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A simple approach to composing music on the guitar

Updated: Feb 28

For quite some time now I have been thinking of sharing some ideas, about composing music on the guitar. These ideas and approaches have worked for me many times so I thought they might work for other people who share the same love for this instrument and are interested in creating original material. I am going to be using as a reference instrument the nylon string guitar (classical) but the same concepts can be applied to other instruments and other types of guitars: Steel strings, Electric, etc. The guitar is an instrument that offers great possibilities for musical expression. The same way other artists approach their creativity using the medium they feel more conducive for their creations, we musicians use the instruments we have an affinity with to help us create a landscape of sounds that we "hope" the public might enjoy (more of that later on). There are two rules we need to keep in mind in order to make the creative process enjoyable:

RULE #1... don't worry about what other people might think of your composition. You are going to be creating a unique piece of music and that is good enough.

RULE #2...."It ain't going to happen until you start doing it". Often and consistently. That should be our motto. You will find yourself throwing away a lot of paper in the bin. Having said that, now is just a matter of starting to do it.


My take on this subject is very simple. I will give you some guidelines that will help you overcome the crucial moment: THE BEGINNING OF THE COMPOSITION. The starting point of creating a musical composition sometimes is the most difficult one. A little push will help your composition take off and new ideas will start appearing from nowhere, eagerly waiting to be participants of your creation.


There are millions of guitarists around the world who play this instrument very well but have a hard time creating original material. The reason this happens seems to be that they think it is too complicated to do unless you have a natural talent, so they don't bother trying. They are oblivious to the fact that they already have that talent. They just need to nurture it and polish it. Most guitarists are happy performing music by their favorite bands. Classical guitarists will continue playing Bach, Albeniz, Villalobos, etc which I think is great. I have done it and I still do it, but from time to time, at least in my case, I get the bug to create some original music. I should add, that every piece of music by all the composers I have ever played I have analyzed. I have tried to figure out how they put a particular piece together. How they connect phrases. How they have harmonized the melody. Why they have used this chord and not that one. Why they have used a bass line here and not there. What kind of unifying elements they maintain throughout a piece and how they develop musical ideas. So if you are looking for the secret to create original works, you already have a hint when you perform somebody's else music.


Many of the great composers of the past didn't know how to play some of the instruments they wrote for so they had to work with a performer of the instrument the composition was being created for. The same thing happens with modern-day composers. Unless the composer plays guitar they need to hear the work they have composed being played by a guitarist in order to find out what the work sounds like and see if any technical, harmonic or rhythmic adjustments need to be made. In our case, if you are a guitarist, there is no need to get in touch with another guitarist to hear how your piece sounds unless there are some technical demands that you have incorporated into the composition that only a performer with a particular skill can perform.


Today is the day we bring a composition into this world! What do we do? Where do we start? Easy. let's get our feet wet. Let's say I (you) have decided to compose an original melodic design (5-6 measures long). What is the first thing we should do? I would say pick up the guitar, check the tuning and start playing it. In my case, I just pick up the guitar and start playing some random chords. I try bits and pieces of improvised short scales looking to find that particular combination of notes and rhythm that can trigger a starting point for a musical idea development. It is amazing! I might be looking to create a solo for guitar and end up with a melody that can very well be part of a song! On the other hand, the following can also happen. I try combining chords with melody but..... nothing good comes out! I sing.....I am completely out of tune! I play some scales.....the sometimes annoying minor pentatonic scale gets in the way! I have nothing against that scale but I don't want it around if I don't need it! I have already spent a good amount of time trying different things and nothing seems to work!. I have a writer's block! I should say a composer's block! so I decide to walk away. Take a break from the guitar. I comeback. Still, nothing good is coming out. Frustration is beginning to take place. I am beginning to think that I am not good at it! Then I think about something that I read somewhere that has been attributed to Igor Stravinsky, the famous Russian composer. He said: "Good composers borrow; Great composers STEAL."  Mind you, this quote has been attributed to T.S Eliot, Picasso, and other artists. They have all applied it to their field of creativity with great success.


