If you’re a composer or arranger that plays any instrument other than guitar, this is for you. Creating sheet music for a guitar player is simple, but like any other instrument, the guitar has strengths, weaknesses, and limits as to what is physically possible to play. Understanding these things will make you a favorite composer of guitarists for generations to come. No exaggeration–my mouth waters when I see certain arranger credits because I know my part is going to be well written and fun to play, while a few other names prompt me to just turn off my amp.
Before you can start, you need a good guitarist that reads music. [Insert guitarist joke here.] I will stick to the basics, but advanced guitarists, depending on the size of their hands, can push the limits of these chord voicings to great effect. You also need to understand basic music theory because I’ll be talking a lot about intervals, inversions, and chord tones. Once you start writing your music, it helps to have some good music notation software so the final results are easy to read. I use Sibelius, but I used to be a Finale guy. Either will do the trick.
Throughout this discussion I will use relative terms to describe similar but different concepts:
- ‘Low’ and ‘high’ relate to pitch–this should be self explanatory.
- ‘Bottom’ and ‘top’ relate to strings–bottom = lower pitched, top = higher pitched.
- ‘Up’ and ‘down’ refer to left hand position on the neck–the further ‘up’ the neck you move, the higher the pitch on each string. The terminology here suggests vertical movement, but physically, the hand is moving horizontally. Simply picture where the pitches go on the staff… up and down.
When I list pitches, I’ll start with the lowest pitch on the bottom-most string and work my way to the highest pitch on the top string. I also put an asterisk (*) next to terms that are defined in greater detail at the end of the article.
This article deals mostly with chord voicings because guitarists have fewer limitations with single note lines, as long as they stay within the range of the instrument. Towards the end we’ll discuss notating nuances like bends, slides, hammer-on and pull-off slurs, muted strings, effects, and other manipulated sounds.
Guitar is notated in the treble clef.
A standard guitar has six strings tuned in 4ths, with the exception of a major 3rd between the second and third highest strings. The pitches are, from low/bottom to high/top: E, A, D, G, B, E.
This next part might sound obvious, but it’s very important to understand. Guitarists use four (4) fingers to change these pitches. Some of us might use our thumb to reach over the top of the neck and grab a bass note, but in general, we’ve got four fingers to work with. Similar to a piano player pressing two adjacent keys with one finger, a guitarist can press two or more strings down with one finger. This is called barring*. On a piano, the technique produces an interval of a major or minor 2nd. On the guitar, it produces an interval of a 4th or major 3rd, equivalent to the tuning of the open strings.
For example, take a look at the diagram notating the open strings’ pitches. If I barred the highest three strings, G, B, and E, I would essentially have a first inversion minor triad that can be moved up and down the neck with parallel intervals. This knowledge will help you notate specific chord voicings for your guitarist.
The guitar sounds an octave lower than written. If you want your guitarist to play middle C, you must write it on the C in the staff.
Again, take a look at the pitches for open strings. Those all sound an octave lower than if you played it on a piano.
We know that E is the lowest pitch available based on that chart. The highest pitch available on most electric guitars is D four octaves higher. But compose in that range at your own peril, because playing that far up the neck chokes off much of the tone and sustain, and is more difficult. Therefore a safe range is the G below that.
Notice that even though guitar is written in treble clef, it’s range actually covers the entire bass clef.
If you want your guitarist to spend a lot of time in the higher range, write the part an octave lower and mark the section with 8va so he or she knows to play it an octave higher. Music is simply easier to read and write when you avoid passages with a lot of ledger lines.
Standard Chord Voicings.
Generally, when you want your guitarist to play chords, writing chord symbols above a staff with generic slash marks for each beat will do the trick. If you want a particular rhythm, create rhythmic slashes. If you want a particular note in the top of the voicing, simply notate it with the chord symbols directly above, like a lead sheet.
However, sometimes you’ll want specific voicings. It helps to understand the intervals found in several very basic chord voicings frequently used by guitarists. These voicings can all be played as bar chords* and moved up and down the neck, maintaining the same intervals between each chord tone. In other words, if I play a C major bar chord and move it up a whole step (or two frets, in guitar lingo), we get a D major. Move it up another whole step and it’s E major. Unlike moving triads up and down the white keys of a piano, the chords do not transpose diatonically on a guitar. That would require a different voicing.
Here are four triad bar chord voicings I play regularly, with a fifth option used occassionally.
Let’s take a look at a few things:
- 1-4 have six notes, one for each string. 5a and 5b use 5 strings because the fingering gets tricky with all 6 strings as you move up the neck. Of course, you will probably use 3 or 4 note voicings most of the time. Just because a pianist has 10 fingers doesn’t mean every chord has 10 notes!
- Comparing any of these to the open string chart, each note is no more than a minor 3rd from the open string. This is to avoid large stretches.
- The chords are made up of 3rds and 4ths, with no more than one 5th or 6th. That’s due to the standard tuning of the guitar.
