How to Create Compelling Accompaniments and Solos

Happy Traum demonstrates how to arrange accompaniment and guitar solos for old folk, blues, and gospel songs.

I first heard the traditional gospel song “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” several years ago, played and sung by the wonderful fingerstyle guitarist (and AG contributor) Mary Flower. We were sitting around swapping songs at a guitar camp, and I was struck by the positive, optimistic message that the song conveyed.

Although I hadn’t known the song before Mary showed it to me, a quick Google search revealed that it had been recorded by a bunch of great musicians over the years, including Reverend Gary Davis, Ry Cooder, and Jorma Kaukonen, as well as quite a few gospel choirs. I immediately went home and started working on my own fingerpicking arrangement, which ended up being the title track of my latest album. 

My take on “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” contains many of the arranging concepts I’ve used throughout my musical life—creating moving bass lines, looking for interesting and varied chord choices, adding guitar fills between vocal phrases, and more. In this lesson, I’ll explain how I do all that, culminating in a full 16-bar solo on the song. My hope is that you’ll be inspired by these ideas and will use them in your own fingerstyle composing and arranging. 


Strong Bass Lines and Interesting Chords 

For me, one of the secrets to getting a good arrangement is to keep a strong bass line going. I use a thumbpick to get a clear, strong sound on my low strings. A good bass line can suggest interesting ways to reharmonize basic progressions. For instance, Example 1 depicts the harmonic structure of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” in its most basic form. Rather than playing the C chord for the first four measures, I add the vi (Am), V/V (D7/F#), and V (G7), to get a nice moving bass line (C, A, F#, G, C), as shown in Example 2. (Note that in the video above, I use a capo at the second fret, causing the music to sound a whole step higher, in the key of D major.) 

Sometimes I look for opportunities to play chromatic bass lines for added spice, as in Example 3, based on bars 5–8 of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere,” moving in half steps from the first-fret F on the F chord to the third-fret G on the C chord. A nice passing chord, the jazzy F#dim7 (F# A C Eb) in bar 2 is very similar to the D7/F# in Ex. 1. The only difference is that it contains the first-fret Eb, rather than the open D string. Playing the C chord in bar 3 with the fifth (G) in the bass, rather than the root (C) is what allows me to get that chromatic bass movement here. 

I use that same chord progression in bars 9–11 of the form (Example 4). At the end of measure 11, I add an E7 with the fifth (B) in the bass, which leads smoothly to the Am in the following bar. I love using harmonic surprises like that. For the last line of the form (bars 13–16), I play something similar to Ex. 1, but with the chords falling in different places, starting with C/G, as depicted in Example 5. The most important thing in all of the above examples is to keep your thumb moving in steady quarters, as the bass line plays such an important role. 

Licks and Fills

To add sparkle to an arrangement, and to switch up the texture, I like to play a series of licks on the high strings in the spaces between the sung lines. There are numerous possible variations on this theme, and I try to mix them up to keep from sounding repetitious. Example 6 shows how I might approach bars 1–4 of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere,” coming out of the I (C) chord, and Example 7 does the same with bars 5–8. When you’re learning a song, I’d highly recommend coming up with your own treble runs and committing them to memory. That way, you’ll always have plenty of different options at hand, which can help your performance or recording sound fresh and inspired. 

Soloing Secrets

Example 8 ties together all of this lesson’s concepts—creating strong bass lines, reharmonizing progressions, and mixing and matching single note fills—with a full solo on the 16-bar form of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere.” I never play any solo exactly the same way twice; the transcription captures what I happened to improvise in the video demonstration, but it’s pretty representative of my approach. 


This solo is a bit more challenging than the other examples, as it moves between patterns in the open position and passages up the neck. In bars 5 and 9, for instance, I play the F chord in fifth position, with the fifth (A) as the lowest note; in bars 6 and 10, I fret a diminished seventh shape in seventh position for an Adim7, sliding it down to the fourth fret for F#dim7. (Interestingly, both of these chords share the same four notes: A, C, Eb, and F#/Gb.)

To get a good sense of some variations on this solo, be sure to listen to my album version, which I play a bit more uptempo. Then use the solos as templates for making this or any other traditional song your own. 

OK, now I’ve given away most of my secrets. I hope they help you, whether you’re learning “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” or creating arrangements of other traditional songs. Have fun!

Create Guitar Accompaniments and Solos for Traditional Songs with Happy Traum guitar lesson music notation sheet 1
Create Guitar Accompaniments and Solos for Traditional Songs with Happy Traum guitar lesson music notation sheet 2
Create Guitar Accompaniments and Solos for Traditional Songs with Happy Traum guitar lesson music notation sheet 3

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Happy Traum
Happy Traum

Happy Traum is a revered folk guitarist and educator from Woodstock, New York.

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