When it comes to choosing and arranging material for solo guitar I’m quite eclectic in my tastes. Some folks have lines that they adhere to and seldom stray from a fixed perspective or type of musical genre. However, from my perspective anything and everything is fair game. In fact the genre in itself is rarely a consideration. I love and listen to all sorts of different styles of music from roots to classical, blues to jazz, from alt rock, to glam to prog rock, folk to a veritable a to z of musical genres. It’s all fair game.
Recently in addition to dusting off Villa-Lobos’ Preludes 3 & 4, I have started working on a new arrangement of a pop tune, while concurrently working through a couple others that have been under development for some time. I used to do this by sitting down with an instrument, some staff paper and a pencil, but I have moved away from this in favor of building gradual muscle memory, as well as a more improvisational approach. My memory starts keeping what seems to work best as I work through things, particularly since I’m working with tunes that I can essentially listen to in my head due to familiarity with them. Currently I’m working developing fingerstyle arrangements of “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, and “Reelin’ In the Years” from Steely Dan. I’m also working out “Birdland” by Joe Zawinul, which I had done a solo bass version of some time ago in E major, but am now working out in drop D on the guitar. I also have “Tom Sawyer” by Rush on the back burner, which I keep going back and forth on.
I seem to work best with this sort of thing when I’m working on multiple tunes at a time. While it might seem counterproductive in terms of time to completion, it keeps the process fresh for me and the reality of it is that even if I deem a piece to be performance ready today, it’ll probably be a bit different in a performance six months down the road. What I end up focusing on primarily is the structure of each piece, building a skeleton for the details to fill in later. It’s a gradual process that allows the pieces to develop and fill out as they may. I’ve found that if I lay out the essentials of the form, I will get from the beginning to the end with the bulk of what happens in between making sense. I’m also not necessarily a stickler when it comes to working note for note arrangements. I take liberties, sometimes cutting parts, other times adding things in, and sometimes playing it somewhat straight.
Some of the tunes I’ve worked with end up becoming pretty stabile and almost scripted from start to finish. My version of “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” by Steely Dan is one of these. I’ve run this piece for several years now and it’s pretty much settled into what it’s going to be from here on, with a few minor variations. Others are set up to be more of on the spot improvisational bases, like what I’ve been working on with a theme “It’s a Gift to be Simple” which I sometimes run into a brief rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” These types of arrangements leave a lot of room to play around with some portions clearly planned and others open to spontaneity. The plus side is that it can sometimes work very well; the negative, if you’re going to crash and burn this is where it’ll happen.
The most important things that I consider when I choose material to work with are that it must speak to me, and it must end up being something that I’m going to be happy working with for an extended period of time. If these two criteria don’t work then I won’t pursue the piece. I’d rather invest the time on something that is going to run the distance. The next thing that matters is can I work it into something that will stand on its own primarily as a solo guitar piece. I like to sing, and I will sing, but it’s not my strongest ability, so it needs to be something that can work as an instrumental. After that, the last questions are can I make it work physically on the instrument, and can I make it be music and not simply a flashy technical exercise.
This approach suits me well, holds my interest and keeps me focused. Some arrangements fall together easily and take a surprisingly short amount of time to do so. Others take quite a bit longer while some simply don’t work out. If it’s something that I really want to do but I can’t seem to figure out how to, it goes on the back burner and gets cycled in and out for fresh attempts. If I work out an arrangement but lose the groove, it gets recycled until the groove works. If I can’t make it move, I don’t do it. While this approach might seem too gradual to some folks, and too scattered to others, it works well for me because for one thing it lowers my frustration levels with the process to almost nil, thus helping me stay relaxed and receptive to working with the tunes. It also suits my ability to concentrate. I end up with short bursts of hyper-focus that play out over a longer period than I can pull off focusing on only one thing.
One of the things that I’ve discovered over the years is that everyone has his or her own process that works. The one thing that they do have in common, however, is that these processes only work when they are applied. It might seem like a no shit statement, but you have to put in the time to make things work. Inspiration is great, but it’s more likely to happen when you have the instrument in hand, building something already. This is why I prefer to do arrangements of pieces that I already have some sort of relationship with, or find new pieces to build a relationship with before actually creating the arrangement. Half the battle in producing repertoire is figuring out what the process is that suits you best in choosing, creating and arranging the pieces you’re going to perform. Once you have a clear understanding of how this works best for you, your workflow on your project can be optimized, getting you up and running to your next gig with your new material much more efficiently, and with a whole lot less suffering to boot.