Arranging Things – An Introduction to Song Arrangement – Part 1

Guitar Knobs and Notes

For most people the guitar is an “instrument of accompaniment.” What I mean by this vague term is that we tend to strum or pick or play leads as parts of songs. The guitar plays a part in a bigger picture, one that usually involves other instruments and/or a voice (or two or three).

But some of us cringe at the thought of singing. We would prefer to let the guitar do the singing for us. Fortunately, the guitar is perfectly capable of standing up on its own. You can plunk out a melody on a single string, you can add harmonies and bass lines, you can even use it to provide your own percussion.

Folks who take up the classical guitar already know this. Likewise jazz guitarists who play a lot of what’s called “chord melody” pieces. What I’d like to do is to get you started on figuring out how you can do this sort of thing yourself. Naturally, we’ll start out simply (even simpler than Auld Lang Syne, which Graham Merry transcribed for us in his wonderful article, The Birth of a Chord Melody, which you definitely should read, by the way), and, over the course of a number of articles, build up our skills and confidence.

So let’s get this part out of the way first:

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

We’re going to start with what I believe is the oldest melody known to man. That would be the classic, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Believe it or not, this was once the only melody in the world. People would sing this one melody with whatever words they could come up with. While some of those lyrics still use this melody today, in songs such as The Alphabet Song (A, B, C, D, etc.) and Baa Baa Black Sheep, other lyrics, both ancient and modern (O Happy Dei, She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain and a certain grunge classic that I promised not to mention by name…) have, quite fortunately, found different melodies.

Alright, even if you don’t believe that, this particular melody is an ideal place to start. Why? Well, you want to take something that (a) you know well and (b) is not that difficult to play. If you are familiar with any of my song lessons here at Guitar Noise, you know that this approach can work wonders.

I want to bring up something I wrote in my piece on Silent Night, which should give you a good idea of our game plan:

There are three essential things to playing in solo fingerstyle – melody, bass and “accompaniment.” You want the melody of the song to ring out, if for no other reason than letting people know what the song is! The bass and accompaniment, usually chord arpeggios, should enhance your presentation – adding color and texture.

My reasons for choosing Twinkle, Twinkle should be apparent. Why not start out with a song whose melody you know intimately? But, just because you know it by heart, that does not mean there won’t be some work involved! Surely you know me better than that (in fact, well enough to know that it’s taking all of my renowned restraint not to say “…and don’t call me Shirley…”)!

For instance, in what key shall we play this in piece?

Okay, it’s now time for another disclaimer – as always, I am trying to explain things as simply as possible and (I can never repeat this enough) what works for me may not be the ideal solution for you. I will try to talk you through (what passes for) my logic as we progress through this lesson. But always remember that there are other ways of doing these things. The more you learn, the more you can experiment and the more you experiment the more shortcuts you will find. Just remember to have fun!

Alright, then! What key? First off, let me give you a crucial pointer: it doesn’t hurt to start out within your boundaries. For the sake of this lesson, I am assuming (and let’s not go there!) that you are a relative beginner who knows a few chords (probably open position) and feels more comfortable on the first five frets than way up on the neck. With a little thought, this is not a handicap. Follow along!

Remember that we are after three things: melody, bass and accompaniment. Let’s look at the melody line and chords (the chords being what will ultimately make up the bass and accompaniment) of Twinkle, Twinkle. Since the object of our endeavors is to play it as easily as possible, I’ve written this out in the five most friendly guitar keys: C, G, D, A and E major and posted the accompanying chord on top. Shall we examine the melody of each? Remember that the last line of this song is essentially a repeat of the first line, so don’t be confused by my writing out only two lines for each key!

Key of C
Key of C continued
Key of G
Key of G continued
Key of D
Key of D continued
Key of A
Key of A continued
Key of E
Key of E continued

A good question to ask here is “where do we get the melodies?” Well, for most of the simplest songs, you can often figure them out yourselves. But any music book, whether it’s a book of traditional songs, new songs or even a hymnal is a great place to start. Fake books are exceptionally good sources because they always show both the melody and the chord accompaniment, which are the two tools that will give us everything we need. Until you get very good at ear training (or with a combination of theory and guesswork) and can figure out chords on your own, do try to start out with the melody already written out for you.

Now, getting into the melody aspect of things, I want to bring up something else: because I want the melody to ring out as much as possible, I want to try to play it on the first two strings (the high E and B strings) wherever I can. Also, since for the sake of this lesson, I want to stay within the boundaries of the first five frets, this effectively limits my choices to the keys of G (with chords of G, C and D) and A (with chords of A, D and E). Because the melody in the key of A has only the one note on the G string, I opt to go with this choice. I would, though, like to encourage each of you to come up with an arrangement in the key of G when you’re done with this lesson. If for no other reason than to hopefully teach you that you can do this yourselves!

The key of A it is, then! Now that we have the melody, what should we do about the bass and accompaniment? In this lesson, we’ll look at three possible answers. First, let’s play our song with “block chords” as the accompaniment:

Twinkle 1 line 1
Twinkle 1 line 2
Twinkle line 3

This is about as simple as it gets. In this arrangement, I want to play the bass note with my thumb and use my index and middle fingers (and occasionally the ring as well) to play the other notes of the chord.