- You never find more than two adjacent 3rds.
Transposing these chords coupled with changing notes by 1/2 or whole steps will give you the garden variety of major, minor, and 7th chords, along with your basic suspensions. These would all sound very idiomatic on the guitar, or dare I say guitaristic.
Drop 2 Voicings.
Perhaps you need to be very specific and write your own voicings. A simple way to ensure every voicing you write is playable on the guitar is to use drop 2 voicings*. Here’s an example of a Cmaj7 chord in all four inversions–block chord first and then the drop 2.
I have yet to find a block chord that cannot be converted to a nice guitar voicing using the drop 2 method. It is a fail-safe way to make your guitarist happy.
Because of the way the strings are tuned, chord voicings built on 4ths are very guitar friendly. It’s common to add a major 3rd at the top as well. These sorts of chords are very common in jazz when you want an “open” sound. The chords Bill Evans plays on Miles Davis’ “So What” and Herbie Hancock’s opening piano part to “Maiden Voyage” both use these sorts of voicings. These are an excellent option for the guitar.
Things to Avoid When Writing Chords.
Cluster chords and voicings with more than two major or minor 2nds are difficult if not impossible to play. The only exception is when open strings are utilized, but this is a tricky technique to use without some experience playing the guitar yourself.
You should also avoid writing passages with many different chords changing rapidly. The only exception is if the chords use the same or very similar voicings, moving parallel up or down the neck. Generally speaking, this is a tricky thing to execute, and will require some shedding by your guitarist. Use your descretion.
Avoid dropping large chord voicings into single note lines. Again, even if you follow all the rules and make guitar-friendly voicings, you could be sentencing your guitarist to hours in the practice room.
Guitarists often play arpeggios one of two ways, either as a melodic single note line or as a broken chord with sustaining notes. Composers often want the latter, but are not sure how to properly notate ringing arpeggios for guitar.
The easiest way to indicate that you’d like an arpeggiated chord to be sustained is to notate it like the example below.
Keep in mind that your chord voicings must follow the ruled mentioned above. If two notes have to be played on the same string, only the latter will be sustained.
You may also notate the rhythm while leaving the exact voicing up the the guitarist. Simply leave the note heads blank and write the rhythm. Do not use slash notation, because that would indicate strumming. Notice in this example I’ve also given some shape to the arpeggio, which could act as a guide for the guitarist to play ascending or descending patterns.
Slurs and Articulation.
You can notate slurs the same way you would on any other instrument, by tying a connecting notes with an arch. Remember, notes on the guitar are plucked, so there will be a certain amound of decay on notes further away from the initial attack.
If you want to use notate specific types of slurs, see the figure below.
Each of these assumes the high G is sounding on beat three and is being approached with a different slur. The grace note tells the guitarist where to start.
- A slide simply means sliding one finger up or down the string to the target pitch. Notice the line between the grace note and target pitch.
- A bend is executed by pulling the string until the target target pitch is heard. You’ll notice the “W.B.” above the curved line. That stands for Whole-step Bend. You can also have 1/2 step bends, notated as “1/2 B.” You can start on a bent string and release it to the target pitch. It’s noted in the opposite direction as the example above.
- Hammer-on’s and pull-off’s differ from a slide in that two fingers are used, one for each note. These are useful in fast scale-like passages where you don’t want 1/2 step pitches to sound. It’s best to not write these kinds of slurs for intervals beyond a major 3rd.
A common articulation technique used by guitarists is called palm muting*. If you have a long passage of notes that you want played staccato, you can ask for the passage to be palm muted. Here’s an example of a funk guitar line that uses palm muting.
You’ll also notice the ‘x’ note heads. This is notating a muted, percussive attack of no particular pitch. It’s easiest for the guitarist to read if you write the ‘x’ on the same note as the previous pitch.
General Tips and Advice.
- Listen to your favorite guitarists. Better yet, transcribe what they’re playing. Most of what Pat Metheny plays is very idiomatic for the guitar (though the rest is incredibly difficult to execute). If somebody recorded it, then you’ll know it’s at least possible depending on the skill of the guitarist.
- Study classical guitar sheet music. This is the place to see examples of excellent guitar notation, down to what position a passage is played. Of course, most music does not have to be this detailed, but it’s a great reference.
- Ask a guitarist! Leave a comment below, or better yet, talk to the guitarist that will play your music.
- Trial and error. This is how I learned how to write for brass, woodwinds, and drums. I also got pretty good at dodging airborn pencils in the process. Just be open to changing your parts.
*Definitions of Common Guitar Terms.
Bar (or barre) – The technique of pushing down several strings with one finger.
Bar chord – Chord voicings that do not use open strings. These can move up and down the neck in parallel intervals.
Drop 2 voicing – Voicings where the second highest note of a block chord is dropped an octave.
Palm muting – The technique of slightly muting the strings with the palm of the picking hand. Creates a staccato effect.