Think about your favorite musicians. Whether popular or classical. They all have a story to tell about their artistic influences. The Beatles had the music of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly. Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Elvis, etc. as their reference point when writing their songs. They all admired and listened to those artists to get ideas for their music. Even some J.S. Bach is thrown in the mix. According to Paul McCartney, the Bourree from the Suite in E minor for the Lute by Bach triggered the composition Blackbird.

For The Rolling Stones, all the Blues musicians. Muddy Waters was a big influence. Heitor Villalobos: got a shot of inspiration from the Choro musicians playing on the streets of Rio de Janeiro and from other types of folk music styles from probably every region in Brazil. American composer George Gershwin was also inspired by popular and classical music. Manuel de Falla and Albeniz were inspired by the Flamenco music of Andalucia. Alberto Ginastera by the Gauchos, la Pampa and the music from Argentina. Astor Piazzolla lived and died for the Tango, Milonga, Gato y Malambo and gave new life to that style by mixing Jazz and XX century composition techniques into it. Mexican composer Manuel Ponce created a styled rooted in Mexican folklore music and married it with French impressionism. Venezuelan composer and guitarist Antonio Lauro was inspired by Venezuelan music, especially the Valses. João Gilberto. Luiz Bonfa, Antonio Carlos Jobim and a long list of great Brazilian musicians gave a twist to the Samba and the Brazilian Choro by mixing it a bit with Jazz giving birth to Bossa Nova. We can go on and on...


So let's follow Stravinsky's advise. This is not an unusual approach. When you study composition part of your training is to analyze how composers do their craft and how they put together the different elements; melody, harmony, and rhythm within a composition. Since I want my approach to be simple and short, I am going to be talking about something that all guitarists enjoy... the solo guitar playing. At this point, I am not going to be using classical music examples but bits and pieces of popular songs, especially short guitar solo introductions. After all, we only need a single measure to spark a creative flow of our own ideas. Music composition is a vast field full of possibilities impossible to be covered in a few pages. I am narrowing my field of work by referring and making use of songs that use only nylon or steel string guitar on their solos. I will talk about some pieces by classical composers later on and, to top it all off I will talk about my own compositions once I have an opportunity!


There are many ways to give shape to your musical ideas. There are many forms and styles available that you can work with to put your creativity in motion. Some of them are more complicated and require many years of study to master, such as in the case of the Sonata form or the Fugue. I find The Theme and Variations composition approach a relatively easy one to work with. It is frequently used in classical composition classes. It gives the student the opportunity to develop a set of variations based on a small composition (Main Theme) written as an introduction. The theme to be used can be a few bars from a composition by someone else or!. In a way it gives the composer of the variations (you/me) the opportunity to change at his/her will the main theme and come up with a new set of small compositions (variations) that carry unifying elements taking from that main theme. Each of the variations will be different but they will carry traces. Bits and pieces, either melodic, harmonic or rhythmic that will remind us of the main theme and give a sense of unity among the variations. We are going to be using a similar approach here.


So let's think about songs by other musicians that you like and have a memorable guitar solo introduction. There are thousands of them!. Old and new. I have decided to tackle the introduction of the song "And I Love Her" written by Lennon and McCartney. The introduction solo is played by George Harrison on a nylon string guitar. The whole point of my approach using this method of composition is not about learning to play a particular song on the guitar (which I assume you can do) but to rather use them as a reference point to create a new and original work. This song, "And I Love Her" I learned when I was a teenager but I never stopped analyzing it and trying to understand what was happening within its structure from a musical point of view. How the melodic structure of the solo blended together with the harmony. What kind of note values and rhythmic combinations were used to make the solo flow and make it sound interesting and memorable.

Let's listen to it.


