How to Craft Dynamic Song Arrangements on Acoustic Guitar
Think of how a full band arrangement of a song might unfold. Perhaps a lone guitar and voice carry the first verse, and then bass and drums kick in; more instruments and voices join to lift up the chorus; the intensity continues to build, before releasing with a sparse final verse; and a big chorus takes it home. Like the song itself, the arrangement is its own little journey.
Even if you’re accompanying a song with one guitar, you can create that same kind of journey on your instrument. The key is using dynamics, which come as much from what you leave out as what you play. If a band kicked off a song with every possible instrument playing full blast, there’d be nowhere to go but down in terms of volume and intensity, and the same is true of a single guitar part: if you start out playing all thick chords as hard as you can, you’ve boxed yourself in. By contrast—and the operative word here is contrast—a dynamic arrangement leaves space for the sound to get bigger or smaller, and evolve over the course of the song.
This lesson applies the dynamic arranging approach (further developed in my AG book/video Beyond Strumming) to the traditional song “Wayfaring Stranger.” Each week you’ll practice creating varied textures and grooves over the same chord progression. I’ve based the examples on a performance of the song by my duo Pepper and Sassafras (with guitar and clarinet).
If you’re not familiar with the haunting folk/gospel song “Wayfaring Stranger,” check out the lead sheet below. The song repeats the same 32-bar form throughout, using Em, Am, and B7 chords in the first section and adding C and G in the second section.
Example 1 shows how the arrangement starts, up through the first verse. In the first three measures, play a short chord-melody intro using up-the-neck voicings of Am(add9) and B11 for a lush, jazzy sound. (In the duo version, the clarinet plays the intro melody and I just strum chords.) And then, in measure 3 (not counting the pickup measure), strip your part down to the bare minimum: a quarter-note pulse on the open sixth string. Add a little bit of palm muting if you wish. For the octave E in measure 3, fret the fifth string with your third finger. A lyric cue shows where the singing enters.
Opening the song like this, as if just the bassist were playing while the rest of the band sits out, creates an intimate feeling and invites an audience to lean in as the story begins: “I am a poor wayfaring stranger . . . ”
When you go to Am in measure 9, fret the bass note on the sixth string. With your third finger at the seventh fret, your first finger is right in position for this.
Starting in measure 13, thicken your part slightly by adding some more octave Es over the Em chord—as a bass player might do—and also a quick F# over the B7 chord in measure 18. Note that the octave riff falls between lines of lyrics, to give the vocal the full spotlight.
When the progression shifts to C, in measure 21, continue the accompaniment similarly: mostly quarter-note bass notes with occasional touches of other chord tones. On the B7 in measure 28, slide up the third string for an understated end to the phrase. Only in the next bar do you start adding a few soft strums, using open-string chord shapes up the neck for Em and Am(add9). For the B7 in measure 34, fret the third and fifth strings with a first-finger barre, and the fourth string with your third finger.
When the second verse arrives, it’s time to ramp up a bit. Bring in the drummer: switch to the more rocking groove in Example 2, using the octave and the seventh (the note D on Em and G on Am) and adding a percussive punch to the backbeats, as indicated with the accent marks (>). The edgier sound is right in sync with the lyrics: “I know dark clouds will gather ’round me.”
When you arrive at the second section with the move to C, notice that you’re now playing fuller chord voicings than in the first pass. The sound is slowly building as the story and song unfold.
For the last section of this verse, with the progression Em–Am–B7–Em (not shown in the notation), go back to playing something similar to the stripped-down pattern used at the end of Example 1, in measures 29 to 36.
So where to go from here in the arrangement? In the duo performance, after the second verse comes an instrumental solo (for more about that, see “Take It to the Next Level.” But this week, let’s go to the final verse, when it’s time to break away from the drone bass.
Example 3 shows the basic accompaniment pattern used in the third verse over Em and Am. On both chords, play a bass note on beat 1, a full strum on beat 2, and then either a quarter-note (down) or eighth-note (down-up) strum on beat 4. For Em, use the same fifth-position chord shape as before. Instead of an Am, use the more harmonically open Asus2, a voicing that fits the eerie mood well. At this point in the song, the guitar and vocals are at full intensity—in essence, the full band has kicked in, with a big backbeat.
Example 4 shows one way to play the Am–B7–Em changes in this climactic verse. For the B7, add in the open first string to make it a B7sus4. Then, on the second half of the verse, start using an alternating bass, as shown in Example 5. Since you’ve played a monotone bass up to this point in the song, this change to alternating has a real impact—it gives the progression a whole different type of momentum. On the G chord, throw in a little single-note bass riff, too, for additional movement. Again, because of the restraint of the guitar part in earlier verses, these new developments make a dramatic contrast.
After the song reaches its climax in verse three, the last piece of the arrangement is the closing line and tag: “I’m only going over Jordan” followed by three repetitions of “I’m only going over home.” At this point, strip the guitar back down to a sparse pattern similar to what you played at the top, with the monotone bass and just a few light strums, as shown in Example 6.
Just for a subtle variation, the first four measures of Ex. 6 use a slightly different voicing of Em than elsewhere. Play this whole section softly, bringing listeners close again. In the last four measures, over the ritard, return to the chord shapes you started with: Am(add9) and B11, and then a final Em11. The arrangement is literally coming full circle, as the narrator sings of “going home.”
When you’re working on your own guitar arrangements, think about ways to create this kind of dramatic arc during a song. You don’t necessarily have to start quietly and get louder, but work on varying the textures to differentiate the sections from each other and to create growth and change in the song. Take your cue from the lyrics, and think of the guitar as not just providing the rhythm but telling a story.
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
One great way to enhance your guitar arrangements is to add an instrumental break or riffs based on the melody. With “Wayfaring Stranger” in the key of E minor, it’s pretty straightforward to play the melody while keeping the rhythm and harmony going. Just be sure to hit the appropriate root bass note on the first beat when the chord changes, to establish the new chord. This example shows the first four bars to get you started. Try picking out the rest of the melody from here.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, the founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is author of the recent AG Guide Beyond Strumming. jeffreypepperrodgers.com
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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