The acoustic guitar really is a remarkable instrument. In the most capable hands, it can sound as rich and dynamic as a grand piano—though it’s considerably more portable. True, it’s most often used to accompany a singer or to play a lead line, yet there have always been exceptional guitarists who’ve devised ways to play melodies and accompaniment parts at the same time. The best of the best—players such as Tommy Emmanuel and Laurence Juber—make it look just easy enough to make you think, “Hey, I wanna do that!” If you’ve ever tried to compose or arrange music for solo guitar, however, you know it’s no simple task. But, like anything else on the instrument, it’s achievable with a little guidance and some hours of dedicated practice.
In this month’s Weekly Workout, you’ll learn a few fundamental solo-guitar concepts that will get you started and leave you with enough tools to continue developing at your own pace. If you don’t already own a metronome (or metronome app), make sure to get one ASAP. Practicing in time is one of the most important steps toward building a strong solo-guitar style.
One final caveat: While lots of solo-guitar music is composed and played in alternate tunings, the examples in this Weekly Workout lesson are all in standard, to ensure that these concepts are accessible to all players. That said, much of what you’ll learn here is transferrable to a variety of tunings.
As you begin to explore the guitar as a solo instrument, keep in mind that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. Composers have been penning solo-guitar music for centuries, so there’s plenty of literature to draw inspiration from. Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909) and Fernando Sor (1778–1839) are two of the most renowned composers for the instrument—and they were virtuoso guitar players as well.
Though both Tárrega and Sor wrote elaborate works, they also penned simpler etudes, accessible to players at beginning to intermediate levels. Both took full advantage of the guitar’s tuning and fretboard layout to achieve beautiful effects that don’t require knuckle-busting technique. You should get a few such pieces under your belt and learn from these masters.
Example 1 is an excerpt from the Sor study Op. 60, No. 8, in the key of C major. You needn’t strictly follow classical-guitar protocols as you play this. Minding a couple of conventions regarding picking-hand fingers, however, may be helpful: Notes on strings 4–6 are nearly always played with the thumb; notes on strings 1–3 are nearly always played with the ring, middle, and index fingers, respectively. (The last measure illustrates an exception to this, as the open G is to be played with the thumb.)
Example 2 comes from Tárrega’s lovely “Adelita,” in E minor. As with the previous example, this piece lays nicely on the instrument in its original key—and wouldn’t make nearly as much guitaristic sense in any other key. (Note Tárrega’s employment of the open fifth and sixth strings as bass notes in bars 1 and 2, as well as the open first and second strings in the arpeggio in bar 4). Sustain a full barre at the seventh fret throughout bar 3.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Playing fingerstyle (as opposed to flatpicking) may be the most effective technique for solo guitar. If you’re new to fingerstyle playing and want to fortify your chops, Mauro Giuliani’s classic 120 Studies for Right Hand Development is a great primer.
Jazz can provide wonderful opportunities for solo-guitar arrangements, because the genre offers so much harmonic leeway. Standards, or old familiar songs, can be completely reimagined using fresh sounds from a player’s chordal vocabulary. Many venerated solo guitarists—including Lenny Breau and Ted Greene—built their reputations largely on inventive voicings. Still, as any serious jazzbo knows, a little goes a long way when it comes to hip five- and six-note voicings—because such grips can be cumbersome to play and tiring on the ears if overused.
Example 3a is based on the first eight bars of the jazz evergreen “All the Things You Are.” The harmonization choices here are on the lush side. Once you’ve played Ex. 3a several times and can smoothly move from chord to chord, try Example 3b—a barebones harmonization of the same melody. There aren’t even complete seventh-chord voicings here—just a skeletal version of the original melody (the top line from Example 3a) supported by the root note of each chord. Example 3b may look austere on the printed page, but this two-voice melody-over-root approach can be very effectual—and not just for jazz. Try it with one of your favorite melodies, in any style.
If your ears are hankering for some richer sounds, play Example 3c, which splits the difference between Ex. 3a and 3b. Now you’ve got the melody note, the root, and either the third or seventh of the chord—whichever is missing. For example, in bar 1, an Eb is added. It’s the seventh of Fm7—chosen because the original melody note, Ab, is the third of that chord. In bar 2, a Db is added to Bbm7. Here, the melody note is the fifth of the chord, so you could fill things out with Ab (the seventh) or Db (third). Either choice would work, but Db makes the most sense when you look at the whole progression. It keeps the middle voice on a more even trajectory, bar by bar.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Being able to groove convincingly at any tempo is an essential skill for solo-guitar playing. Temper your time sense by spending at least 50% of each practice session playing along with a metronome, drum loop, or other reliable beat keeper.
In this week’s lesson, you’ll focus the basics of Merle Travis–style fingerpicking in all five open-position major keys (C, A, G, E, and D). (For more on Travis picking see Jamie Stillway’s lesson in the December 2017 issue of AG.) Travis—in case you don’t happen to know—was a popular singer, songwriter, and guitarist, active from the 1940s until his death in 1983. Today, he’s best known for his namesake syncopated picking approach, which he himself played with just two digits—his thumb (equipped with a plastic thumbpick) and index finger. Some guitarists find it easier to play Travis style with a bare thumb (no thumbpick) and two fingers (index and middle). Whichever technique works for you is fine, so long as you play with some oomph.
