Writing for the guitar can be a very perplexing experience if you are a composer who does not play the instrument. With the exception of solo harp, guitar seems to be one of the most confusing instruments to write for. I aim to offer composers a brief tutorial on how to write stylistically for the guitar.
The guitar is a transposing instrument which sounds an octave lower than notated.The guitar is always notated in treble clef. Guitarist’s use 4 fingers to play with the index finger being 1, middle 2, ring finer 3, pinky 4. The right hand (or plucking hand for lefties) only uses four fingers. However they use the Thumb (P), Index (I), Middle (M), and ring (A). Guitar players do not use their pinky to pluck the strings. The pinky is only used for striking the string in a flamenco technique called rosgueados.
The guitar has six strings. When plucked open (as in no fingers pressing down) the pitches from lowest to highest are E, A, D, G, B, E.
Since you can play the same note on different string on the guitar the circle with the number is common for specifying the desired string. 6 will always be the low E string, 5 the A string and so on. (Again this is as written, and it sounds an octave lower)
Understanding Chord Voicings
Understanding the 5 main major and minor chord shapes on the guitar will really help make the piece feel like guitar music. Almost anything can be edited for the guitar, but a simple copy and paste of say a flute part won’t feel like a guitar part. If composing at the piano and you want the notes to ring out, like the pedal would, as opposed to single line sound these voices will also be of great help.
If writing from the piano the voicings look like this
On the guitar the finger diagrams look like this:
These are the most common guitar chords as they use open strings. Guitarists will learn these before any other chords. For the composer I suggest using these voicing’s as a starting point. The same voicing can be transposed to any chord at all. Every intermediate guitarist will know “barre” chords. (Barre chords means each voicing stays intact while the guitarist uses their 1st finger a a cap to compensate for no open strings)
Just as on the piano to make any of these chords minor simply lower the 3rd of each chord a half step. Some of these shapes will need to be re-voiced. This is due to the due to the fact that some notes will be too far of a stretch, or not possible as the open string the major chord enjoyed is now not available after lowering. The minor voices will be
The purpose of this is to understand what sits under the fingers well. The guitar can play harmonically or melodically. Knowing these voicings for chords will ensure they will work harmonically. For example lets say you are at the piano and writing in the key of F minor/Ab major using a typical piano accompaniment figure
If the guitarist stays in the same hand position the second chords is not able to ring out. In order for the guitarist to let the notes ring in the second chord they will need to shift positions. Not a problem at all, but it does need to be kept in mind what is composed after it and how much time for a position leap. Have a look at the video below to see and hear the difference between the two
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Jazz and Pop Styles
So far I have been discussing everything from the point of view of writing concert or solo type works for the guitar. It is perfectly acceptable to simply write the chord harmonies you want if you want the guitarist to decide on the voicing to be used. Guitarist, and certainly those of a professional calibre, will be well versed in harmony and should be easily able to sight read any harmony. Often the chord symbols are indicated and also included are any type of rhythmic instruction.