'm afraid she's sick of hearing the same two bars over and over again :) BTW, Tommy adviced players to practise alone, I think he's right in that.
    So, my only option is to upload it. That's the real deal, anyway :)


  2. yes lefty, show it to us, we are advanced weak points' spotters

  3. Ha ha Lefty, wives and practise - a good blog topic! My wife has been hearing me play guitar for more than twenty years and I reckon we have reached a balance - I don't play the guitar every waking moment and she doesn't insist I stop playing the guitar forever :)

    Even my oldest daughter lets out an occasional "do you have to play that now Daddy?", which I chuckle over and play on. Only wifey has "the power" to stop me from playing :)

    So, definitely practise alone. Or near your kids.

    Time will give you objectivity on your arrangements...once you have moved through several more arrangements you look back at your earlier efforts and see where the weaker points are. Sometimes you enhance, sometimes you've "moved on" and just leave it as it is.

    Unfortunately there are very few people who will give you a good peer review. What you want is for someone who can point out stuff without bias on the genre, style, skill...of course bias _has_ to come into it, for instance I would point out "imbalance" in an arrangement; I don't think you should deviate too far from the overall feel of an arrangement - aside from purposeful deviations - save a different feel for a different arrangement.

    Hmm. I could branch off into another topic there, "JAWs Laws of arrangements" (please note a _huge_ tongue in cheek right there.)

  4. How long does it usually take for a beginner to start getting any good? I've been practicing guitar every day for a month now and still seems far from getting even close to being good. Although I am getting much better then the first day I started.

  5. I've only just recently started playing guitar myself. I think it'll take a lot of time for me. I figure the important part is to learn as much as possible. I have some friends that play guitar and they've never gotten past strumming. If you're gonna be efficient about your playing, I think it's important to learn something new every time you sit down.

    So instead of just strumming out the chords, what have I started doing? I was impressed by the right hand technique of flamenco players, so I figured I needed to develope the rhytm sense on each of my fingers. I'm practising different rasgueados, triplets, triplet rasgueados and making up patterns to develop thumb and finger independence amd making my wrist flexible and creative.

    I'm also trying to learn as much guitar theory as possible, but it's easy to turn lazy. I'm convinced there is a lot to gain from understanding music theoretiaclly, at least for me. I'm working on learning every note on every string and understanding how chords and scales work. As it is now, I have enough with the major and minor chords commonly found in pop music, but at some point I want to learn more about other scales.

    I also need to develop speed and accuracy on my left hand, which I find awfully slow. I figure I just need to practise to get better. I think practise is the key, but practise new things also. Don't limit yourself and try to be creative. Well, that's how I go about learning guitar anyway and I'm only two months in and still suck a loooot, but as long as I'm getting a little better every day, I won't complain.


  6. Hahahahah.
    I read about this so many times in this blog and everytime I thought "it won't happen to me" that right now I can't help laughing.
    Sorry Arina, I was writting a wonderful message with my wisest advice but it got irretrievably erased.

  7. The joys of web forms. I often write up lengthy responses (for any web page) in a text editor, to make sure I don't type in a mass of stuff and then lose it! Stupid web forms! Another tip if you stick to the web form, occasionally press ctrl-A (select all) and then ctrl-C (copy text to clipboard), so as a minimum you have a backup of your text in the clipboard ready to be repasted (ctrl-V) if your text goes bye-bye!

    Thomas has come great points; I haven't ever dedicated a blog entry to the subject because I don't think I'm a good person to answer such a question. I've been playing waaay to long, I'm lazy and a sloppy player; and most of the time I sit with my guitar I just play the same old stuff without learning anything new - more of "relaxation", just forcing the brain into 100% CPU on something other than a bad day I've just had.

    Some people are naturally talented and will just "get it", some people have background in other instruments so it's just mechanics that need to be learnt - but the key secret ingredient to playing the guitar - love. You have to love doing it. Well, that's true for anything. If you love it, you will put in the time, the effort, the persistence and you will get better. Then it comes down to a means to effective learning. Which isn't me :)

    One month in? If you can fret a few chords and change between them in tempo, you are doing very well! And that is enough for possibly the majority of guitarist, and that is fine (learn to sing too). Our mate Tom here though, well, I'm thinking he's not new to music, and he isn't going to have any problem in being a proficient guitarist in the near future :)


  8. Hi Jaw!
    Could you please suggest a way how to develop independence of thumb (or bass line) from other fingers on right hand?
    I feel so miserable when trying to play something like this :)

  9. Arina - you say you still seem far from getting even close to being good. I've been playing 4 years now, I try and practice several times a week for an hour, sometimes every day. I'm still far from getting to be any good or even close to being a guitar god! But I love trying, as Jaw points out if you enjoy playing that's what's important, even it's just strumming a chord. Don't get disappointed if you can't play stairway to heaven note for note after a month. I really enjoy trying to unlock a song that I've listen to all my life, such as Floyd number, even it's just a simple riff. I've learned loads off youtube, just by watching Jaw's vids or Justin Sandercoe's web site. If you want to feel humbled watch some of igor Presnyakov. Just enjoy learning, it never ends with the guitar.