Notice two important things: First, the melody note is always the top note of these chords. Consequently, you want to strike that note a little harder than the others. It will, normally, stand out louder than the others (unless you have the thumb of the Incredible Hulk), but it doesn’t hurt to practice giving it a little added oomph.

Secondly, and this is why we started with this song (and in this key!), all of our chord shapes are familiar open position chords. If you can form and play an A, a D and an E major chord, there’s nothing at all difficult about playing this. It’s all a matter of practicing which notes of the chord you want to strike.

Speaking of which (wait for it…), this is one of many ways you can play this. If you can sweep more than one string with your thumb, and if you’d like to give your arrangement more of a drone in the bass (like a bagpipe), then you can play the A note in the bass when you are playing the D chord, for example, on the first two chords in measures two and three. Try to strike the A and D strings with your thumb instead of only just the D string.

Likewise, you can use your thumb to strike both the low E (sixth) string and the B note on the second fret of the A string any time you come across the E chord, as in the first two chords of measure four.

So, congratulations! You can now play a chord melody. How about that?

But, as I mentioned earlier, we still have two more arrangements to cover in this lesson. This next one starts with the melody, but for the accompaniment, we are using only a bass line of single notes. Some people call this a song “in two parts” By the bye, I’m playing the bass notes a little louder than I normally would simply so that you can hear them better in the mix:

Twinkle 2 line 1
Twinkle 2 line 2
Twinkle 2 line 3

Quite a difference, no? What is happening here is that, because you are only playing two notes at any given time, your ear is filling in the missing harmony parts. This is why it’s important to move the bass line around and take in different parts of the chords. In the first measure, for instance, play the open A string as the bass note all the way through. While you may have a sense of A being the key, but you really don’t have any sense of it being A major unless, somewhere, you add in the C# note, either on the fourth fret of the A string or on the second fret of the B string, as in Twinkle #1. This is one good reason to learn music theory – you won’t have to guess which notes will and won’t work!

Technically, we are, in a sense, changing the chords in our song. While the first two notes are “A,” we could now call the second two note “A/C#,” which is the standard way to indicate an A major chord with the C# note in the bass. I don’t really want you to worry about that right now. Instead, simply listen to how the two lines play with and against each other, sometimes mimicking one another in parallel motion, sometimes one moving while the other doesn’t and sometimes going in opposite directions. You can create a lot of drama with just two notes!

One thing that you should note is that this arrangement caused a chord change of another sort! No lie! Look at measure three. The first two (actually four) notes are D in the melody line and B in the bass. Definitely not a D chord since that is D, F# and A. However, an E7 has E, G#, B and D, so that works fine as far as the name thing goes (so, for that matter, would calling it a D6).

But even though we’ve fundamentally changed the accompanying chord, we’ve not changed the tone of the piece. In fact, with the exception of the first two sets of notes, everything in the first four measures is in parallel thirds, or tenths, if you’re inclined to look at it that way.

The point of all of this, though, is not to send you scrambling around for your theory texts! I just want you to beware that, on occasion, you can come up with something that isn’t in the “original” form and it will song fine in the context of your arrangement.

Creating two-part songs – taking the given melody line and coming up with a harmony part for it – is challenging and a great exercise in learning how harmony lines work together. If you’re so inclined, you might want to come up with one for all the different keys we first examined this melody.

Finally, let’s look at something that is more of a fingerstyle arrangement:

Twinkle 3 line 1
Twinkle 3 line 2
Twinkle 3 line 3
Twinkle 3 line 4
Twinkle 3 line 5
Twinkle 3 line 6

Here we go back once again to our open position chords. We play the melody (use your middle or ring finger) and bass (using the thumb) together on the beat and then pluck another string in the chord ( I use the index finger here) on the offbeat. Our accompaniment is straight eighth notes, which gives us a steady and even feel to it.

Again, I cannot stress enough that this is not as hard as it looks or sounds. If you keep the chord shapes steady throughout, as you did in our first arrangement, it’s simply a matter of striking the correct strings. And just to make you wonder – no, I’m not playing along exactly to the notation or TAB that I wrote out. Why? Because I made mistakes! But because I played this with my fingers on the chords, it’s very hard to tell exactly where those mistakes are. If you’re playing an A chord, for example, with the high E (open first string) in the melody and hit the E note (second fret on the D string) instead of the A (second fret on the G), what harm have you caused? Absolutely none. Don’t freak out about things like that. Most people will never notice. And, after all, if it’s your arrangement in the first place, who’s to say you didn’t intentionally mean to do it that way?

All of this, as anything you learn on the guitar, requires practice and repetition. Think of the easiest melodies you know and try to come up with your own arrangements of them. Don’t start with a long or complicated melody. As you get more confident doing this sort of thing, you’ll take on more and more complex pieces.

Next time out, we’ll continue with first position in order to hammer down these skills. I’m thinking Brahms’ Lullaby might be a good choice.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums page or email me directly at [email protected]

Until next lesson…


Also check out… An Introduction to Song Arrangement Part 2