Choosing and Arranging Solo Guitar Material

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.

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Hitting the Wall: Is it the End?

Every now and then we become over saturated with negativity that leads us to lose sight of why we do what we are called to do, make music.  Sometimes this can lead us to throwing our hands in the air and seriously contemplating quitting because we’ve lost our way and can’t seem to even be able to picture picking up the pieces.  Whether it’s dissatisfaction with our playing, a seemingly insurmountable roadblock, or an overwhelming sense of failure, it pushes us to say enough and start listing our instruments on ebay or craigslist.  This happens to many musicians somewhere along the line and usually coincides with a soul crushing realization that some dream or goal of ours is simply not going to happen.  It’s also usually accompanied by a massive period of depression and then a temporary relief when the decision to cease being a musician is made.  I say temporary because if being a musician and making music is truly your calling, you will discover that you need to do it, that you’re life has a distinct quality of emptiness without it, and that you have to get your fingers moving again because, damn it, that’s the only way life makes any sense to you.

In 1971 I started taking guitar lessons and launched my musical journey.  It has not been an easy one and I’ve hit the wall a couple of times.  The first time was when I graduated from music school and ended up in the US Army as an Infantry officer.  After five months of no music, I bought a guitar and took over as music director of a small choir for the church services at the chapel my fellow OCS candidates attended.  The second time was much later and involved selling off a relatively sizable bass stable that I had amassed in order to pursue a dream and then the opportunity vanished.  Within a year I was back in the saddle performing with blues bands again, walking and thumping along.

At this point in my life I have accepted the fact that I am a musician and will be as long as I can hold an instrument.  I know that might sound odd, but regardless of what comes along and regardless of where I am emotionally with my playing situations, band drama, booking conflicts, or the myriad of other pains in ass that come up, the fact remains that I am always more centered when I am actively making music in one way or another than I am when I’m not.

So how do we keep going as life moves along and we’re not “living the dream?”  We have to shift our focus from what was once perceived to be the big purpose, for most of us fame and fortune, and onto what really is our prime motivator, music and/or our instrument(s), while always ensuring that this is kept in our sight.  Yes, if the opportunity presents itself to go on tour and play the big halls with the serious paychecks, I’ll do it, gladly.  But if that never happens I’m still going to be playing until I’m no longer physically able to because it’s what I need to do.  The drive to perform and improve must come from inside, regardless of the external situation, and this is where we need to start building new goals and dreams.

Being a musician is a commitment, and if it is your calling it is a life-long pursuit studded with moments of awesomeness and moments of pain, just like life itself.  We all pretty much dream of becoming movers and shakers with our instruments, and at some point we lust for all the trappings of public success whether it’s as a Rock-n-Roll God/Goddess, a world class recitalist, or insert your dream here achiever.  In order to achieve those types of “success” one must have drive, a solid work ethic, ability, connections, focus, and a pretty large dose of luck.  Along with these, location is also pretty important, despite our having moved into the digital age.  There are vast numbers of stellar musicians who never hit the big time, but who are still actively pursuing their musical careers in one way or another.  Yes, we may have not succeeded in our “dreams,” but we have succeeded in being musicians, because we still are.  Don’t let episodes of negativity suck the life from your purpose in life.  When they hit, take them for what they are, indicators that something isn’t right.  If you need to take a break and step back from things to gain some perspective, take the time to do so.  Chances are you might be done with that particular chapter, but it might simply be time for another approach as opposed to closing the book entirely.