Even though many successful pop and rock records strive to bend or break the conventional rules of arranging, there is always a sense of arrangement at work behind the scenes. Too many aspiring producers work hard to fix a cluttered mix through panning, effects and eq, when the problem is simply the arrangement. With today’s powerful computers and available track count, musicians can all too easily produce mixes where quantity overrides quality, failing to realize that six guitars aren’t always better than one. The key to successful guitar arranging is balance: balance between frequency ranges, between energy levels, and between tonal characteristics.
Range: it’s the last word in arrange
The frequency range of the guitar extends from mid bass (about 70 Hz) up through upper midrange (1k and beyond), with overtones well past 10k in the acoustic version. With this much frequency to play with, and the possibility of all six strings sounding at once, care must be taken to create parts which fight neither the bass nor the lead vocal, as both share the guitar’s range to some extent.
One crucial aspect of achieving a good-sounding guitar mix is to balance the ranges of the parts. As a general rule, if you have a big-sounding electric guitar playing root-position chords, it will want to be the dominant chordal element in the mix. It can be doubled or even tripled, but the doubling will probably need to be a near-exact duplicate or else the differences will be painfully obvious.
When the guitar is used in this manner, as the primary harmonic instrument, the player should not think simply in terms of strumming chords, but providing a harmonic framework for the song. Choosing chord voicings which flow together smoothly, keeping common tones where possible and allowing the top notes to create a sense of melody, is a big part of getting a winning guitar part. On the low end, it is usually imperative that the bottom strings follow the root (bass) movement; i.e., a Dm7/C chord should have the C in the root on low-voiced guitar parts, as well as keyboards and bass. Otherwise, it will clash with the bass.
Surprisingly, many good guitar players neglect this.
Also, I like to find at least a few unusual chord voicings. Our ears have become so accustomed to hearing the same tired guitar voicings, song after song, that we find it hard to respond to a song with this sort of playing. I’m often amazed at how guitar players without perfect pitch can instantly tell what key a song is in because they recognize the open G or D chord.
Consider Figure 1. Here we have a chord chart of a pop ballad, in Eb, with a descending bass line. From it, I’d like to create a memorable, signature guitar part. I’ll follow the root movement on the guitar to avoid clashing, while setting up a parallel top voice movement to give the passage a sense of melody. A few well-executed hammer-ons will give it a nice feel. Figure 2 might be the result.
Sometimes I envision chord voicings I can’t figure out how to play. I’ll play the closest alternative and then add the missing note(s) on a second track, with the exact same sound. With any luck, I’ll succeed in creating what sounds like a single guitar part, but one that nobody’s ever heard before, because there may be no way to play it.
Six degrees of separation
As mentioned earlier, a good guitar-arranging strategy is to put a second guitar part in a different register than the primary part. A higher-ranged guitar part can play more closed voicings, more dissonant notes, and more melodic content without fighting the lead vocal (consider U2 and the jangly, delayed, constant high-range guitar parts played by the Edge). Next time you see a concert, check out the guitar players—almost never are they playing in the same register.
A high-range guitar part may be fingered on the fretboard, but for a different sound, try using a capo which will change the whole tonal focus and key center of the instrument. In our example above, I might capo at the third fret in order to play the song using the root position “C” voicing for the Eb chord. Other options include Nashville tuning and other alternate tunings—anything to give the arrangement some space!
Bob Emmet is a recording engineer and producer—and arranger, when needed—in Los Angeles.