• Michal Šinka

How To Write For Guitar So That Your Guitarist Loves You - Part 5

One of the most typical characteristics of the guitar sound is the sustain effect, most often used with arpeggiations. An equivalent to the sustain pedal on the piano, it is created quite naturally by letting the vibrating strings ring out while playing new material on different strings. Today, we will have a look at how to score your compositional intensions regarding sustained notes correctly.

Right hand of a guitarist playing the strings of an acoustic guitar

The most important thing to keep in mind for you as a composer or arranger is that notes will only be able to sustain if there are no other notes on that string called for in the following material.

Another caveat here is that whether or not to let the notes sustain is most often an artistic choice of the guitarist themselves. Professional guitar players know well enough what they need to do based on the musical context. Nevertheless, there are ways to communicate your ideas to them clearly if you want them to do something specific. This will come especially handy in recording situations.

One Voice or Multiple Voices?

By writing the bass note of an arpeggio down in a separate voice with a longer rhythmic value, your intentions are immediately clear. The player will let the bass note ring out while they are playing the pitches above it. Provided that all the upper pitches are played on separate strings, they will most likely ring out as well (though they don't necessarily have to, in which case you should write something like "do not let ring" next to the passage). The following is an example of scoring an arpeggio with sustained notes.

A typical 4-part triadic arpeggio accompaniment
This type of arpeggio will automatically be played with sustained notes, no indication necessary.

On the other hand, if you write all the material in one voice, the passage will most likely be played without sustain. The player will try to avoid open strings (since their sustain is harder to control) and mute all previous notes by raising the fingers that fret them. If you want to make sure, indicate "do not let ring" above or below the passage. The following is an example of how to score a similar arpeggio as before, this time without the sustain effect.

Triadic guitar accompaniment in A minor
Based on this notation, the arpeggio will most likely be played without sustain, using only fretted notes and raising the fingers immediately once the pitch has been played.

Let It Ring

The previous example can easily be transformed into a sustained passage without having to add another voice. By indicating "let ring", "let vibrate" or "l.v." (stands for laissez vibrer) above or below the bar (with an additional line if valid for a short passage only), the arpeggios will be held out till the chord change, similarly to a pedal change on the piano.

Triadic guitar accompaniment in A minor
In this case, all fingers fretting the chord shapes will stay on the fingerboard for the entire bar. That way, all notes will be sustained.

Pro Tip: If you are a Sibelius user, use the "let ring" command to alter the playback of the music, so that it is played back correctly, i.e. sustained. You can even hide the command (Ctrl+Shift+H or Cmd+Shift+H) and the playback will still be correct (useful e.g. in the very first example above). Use the command "non-lv" to switch back to playback without sustain.

What NOT To Do

Whatever you do, avoid using any sort of ties in order to indicate sustained notes, as those will only result in making the music less legible!

A wrong way to notate sustained notes for the guitar

Instead, use one of the methods above - multiple voices or the let ring sign. An experienced player will know what they need to do and what the music needs.

Here is an example of a final chord arpeggio in a solo guitar arrangement of mine. Note the division between voices, making it clear that the bass note lasts till the very end of the last bar. Also note that there are no ties or anything of that kind, yet all the pitches will be sustained (since it makes sense musically). Let ring below or above the last bar could be used if you wanted to be absolutely sure but it really would be redundant. However, if for any reason you wanted the pitches of the upper voice to not be sustained, you would absolutely have to indicate it.

Correct notation of the final chord arpeggio

I hope that after reading this article, you have a clearer picture about how to correctly notate the sustain effect for the guitar. Should you have any questions about this topic or about any other guitar-related stuff, make sure to shoot us a message on Facebook or Instagram. Also, don't forget our free one-on-one guitar playability feedback if you need any advice on whether or not your guitar composition is playable easily.

Bonus Tip: If you compose orchestral music, too, you might enjoy this article about notating the "let vibrate" in Sibelius. The software playback part of it can be a nightmare though. Fortunately, there is a plugin that not only automatically notates the "let vibrate" correctly but at the same time it convinces Sibelius to play it back the way it should be played. Check it out!

#scoringforguitar #musiccomposition #musictheory