Solo guitar music is commonly delivered through approaches and techniques such as the use of open tunings, chordal voice leading, and ornate fingerpicking patterns. We often hear solo guitarists covering bass lines, chords, and melodies simultaneously, creating somewhat of a self-contained ensemble with locked-in time and dense harmony. While these forms have their place firmly in the history of the instrument, I’ve come to practice a somewhat different approach. In recent years, I’ve been influenced more by literary mechanisms, like the arc of a story, the open-ended wonder of a poem, or the distilled simplicity of a single written word. In this lesson, we will explore how to approach narrative solo guitar composition through harmonic movements, ways to lyrically deliver a melody, and the use of silence.
From the Written Word to Sound
Most of my solo guitar compositions are inspired by my favorite literature. Living in New York City, I often find myself reading on the subway, while waiting for the bus, killing time between gigs, etc. My latest project, Angels of Annunciation (Destiny Records), is a cycle of solo guitar miniatures inspired by the writings of Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906–2001), an incredible writer, radio operator, and aviator.
Example 1 depicts an interlude piece that is inspired by short-hand radio signaling. I wanted to create a musical representation of Morrow’s extensive accounts as a navigator in the 1930s, while co-piloting for her husband, Charles Lindbergh, on long survey flights across the globe.
I imagined Morrow being in the air for hours on end, likely exhausted, extremely focused, and being responsible for communicating the plane’s location according to maps and instruments. Here, I favor the use of wide intervals voiced high on the fretboard with a ringing open B string to start the passage. Using open strings between fretted lower and higher notes can be a very effective way to convey spacious texture without being harmonically limited to a lower drone note. In this case, the ambiguity of the open B ringing between the higher E and lower F notes creates a Lydian feel as I descend into a diminished voicing (bar 2, beat 2) before moving into parallel intervals, played patiently and shortly.
Though this all occurs in about 20 seconds, there is a dreamy weariness established with the Lydian-tinged opening that leads into the serious focus of the wide diminished pause before delivering the essential message with short, confident parallel intervals, finally resolving to a confirmed finish. In this brief passage, space, silence, harmony, and melodic intention recreate a moment experienced in midair 90 years ago.
Speaking with Melody
Something I often think about while listening to singers, or reading to myself out loud, is how often the rhythm of language repeats within a phrase. What I mean by this is that when I sing along to a song I like, I find that most melodies with lyrics repeat one note several times as part of the main melodic phrase. Usually this is due to syllables being fit into a musical rhythm. When I read aloud from a book or a poem, I notice that the melodic arc of the speaking voice does exactly the same thing.
Example 2 is the opening to my composition “The Plum for Courage,” inspired by Morrow’s meeting with a friend in Japan, described in a passage from her book North to the Orient. In this account of a layover during a survey flight through Asia, she has a conversation about symbolism and is told that the plum is a cultural representation of courage. Initially confused, she asks why, and is told that the symbolic reference for courage comes from the fact that plum trees blossom while there is still snow on the ground.
I thought about this a lot and wanted to figure out a way to imply Morrow’s perspective in this conversation within a miniature guitar piece. By saying “the plum for courage” out loud, I imagined hearing this as she would have, and I noted that my speaking pitch went “the[low]plum for cour– [higher and the same pitch]-age[low].”I did not want to replicate this melodic speech pattern exactly, as it would take me into more of a technical landscape and away from an emotive one.
However, I did want the piece to evoke the experience of hearing this beautiful phrase, so I decided to start with a rhythm that felt similar to speech, repeating a major third double-stop of G–B three times before changing pitch. I felt that, once more, the use of an open string in the middle of a moving chord voice would provide a dreamy, inquisitive feeling, so I opted to use an open G string between a lower fretted G and higher fretted D. Then, I moved this parallel fifth down a half step, to F# and C#, while keeping the G ringing in dissonance before temporarily resolving to an E minor voicing. In this opening, I use speech-like rhythm combined with parallel movements, dissonance, and temporary resolution to experience curiosity, wonder, and eagerness to hear what comes next.
Now let’s have a look at the entire composition (Example 3). In “The Plum for Courage,” I use a pick in coordination with my ring and middle fingers, but it could just as easily be played fingerstyle. This piece favors double-stop voicings in multiple passages, allowing for melodic focus in the delivery without big chords. Sometimes the lack of harmonic support can add to the effect of a melody, leaning instead on intention, dynamics, and tone to create impact. Perhaps the most important element of this music is to always consider, and respect, dead air. Allow notes to decay completely before moving to the next phrase. Creating a narrative in the solo guitar context depends on a deep connection to natural speech and train of thought. Allow space for these things as you compose.
Charlie Rauh is a guitarist-composer, producer, and engineer based in Queens, New, York.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.