    Nick (uk)

  10. "Could you please suggest a way how to develop independence of thumb (or bass line) from other fingers on right hand?
    I feel so miserable when trying to play something like this :) "

    You should not start there... this to follow this "route into thumb independence"

    Stairway to Heaven intro
    JAW's Is There Anybody Out There/Goodbye Blue Sky
    JAW's Here Comes The Sun
    Dust in the Wind
    Classical Gas

    Tabs are all easily avaiblable on the net.
    Once you got all that down, try again.

  11. How far do you take your arrangements?

    could be aswell:

    How far do you go to hold bass notes until next bass note? Quite the same kind of dilema xD

  12. Great call there - I forget that stuff like Stairway to Heaven, Blackbird, Classical Gas, Cavatina were all stuff I learnt to play before venturing into "thumb independence". You need those sequential non-independence tunes to get your fingers agile first up, independence stuff would be too much to take on without some solid fingerpicking foundation skills.

    I'd take the next step towards thumb independence as alternating bass such as Freight Train (not that I ever learnt that one, Borsalino was my only foray into "true" alternating bass). If you can do that, start taking on the world, my absolute favourite that will undoubtedly show you you've got thumb independence is Tommy Emmanuel's cover of Day Tripper.

    I've talked about this sort of stuff in the past, and am bound to talk about it again in the future. I'm no guru, but I don't mind yakking about my observations!

  13. Ah bass notes. My favourite! :)

  14. Hello,

    Hey guys, haven't posted for a while but I have been visiting often to read the stuff. Great work Jaw

    TO help the guy trying to learn thumb independence, check out
    That guy has some fantastic beginner songs for learning alternating bass and he has a huge load of lessons on getting used to thumb independence.

    It takes some time to get used to it but it feels good when u get it :D It doesn't take too long.

    Have fun,

  15. Hey Kris! Good tip on - he does some nice entry level fingerstyle, some songs in there highly recommended for a learn! The "thumbpicking" (a pretty good term for alternating bass) examples are great too. I also highly recommend learning thumbpicking, so that you get some essential skills, and then move on (I'm not a fan of alternating bass) :)

    Just snooping around his site, really well done, for someone who wants to learn the guitar (and loves it) there is so much there - I could learn a lot from him! I prefer his style over Justin Sandercoes; he is "studious" and more self learn whereas Justin is "casual" and more hand holding. Both are great - choose your preference!

    It's funny, I'm not sure where I fit in. Likes to blab on - check. Plays guitar okay - check. Has done some arranging and posts tabs - check. Knows next to nothing about theory - check. Not sure what you get here? Neither am I! :)


  16. Thank you for your welcome Jaw :). You're right that I'm not that new to music. I've been playing piano for some years and have been following the fingerstyle scene for a good amount of years too, including this blog.

    I sat on the fences for too long ... the guitar has always been an instrument I wanted to learn, yet I couldn't bring myself to buy one. It was when someone from work taught me the basic guitar chords that I got a real taste of guitar. She happened to be a guitar teacher as well, so she taught me about the CAGED system and how to work myself up and down the neck. With a background in piano, I could more easily see the logic in guitar and was quite excited to see how easily it came to me. Also I had followed the fingerstyle scene for more than half a decade. That enables me to know what I want to sound like.

    Eventually I had to go and get myself a guitar. A cutaway Takamine, which I was told to be a good guitar.Now I just need to be patient and practise on my weak points(everything, haha) If not for my piano background, I would believe fingerstyle guitar to be quite overwhelming at first. Previous musical background or not, I think one should strive to master different techniques.... uh oh... I'm rambling.. all I wanted to say was thank you for the welcome and thank you for your blog :)!


  17. I know what you are saying Tom, I have dabbled on a keyboard and found it was _relatively_ easy to pick up, it's just like guitar. However since my daughter has been taking piano lessons I've noticed there are "correct" hand positions and techniques and stuff that would be useful to learn, and would make it come easier and probably give a better experience.

    You mentioned CAGED method which I had heard of but had no idea what it was; just spent my train ride into work reading about it. Interesting, sensible stuff. My learning over the years has been completely ad-hoc and mostly self taught...I wonder what the difference would be if I was rigorously taught in some method?

    I suspect the right path lays somewhere between the two. You need good grounding in music theory and technique - but at the same time you need to be able to experiment, to fail, to do the "wrong thing" which might work out really well for you!

    Rambling? yeah, that happens a lot around here - and a lot of the time these comments should be the basis of new threads (instead of forum style); I reckon there is just as much if not more good oil in the comments than the blog itself! :)

  18. I think you are wrong JAW.
    The more theory, the better. There are no negative effects.

  19. I don't think Jaw means that one should stop learning music theory. I think he means that in addition to learning theory, one needs to be creative, inventive and experiment on one's own to find out what works for you or not.

    If you watch the classical fingerstylers, you see that their playing is about being 'clean' and hitting the notes perfectly. This is beautiful in its own way, but say you watch someone like Jaw or Naudo. Their style is not about being so'clean' anymore; instead they use other teqchniques to get the music forth. Other players like Igor, sometimes beats his guitar up to get the music out. I suspect you won't normally learn their styles in an ordinary guitar school. Instead you need to experiement on your own to find the techniques you want to incorporate to your playing. I think Jaw calls them tools, which is is quite fitting. The more tools you can choose from, the more creative you can be about your playing. If you only used what the theory taught you, you probably would sound like a pretty generic player(and nothing wrong with that :) ).

    Yes indeed, Jaw. There is much food-for-thought to be found in the comments as well!