Are We in the Twilight Zone?
The Incredible yet Perplexing World of Guitar Composition
We’ve all been there. The frustrated temple rub, the perplexed glare at the score as you bring it closer and closer to your face, hoping that some magic fingering invented by an ancient, superior species with rubber hands will appear to you in a vision. “Are these the right notes? Surely not, I’d have to dislocate my finger to make that reach… I’m supposed to play all of these bar chords from the first fret to the 10th at what tempo?” These are thoughts that have certainly passed through my mind, particularly when I’m reading through a transcription, or music written by a composer who wasn’t/isn’t a guitarist.
The truth is, composing for guitar is incredibly challenging. I say that from the perspective of having composed for the guitar myself, but also having worked with a composer on a piece for the instrument. Unlike the piano, it doesn’t read linearly. Middle C can be played in two different places, which means chords with the same inversion can also be played in multiple places. The piano may have 88 keys, but a guitar technically has 114 different places to play notes! This is also if you only have 19 frets, if you have 20 it’s more. Add the fact that you can play six notes at a time, and every fret is equidistant but the strings aren’t all tuned to the same interval in between…well it gets pretty complicated pretty quick. This is one of the reasons that reading piano transcriptions is often very difficult, and if the transcription isn’t the greatest it’s often impossible to play without dropping a few notes here and there. It’s very common in piano literature to have fast moving passages with dense chords, and since the piano is laid out in such a way that the same fingering could be maintained for each chord, this isn’t an unreasonable request on the composer’s part. However, once you throw it onto a guitar, many of those same chords would require a completely different fingering for each transition- talk about an exercise in finger independence!
This is most certainly not an article aimed at discouraging any composer aspiring to write for the guitar. In fact, the instrument could always use more repertoire! However, perhaps a lesson to be learned from the some of the greatest composers is the importance of research and study of the instrument, and working with a guitarist in the early stages of composition. For example, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal was written for the famous guitarist Julian Bream. It’s perhaps one of the most masterfully crafted pieces for the instrument, but then Britten had already worked with Bream on the Chinese folk songs, and was also known for his meticulous study of the instruments that he wrote for. Julian Bream played a key role in expanding our repertoire because he did urge so many composers to write for the instrument, and was ready and willing to work with them.
While there are obvious challenges in writing for the guitar, it’s also an incredibly rewarding experience. Our repertoire may be small compared to that of the piano, violin, etc., but it stands apart in its diversity. All of the qualities that make the instrument so painstaking to write for are the same qualities that have captured audiences, fascinated composers, and kept performers engrossed with their work for years.