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5 Reasons Why Composers Avoid Writing for the Most Popular Instrument: The Guitar (And What to Do About It)

5 Reasons Why Composers Avoid Writing for the Most Popular Instrument: The Guitar (And What to Do About It)

“Although composers avoid the guitar for complicated reasons, the answer to fix the problem is simple.”

Dr. Jonathan L. Smith
Dr. Jonathan L. Smith
“It is almost impossible to write well for the guitar unless one is a player oneself. Yet most composers who use it are far from any familiarity with it and write things of unnecessary difficulty with no sonority or effect.” -Hector Berlioz

Fact: Non-guitarist composers fear the guitar.

Let's discuss why.

But first, here’s a review of the guitar’s most basic characteristics:

  • On average, the guitar has 6 strings and 19 frets.
  • The pitch range (tessitura) is about 3 and a half octaves.
  • It comes in many shapes, sizes, and types.
  • The strings can be tuned in a variety of ways, absent of standard tuning.
  • It can be plucked or strummed with the fingers or a pick.
  • Between 1 and 6 notes can be produced monophonically, homophonically, polyphonically, and contrapuntally.
  • Did you know sound can occur without the plucking hand?
  • If it’s an acoustic guitar, a player can “drum” on it and make interesting resonances.
  • If it’s an electric guitar, the original sound is often coupled with effects like delay, reverb, and overdrive. Did you know there’s a device called an E-bow?
  • There are cool guitar techniques like: slide, glissando, hammer-on, pull-off, arpeggio, vibrato, tremolo, tremolando, rasgueado, portamento (did we go to Italy?), golpe, pizzicato, tasto, battuto (that’s a word?), etc.

Well, that escalated quickly.

Composers may know the mechanics but when it comes to how to create the sound, no one knows better than the guitarist.

Guitar music can be (both) simple and complex. To write intelligible guitar music, the composer needs to understand the basics and what it can or cannot do. In addition, the composer may need to know how much the player can handle. In either case, a guitar part may appear underdeveloped or too complex for the average guitar player.

Time to demystify.

Below are 5 (of many) reasons why composers dislike writing for our most familiar instrument, the guitar.


1. The Guitar is “Too Complex”

Composers opt out of writing guitar music because it’s tough to get it just right. As seen in the list above, the variability can be overwhelming. What other instruments can you play the same pitch in three different locations?

This is why a trusted partnership between composer and guitarist is the best way to learn the craft.

A partnership between composer and guitarist is useful when a composer may have difficulty translating what they want to hear into notation.

From my research, guitarists ask composers to write what they hear in their head and the guitarist will then edit to make it work. It's more than a collaboration, it’s a partnership.

Composer’s solution: Listen to players you like and recognize their gestures. As long as you can describe what you hear, the words will eventually turn into notation.

Guitarist’s solution: Help the composer translate those words to better symbols.

2. No One Taught Them How (At Least Not Correctly)

“There are even some books which include the guitar but so inadequately that its exclusion would have been more helpful because then, the composer would not have been misled by inaccuracies and omissions.” -Ivor Mairants

Advice is subjective, particularly by those who show us how to create art. So, who is qualified to teach guitar writing?

In Samuel Adler’s 2002 textbook The Study of Orchestration, the guitar is featured in only 2 of 839 pages. I would be a disappointed composition student if this was my source for writing guitar music. Granted, this is a textbook on “orchestration.” But, if I wanted to include electric guitar in a smashing blockbuster film, I wouldn't learn how to do it from this book.

Unfortunately, guitar music is avoided in composition degree programs. This must change. How? Initiate more collaborative work between composition and guitar students. Who benefits? Everyone. Including the composition professor.

Composer’s solution: Learn from recordings throughout multiple genres. If available, study with and without the written score.

Guitarist’s solution: Find composers and offer to help them with a guitar part, for free. (More on why later.)

3. No Time to Figure It Out

Composers do not feel writing guitar music will be time well spent.

Like any skill, it takes time to develop. The “difficult” parts will become easier with repetition. Consequently, your best reward will come by the quality at which you practice. (See more from an article by Buffer about quality vs. quantity and how it relates to the myelin in our neurochemistry).

