How To Write For Guitar So That Your Guitarist Loves You - Part 1
Scoring for guitar has its specifics given by the anatomy of the instrument and the way it is played. Piano-based composers therefore often have hard time writing for guitar in such a way that their music sounds idiomatic to the instrument, or worse, so that it's at all playable. This series of articles will hopefully help these composers better understand how to score for guitar so that a) guitarists love playing their music, and b) they save time and money in guitar recording sessions.
Guitar - A Transposing Instrument?
Let's talk about the simplest of the facts today, which, however, very often goes completely unnoticed: Guitar sounds one octave lower than written. Plus, it is always notated in treble clef.
There is no consensus among scholars on whether to call the guitar a transposing or a concert instrument. This is most likely due to the fact that, unlike the typical transposing instruments such as some woodwind or brass instruments, guitar remains on its transposed pitches even in a concert pitch full score (just like double bass, for example). For our practical purposes, however, this doesn't really matter. The fact to remember here is that guitar always sounds one octave lower than notated.
Too often have I been handed guitar parts in recording sessions, in which the music was notated at a concert pitch. While it shouldn't be a problem for any experienced guitarist to read an octave higher (we do it all the time when reading lead sheets), it doesn't make the sight-reading any more comfortable. Plus, if the music is intended to be played on the lower strings, it can become downright unreadable (or at least un-sight-readable).
For example, even though I am completely fluent with bass clef, reading a guitar part in bass clef would be a nightmare, especially in a live room. It's doable but it takes much longer time to get it right and the likelihood of reading errors goes up. Or let's say that you know that guitar is to be notated in treble clef but you forget about the transposition. Just recently, I was given such a guitar part. Well, good luck reading this note without having to stop playing to decode it first. :-)
Of course, because of the octave transposition, the correct way to notate it is the following:
As a composer or producer, it is always in your best interest to score in such a way that no time is wasted during a recording session or rehearsal, no matter what instrument you are writing for.
So, next time you compose a melody or accompaniment for guitar, make sure you notate it an octave higher than what you play on the piano. It's as simple as that! Here are two examples to help you:
As mentioned above, if you write orchestral music with guitar in it, please remember that, unlike woodwind or brass instruments, the guitar remains "transposed" even in a concert full score.
Where To Get Help
If you are unsure about the playability or readability of the guitar part that you have written, there is a very helpful Facebook group where you can have it checked. Or better yet, sign up for our free one-on-one guitar playability feedback session. We will be happy to check your score and point out any potential issues.
I hope that this short article has helped you understand one of the basics of scoring for guitar. If it is so, please like our Facebook page and follow us on Instagram for more tips just like this one.
In the coming articles, we'll tackle some other typical mistakes that many non-guitar-based composers make in their guitar scoring.