** As featured in issue 10 **
Having a Masters Degree in Composition I get asked many times about my approaches to composition, particularly writing for guitar, so I decided to write a short study piece and lesson for you to learn and analyse. This will provide a perfect opportunity to discuss a few simple but effective compositional ideas, which hopefully will stimulate your creative self.
Let’s start! Composition can be described in a nutshell as the art of choosing and blending notes, organising these into melodies, harmonies and rhythms, with awareness of structure, dynamics, textures and sense of direction. Just like a chef would choose the right ingredients for his recipes, using just the right amount of each, the composer will choose scales, modes, harmonies and rhythms with different stylistic connotation.
The work is more likely to be purposeful the more the composer understands the inherent quality of his chosen ingredients. In every art, aesthetic quality are as important as purpose, in other words making sure not only the melody, harmony and rhythms are satisfying but the orchestration and the performance have to give justice to the seminal composition, like a chef would know how to beautifully present a dish. To facilitate composers’ choosing task, many road-tested melodic, harmonic and rhythmic templates or clichés can be used. Some of these clichés have been used by our most celebrated predecessors and, no doubt, will be used for many years to come, in order to generate many other magnificent compositions.
The word cliché may carry negative connotations as it implies a repetitive use of an idea, which eventually will become unoriginal. However, in a broader sense, ideas are often recycled simply because these are great ideas. Furthermore, clichés are often seminal ingredients of a composition and definitely an integral part of any language, including the language of music. (This metaphor is incidentally another cliché!) The first cliché in this tune is the descending chromatic bass line, which has been used by countless composers from Chopin to Led Zeppelin in Stairway To Heaven! Another recurring idea is the use of particular harmonic resolutions or cadences, for example, the interrupted cadence in bar 12- 13, and the plagal or amen cadence in bar 24-25. You may want to research these topics for more inspiration and in order to expand your harmonic lexicon.
Let’s look at the meat-and-potatoes of the piece. It is in ¾, 3 beats per bar or in other words, one accent every three beats, and it gravitates around the key of Em (G). The picking hand pattern is as follows: p and a finger play the outer notes of each chord implied and the i and m finger fill the gap by playing the G and B string on beat 2. This pattern varies slightly to add variety of texture (bar 5, 13 etc), or to accommodate motivic variations (bar 15 etc) as shown in the video and as depicted in the PDF.
Fretting hand nomenclature: i.f. = index; m.f. = middle f: r.f. = ring f: l.f. = little f.
Bar 1: Beat 1: i.f. on fret 2 of D, l.f. on fret 3 of high E. Beat 2: Open G and B for held for 2 beats.
Bar 2: Beat 1: m.f. on fret 6 of A and l.f. fret 7 of E. Beat 2: i.f. on fret 5 of G. r.f. on fret 7 of B
Bar 3: Beat 1: Open D, m.f. fret 3 of E. Beat 2 open G and B.
Bar 4: Beat 1: r.f. fret 4 of A and open E. Beat 2: i.f. fret 2 of G and open B.
Bar 5: Beat 1: r.f. fret 3 of A and open E. Beat 2: fret 2 of D and open G. Beat 3: fret 1 of B and open E.
Bar 6: Beat 1: i.f. fret 2 of A. r.f. fret 3 of B. Beat 2: open D and G.
Bar 7: as bar 5
Bar 8: as bar 6
Bar 9: as bar 5
Bar 10: i.f. fret 2 of A. r.f. fret 3 of B. Beat 2: open D and G and fret 1 of B. Beat 3: open B
Bar 11: Beat 1: r.f. fret 5 of A. l.f fret 5 of D. i.f. fret 2 of G.
Bar 12: Beat 1: r.f. fret 5 of A. m.f. fret 4 of D. i.f. fret 2 of G.
Bar 13: Beat 1: i.f. on fret 2 of D, l.f. on fret 3 of high E. Beat 2 and 3: Open G and B.
Bar 14: Beat 1: m.f. fret 6 of A and l.f. fret 7 of E. Beat 2: i.f. fret 5 of G. r.f. fret 7 of B. Beat 3: i.f. (still in barre position) fret 5 of E.
Bar 15: Beat 1: Open D, i.f. fret 3 of E. Beat 2 open G and B and m.f on fret 5 of E. Beat 3: l.f. fret 7 of E.
Bar 16 till bar 22: as from bar 4 till bar 10.
Bar 23: Beat 1: r.f. fret 5 of A. l.f fret 5 of D. i.f. fret 2 of G. Beat 2 (up beat): m.f. fret 4 of D.
Bar 24: Beat 1: r.f. fret 3 of A. m.f. fret 2 of D and open G. Beat 2 (up beat): open D.
Bar 25 & 27: Beat 1: m.f. fret 3 of low E, open D, G, B. Beat 2: open D and G. Beat 3: open B and fret3 of B.
Bar 26 & 28: Beat 1: m.f. fret 3 of low E. i.f. fret 2 of B. Beat 2: i.f. fret 2 of G. Beat 3: i.f. fret 2 of D. (Barre on 2nd fret).
Bar 29: m.f. fret 3 of low E. Open D and G. Bar 30: m.f. fret 3 of low E. l.f. fret 4 of D. r.f. fret 3 of G. i.f. fret 2 of B and E.
If you are interested in composition, I recommend researching some of the salient harmonic ideas used in this composition such as modal interchange, diatonic and diminished substitutions, inversions, extended chords etc. Similarly, melodic ideas such as use of modes (N.B. Lydian mode in bars: 26 and 28) and motivic development (bar 15) I recommend playing the melody part first and then the bass line independently. Next, memorise small chunks of it, ideally one bar at the time. Whether you will play this study piece on a steel strung or a nylon-strung guitar, make sure that, both, the melody line as well as the bass line are as sustained as possible, for a fluid outcome.
Furthermore, the harmony should be quieter than the melody. As recommended in the previous columns, focus on accuracy and consistency of tone. Strategies to further develop include the use of the planting technique described in the previous columns, resting our fingers onto the chosen strings, and executing each stroke with a controlled and even pressure and with tonal and dynamic awareness. Each note we play should sound as full-bodied and as good as the previous one. I hope you will enjoy playing this study piece and that this will give you some ideas on how to write your own solo guitar compositions.
Till the next time, Good-bye!