A composer will not feel encouraged unless they can hear (and see) the possibilities. With some guidance, a compatible guitarist can teach them techniques to transform their writing.

Composer’s solution: Begin light and simple. If you're unsure, write chord symbols and words describing what you want.

Guitarist's solution: If you make edits to a score, write it out with explanations and give it back the composer. He or she will learn quickly and you'll be doing a good deed.

4. Who’s Going to Play It?

This question is controversial. The world has a dense “professional” pool of exceptionally gifted and…not-so-gifted guitarists.

Just because someone can play Van Halen’s Eruption doesn't mean they can play Lopez’s Remember Me from Coco.

Musicians are like medical doctors. Each have a speciality and then may also have subspecialties. Comparatively, if a guitarist does not normally play classical guitar, they may not know the nuances which make this type of instrument sound authentic. The same goes for other types of guitars such as electric and steel-string, as well as genres like classical, rock, jazz, folklore, etc.

What makes a good guitarist? First, the player must have a good grasp on the genre being written. Second, the guitarist needs to be a good collaborator. Lastly, the guitarist needs to be a competent improviser.

Pro-Tip: Composers beware. An orchestra is often a foreign place for a guitarist. Make sure to indicate that great communication among the player, composer, conductor, and production manager is crucial for all to understand the guitarist’s role. We don't want the electric guitar turned up to 11.

Composer's solution: Ask friends about the guitarist and give an interview. You'll be thankful.

Guitarist’s solution: Remain highly sensitive. Understand the situation. Be a team player. And most importantly, be honest with your capabilities.

5. Familiar Bias

It makes sense. Composers will write more for instruments they know best.

Fast working composers, particularly for film and TV, need to write quickly and have readable parts for musicians to record. Writing for and nailing down a trustworthy guitarist may not be a familiar activity and is consequently (often) avoided.

Exposure to ideas will influence creation. But, a craving for more will spark innovation.

“Beethoven began his career under the influence of the Classical composers, particularly Haydn, but during his lifetime he transformed this heritage into the foundation of a new musical practice that was to become known as Romanticism. The Classical composers for the most part attempted to orchestrate with a sense of grace and beauty. Beethoven occasionally made deliberate use of new, intense, often even harsh orchestral sounds. He also, in his later symphonies, augmented the orchestra with a piccolo, contrabassoon, and third and fourth horn. The Ninth Symphony has one passage calling for triangle, cymbals, and bass drum, a combination identified with the imitations of Turkish Janissary music in vogue in previous years.”

Beethoven expanded the orchestra’s tonal palette with “modern” instruments and unfamiliar sounds. He was one of the first composers to use valved horns and voices in a symphony! I think his innovation worked well for Symphony No. 9.

Ode to Beethoven’s creativity and courage.

Composer's solution:

  1. Listen to a number of records and find the guitar sound you like.
  2. Give it a try with a simple guitar composition.
  3. Repeat.

Guitarist's solution: Make guitar playing more transparent and relatable to different types of composers. Send recordings to them and ask if they've ever written anything like it (to start, find a similar genre to what the composer normally writes). Maybe you’ll influence the next Concierto de Aranjuez.


Conclusion

Although composers avoid the guitar for complicated reasons, the answer to fix the problem is simple:

Composers and guitarists must work together. It will cultivate a community where guitar music is written, expressed, and produced in the most effective ways.

If you're a composer, find a guitarist. If you're a guitarist, find a composer.

Because of you, the art of guitar writing will be less of a mystery.


Dedication

I’d like to dedicate my first “official” blog entry to one of my favorite guitarists of all time, Julian Bream. His influence on composers to write new guitar pieces is one to be honored and studied throughout music history. Without him, we would not have significant guitar works by legendary (non-guitarist) composers such as Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, or William Walton. Thank you, Mr. Bream, and may you Rest In Peace.

Listen and watch this YouTube playlist containing a few of my favorite videos of Julian Bream.

📸 @takashi1969 via Twenty20