It is unavoidable to talk about music and composition without the use of some music terminology. Even if you don't know how to read and write music and you are composing "by ear" you will still be referring to beats, tempo, chords and melody when you are trying to explain your work. Mind you, everybody, regardless of whether they read music or not will always be composing by ear. I am including tablature along with the notation staff for those of you who don't read music. I am also adding some videos where you can see and hear how the variations or the changes sound and how they are played on the guitar. Keep in mind that this are just very simple and short examples where I am trying to show how a composition can be changed into a different work. At this point there is no development of musical ideas into complex compositions.

The First thing that we should notice on any piece of music that we choose to work with is the Key Signature. In the case of "And I Love Her" it has 4 sharps. That means the composition is in the Key of E Major. At times, as the song evolves, it shifts to its relative C# minor key. The Time signature is 4/4. Notice that the first 5 measures includes a guitar solo that uses a repetitive rhythmic design. It might have not been so popular when it was first played in 1964 but it has been repeated and aired millions of times to the point that It has been ingrained in everybody's recollection of memorable tunes.


So let's continue. What I am going to do is change the key signature, alter the melodic design and change the notes on those 5 (6) measures you see above to a different pitch. The original guitar solo starts with a short phrase starting after the third beat of the measure. It uses 3 eighth notes B,E,D# and lands on a whole note C# on the second measure. The same melodic and rhythmic design is repeated for the next 4 measures. I will keep the same rhythm structure using the same note values and the ties but I am going to alter the melody. You can see on the example below that I have changed the Key signature. Now it has two sharps (##). So it brings me to the key of D Major and its relative B minor. I have also changed the first measure to the notes F#,D,E on the upper register and ended the phrase on the second measure with a B. I have repeated that change for the next 4 measures. I have kept the same note values as the original. So I did it! voilà! I have a new composition!. It is still recognizable as the original so I need to do more changes! (See video). Some people might question the fact that I moved from E Major to D Major instead of staying on the original key and create a variation there. You can stay within the original Key and do all the variations there if you wish. There is an infinity number of possibilities! Below is the first change. I call it "1st Possibility"

On the second example below I take a different approach. I changed the key to G Major (one sharp #) and its relative minor E minor. I still keep the same rhythm structure using the same note values and ties but I am going to alter the melody a little bit more by creating short phrases using a descending arpeggio (broken chord) and a slight change on the first string by alternating F# on the first string and open E when the arpeggio repeats and back to F# sharp on the last arpeggio ending note.

On this third example (variation) I kept the same melodic elements and intervals of the second variation and Key signature but changed the note values of the descending arpeggio notes by using 1/16 notes and dotted 1/8 notes. I kept the whole notes and the ties. The change on note values give a march like character to this variation.

Down below a draft of a short fragment of a free Variation of the song


So as you can see, this approach to composing music on the guitar is very simple. Nobody can accuse you of plagiarism because you are not claiming the original work (Main theme) to be yours. All you are doing is creating a set of variations on somebody else's melody and the resulting work (the variations) will be considered your composition. How well you can structure a set of variations is not possible to predict. Aside from the experience you should have playing music on the instrument you love, there is a very important element that can not be taught that we need to make use of. It lives within ourselves. It is dormant but can be awakened. It is called: "Sensitivity".

As frequently happens during any creative process, you might find yourself wandering off to new rhythms, melodies and harmonies that will not have any resemblance or carry traces of references to the melody you chose to work with. You will be pleased to know that you have found a path to unleash your creativity. I assure you that you will get better and more open at experimenting with new ideas that will help you shape a personal composition style. On the next installment I will be talking about how to harmonize a melody. We will continue working with "And I Love Her". We will analyze the harmony (chords) being used on this song.

As a reference you can listen to some classical compositions (Theme and variations) by famous composers. Here is a list:

Variations Rococo by Tchaikovsky

Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Variations on a theme by Handel by M. Giuliani for guitar

Variations on Autumn Leaves (J. Kosma) Arr. for guitar by Yenne Lee

So, remember, the more you work on your composition skills, the better you will get at it.


This blog is a work in progress. If you would like to be notified when new information is posted please send me an email so I can add your name to the list.

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