Before tackling these patterns, take a moment to consider why these five keys are particularly effective for solo-guitar arrangements. It’s because at least three open strings are native to each key. The open strings can be used to sustain notes in low, middle, and high registers, lending the guitar a more pianistic quality. Such effects are possible in other keys, but they fit most naturally in the five mentioned above. C, A, G, E, and D are especially utile for solo guitar, so you’ll be practicing two picking patterns based on these chords.
Example 4a shows one common Travis-style picking pattern. The thumb’s job is to play steady quarter notes—either alternating between the root and a higher chord tone (perhaps root-3-root-3) or else playing the root, then a higher chord tone, then a fifth below the root, and finally back to the higher tone (root-3-5-3, for example). While the bass line is maintained with the thumb, the index and middle fingers usually play melodies in syncopated rhythms offset from the bass line. When you first practice Travis-style patterns, it’s best to play repetitive melodic figures featuring just a couple of notes. As you grow more adept at this style, you’ll find that you can modify these generic patterns so you can play familiar melodies.
Note that the bass line (the down-stemmed notes, in steady quarters) alternates between the root (C) of the chord and the available chord tone on the fourth string. You’ll see this approach in the next three figures (Examples 4b–d). Things are a little different in Example 4e, because the root of the D chord is played on the fourth string, hence the alternating chord tone will be played on the third string. The tempo indicated for these five examples—and the five that follow—is 152 bpm. That’s pretty brisk. Work up to it gradually, using a metronome to steady your pace.
The pattern that serves Examples 5a–5e is different in three significant ways. First, in Examples 4a–4e, there’s an eighth-note rest at the beginning of each bar—whereas there’s no rest here. Second, the melody notes (up-stemmed) in this picking pattern alternate from high to low—the opposite of the previous pattern. Finally, on beats 1 and 3, the bass line is alternating between the root and fifth in Examples 5a, 5b, 5d, and 5e. (Example 5c is the exception to this, because the bass line in a G-chord shape is already root-5-root-5.)
Travis picking isn’t the only way to add drive to your solo-guitar tunes and arrangements, but it’s relatively easy to get a handle on it and the technique is adaptable to a wide variety of styles. It’s an easy fit for country-blues. Make sure to try it someplace unexpected as well—like a jazz or rock song.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Once you think your composition or arrangement is finished, go back through it once more to see if any noncore elements can be stripped away. The simpler your arrangement, the more you can concentrate on the nuances of performance.
In this final workout, you’ll put all of the previous week’s lessons to use. The first four bars of Example 6 incorporate the less-is-more jazz-chord concept from Week Two—that is, the familiar melody is supported only by the root note of each chord plus the chord’s third or seventh. As you saw earlier, this approach is uncomplicated yet effective.
The next section of Example 6 is played with the Travis-style picking you studied in Week Three. The modulation in bar 5 to the key of A major from G lets the melody and chords ring out while the alternating bass line chugs below. The bass walkups in both endings are a tip of the hat to Merle Travis himself and to Chet Atkins as well.
The final eight-bar passage of Example 6 is stylistically akin to the Sor piece from Week One. There’s less rhythmic activity here compared to the previous section, but the melody and accompanying parts are clear and sweet. This classical-like setting is not terribly different from the jazz approach, in that the chord forms are once again built by supporting the melody with chordal roots. One difference is that the harmony in this section is mostly triadic (except for A7, D7, and G7/B). Another difference is that the bass line (down-stemmed notes) moves a little more independently and has its own melodic integrity—rather than merely being a byproduct of playing the root at the bottom.
There’s no Week Five lesson—there never is—but if there were it would be this: Go out and get yourself a weekly solo-guitar gig. Putting in practice time at home is absolutely essential, but if you’re serious about playing solo guitar, start doing it for real, in public, as soon as possible. The first few gigs may be rough, but keep at it and keep learning as you go. If your groove needs more work, you’ll know on the gig because no one’s toes will be tapping. If your harmonizations are overwrought, you’ll know on the gig because you’ll find yourself fumbling over awkward grips that obscure the melody. When folks start tapping their toes and humming along without even realizing it, then you’ll know you’re onto something.
Beginners’ Tip #4
If learning to play standalone guitar is your goal, stay inspired by feeding your ears a steady diet of compelling solo-guitar recordings—everything from classical (perhaps Julian Bream) to ragtime (Blind Blake is a great place to start) to contemporary fingerstyle (Jon Gomm, for example).
Take It to the Next Level
Throughout this Weekly Workout series, all of the examples have been in the five keys (C, A, G, E, and D) most naturally suited to the open strings of the guitar (in standard tuning). Open strings can be exploited in other keys as well, of course, as this final example in Eb clearly demonstrates. The melody here is taken from the chorus of the Civil War–era song “Aura Lea.” It’s easy enough to find use for strings 3 and 4 (G and D) in this key, as you’ll see in bars 1 and 2. A little more surprisingly, the second string is also used in this example, in bars 3 and 4—as Cb, not B.
Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Lisa Loeb, Amos Lee, and Ani DiFranco, among others. He is also the founder of Guitar Tips Pro. guitartipspro.com.
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