Andre Segovia once said, “The guitar is a small orchestra. It is polyphonic. Every string is a different colour, a different voice.” Except to guitarists, it may be somewhat difficult to understand what he meant, but it's essential to understanding how to write music for the guitar!
The most important impact on playability is the way what you’re writing will be fingered. Try to avoid writing a measure that crosses path. That means each measure should go either up or down, but never both, especially if you are having a note held out for the measure or two. Also, remember that the guitar has two E strings two octaves apart. That makes playing double octaves and anything in the middle of the octave easily played.
What capabilities does the guitar have? This section assumes the guitar player to be of average skill.
A good guitarist will often work for countless hours to perfect arpeggios, because they bring a great effect to the music. When writing arpeggios for the guitar keep in mind that the guitarist must free stroke the arpeggios. The reason for this is that the standard rest stroke would stop the string above the string played to stop ringing, and unless you want that, the arpeggio will be free stroked.
Harmonics are played differently than normal pitches. Instead of stopping the string on a fret, a harmonic is played by pushing on the string enough to stop it, but not enough for it to make contact with the fret board. This allows the entire string to vibrate, as opposed to only that part below the fret in normal playing. Taking your finger off of the string immediately after plucking it allows the harmonic to ring out more freely.
Harmonics can be played at virtually any point on the strings, even in between some frets, however the lowest and simplest harmonics in the strings overtone series will always sound the most strong and clear. For instance, the 12th fret is the place of the 2nd harmonic (or 1st overtone) and has the strongest harmonic (that which sounds one octave higher than the open string. Other strong harmonics can also be found on the 5th, 7th, and 9th frets. Harmonics, however, are not necessarily the same pitch as the fret it is sounded on. For example, the 7th fret harmonic sounds an octave and a perfect 5th higher than if the note were played normally. The best way to write for harmonics is to do so with a guitar in hand.
Here is the key to how harmonics sound:
- 12th fret: octave
- 7th or 19th fret: octave and fifth
- 5th or 24th fret: two octaves
Arguably the most difficult technique in the classical guitar repertoire, tremolo is also one of the most beautiful effects in a classical guitarist's arsenal. A classical guitar tremolo (not to be confused with a flamenco tremolo) involves the guitarist playing a bass note and then three rapid notes above it. This technique is difficult to describe in words but you can grasp the concept fairly quickly if you check out some of the Youtube videos on the subject.
Arpeggios are similar on both the electric guitar and classical guitar. But, most electric guitarists will tend to sweep pick the chord. If you do not want to have it sweep picked than make it clear that it should be picked.
Barre chords are chords that require the guitarist to place his or her index finger on two or more strings at once. When writing a barre chord remember the index figure will hold onto more than one note so you can write for more than 4 notes at a time; even 6, if you want. To avoid the index finger from moving, remember to keep the ring/pinkie finger in a 4 to 5 fret range from the index finger.
This is not limited to merely the electric guitar. In classical guitar, a barre chord is used instead of a capo for easier mobility.
Harmonics on electric guitar work the same way as they do on classical guitar. The only difference is that amplification on electrics make weaker harmonics more viable.
A specific kind of harmonic that, while can be used with some success on an acoustic guitar, is widely used on the electric guitar; specifically with a "distorted" sound. A pinch harmonic is created by sort of "catching" the string between pick and thumb. If done properly, it creates a very distinctive "squeal" effect which is widely utilized in the metal genre. The technique is generally used on the bottom E string as it is both easier to do and creates a sound that is not unbearably high. The pitch itself is somewhat unreliable and can vary largely on where exactly the guitarist decides to "catch" the string.
When writing a legato passage for guitar, keep all the notes very close to each other. Large jumps or even medium-size jumps ruins the flow of the legato. When writing a slur, it is important to remember that this is played by leaving one's finger off of one note and then slamming it down onto another note. It’s hard to keep a slur going on for a long time so try to make the slurs a short to medium-size phrase.
Always assume the guitarist will use Vibrato when holding out notes longer than a half note. Don’t bother writing it in, but if you don’t want a vibrato somewhere make sure that it is clear in the music. Playing without vibrato is sometimes referred to as "white tone".
Sweep picking is when the guitarist drags his pick up or down the guitar, without lifting it up at all and simply letting it drag. The fingers move with the pick and never stay down once the pick passes its string. It's a very difficult technique, so not all guitarists will be able to do it well.
The bend is a very useful tool for songwriting. The guitar can bend a note anywhere from a half step to 2 whole steps with good intonation. Larger bends are possible, but increasingly less practical.
An extended bending technique is called a fretboard bend, which bends the string off the fretboard, making it possible to bend the note to an extreme.
A common technique when writing a bend is to have a note be played on the B string and have the note on the E string bend to the octave higher than that note, causing an illusion of dual harmony.
Another common trick that is used with bending is to fret a major or minor second and then bend the lower note to the same pitch as the higher note causing a distinct unison-like effect. This trick is generally possible on every string except the two bottom most strings and is especially common the G and B strings.
Bending is not limited to the string on the fretboard. Bending above the nut allows for bending of open strings. Pressure on the neck both towards and away from the performer, though bad for the instrument, is possible as well, and will allow bending both up and down without the use of a whammy bar.
Another thing to be mindful of when writing for an electric guitar is the presence of effect pedals (otherwise known as "stomp boxes"). Effect pedals are an electric effect unit encased in either plastic or metal used mainly by guitarists (though any electric instrument can utilize them) to artificially modify the guitar's sound. Since the 60s, thanks to the pioneering of guitarist Jimi Hendrix, they have been used widely in pretty much every genre that utilizes the guitar. There exist many kinds of pedals but below is a concise list of commonly-used pedals and a brief description of their functions:
- Chorus: Creates a sort of artificial, slightly "out-of-tune" sound. Acoustic guitars are also able to create a "chorus" like effect with 12-string acoustic guitars.
- Distortion: Quite possibly the most famous and widely used pedal of them all, distortion pedals give guitars that iconic "distorted" sound. While many amplifiers nowadays have a built-in distortion effect, pedals are still widely used because they allow guitarists to freely switch between a "clean" and "distorted" sound.
- Delay: Creates an "echo" like effect. Many guitarists use it today to create a dense, overlaid sound.
- Phaser: Emulates the original "tape flanging" effect used by many psychedelic rock bands in the 60s. It generates a wavy, wobbly processed sound.
- "Reverb": Another popular effect amongst guitarists, it can give the guitar a bellowing sound as if being played in a huge concert hall.
- Wah-Wah Pedal: Another famous pedal that has become almost synonymous with guitar solos. Popularized by Jimi Hendrix, it creates a sound that emulates the human voice, sounding very much like its namesake; "wah".
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