The Woodshed

Help Me Improve My Fingerstyle Arrangements

1

Lately I've been working on fingerstyle arrangements of classic popular songs, which has greatly improved my ability and understanding of finger dexterity, reading music, and the importance of arrangement.

It is the third item with which I seek your advice today.

The arrangements I'm generating are pretty basic: I alternate root and fifth (and sometimes thirds) of the chords with my thumb, and work out the basic melody in top. No frills, no panache. This of course has been very rewarding for a beginner fingerstylist, but often I feel like a player piano, mechanically making my way through the song.

I've gained a new appreciation for masters like Chet Atkins, John Fahey, or my new favorite Marissa Anderson (1, 2, 3), who not only play the song, but make it their own with embellishment, improvisation, and aplomb. Needless to say, I would like to become more like them.

I submit for your consideration a couple of quick videos I've recorded of my arrangements:

Daydream Believer

Crazy

I know there are a number of great finger pickers on this site, so I'm asking them for ideas, guidance, or feedback. How do I improve upon my piano-roll-like arrangements and start to make the songs my own? I'm not necessarily looking for performance or technique critique; as seen in the videos I need to work on playing in time, accentuating the melody, not bending notes out of tune, et al. Those things will come with practice. I'm more interested in ways of incorporating improvisation, dissonance, chord substitutions, and generally taking my arrangements to the next level. You can see that those videos are rather short, because I can only play the songs one way and just repeat. In order to make a one minute song into a four minute song, I feel like I need to mix it up a little more throughout, rather than just repeat the same thing.

2

You're on the right track,sir! Couple of suggestions if I may. Concerning Crazy. For me, this tune needs a bit more pace. It isn't a toe-tapper but not quite up to Patsy's tempo either. As regards the [right hand] thumb work: try to mute the lower 3 strings a bit more and combine that with less of a pronounced attack. As I listen, the melody notes do not 'rise above' the bassline volume enough. By that I mean in importance to the listening ear. The bass notes are trying to have the same importance (volume) as the melody notes. One of the hallmarks of Chet's playing, and he mentioned that often, is that the melody must be clearly in 'command'. It must be the most pronounced notes you hear played, above the bass and other harmony notes. Something to strive for with your right hand thumbpick is to give the notes a bit of a clipped style of picking rather than a solid, right on the beat stroke.

A word here about the dynamics of melody notes played on instruments and sung as well. The human ear hears clearest, the top not being played or sung You'll notice that this isn't the case with a cappella barbershop singing. The melody is the second highest note sung so the tenor harmony notes sung above the lead (melody) have to have less volume so they aren't confused with the melody notes. This is accomplished mainly through less volume from the tenor. With guitar however, this is extremely difficult to accomplish, so you have to have your harmony notes played lower than the melody.

Now another hallmark of Chet's playing was his 'full' sound. This was accomplished by adding harmony notes [played below the melody]. The perfect example to illustrate this feature of his playing is to listen very carefully to the first verse of Mr Sandman (after the intro). He plays a harmony note within every chord that literally walks right down the scale, all played on the 3rd string. This note would be the one sung by the baritone in a BBS arrangement....just under the lead and hard to hear when sung but immediately missed if left out. The difference in the finished sound is tremendous. If Mr Sandman is played using Merle's style, which is to use basically single notes for the melody and leave out these harmony notes in Chet's version, it sounds less 'full'. Yes I know Merle does have added melody notes but they aren't picked by the fingers but rather come from his 'collecting' the 3rd string when he thumbpicks the 4th. This is a hallmark of Merle's style.

The reason I went through this is to illustrate how much harmony notes add to an arrangement. While your playing has the correct melody notes, the overall sound could use some 'fattening up' as it were. I can't say where in particular as my internal wiring just knows when to add a note or not, so experiment. I use my ring finger on the high E a lot and this for me, helps free up the index and middle for harmony notes.

So, in general, my advice is to have a lighter touch on the bassline and add a bit of subtle syncopation, not just solidly on the beat, and add a bit of color to what's being played on the upper 3 strings. Chet's style, in general but not exclusively, has many harmony notes whereas Merle's doesn't. Another suggestion is to have your interpretation of the song be very fluid. In other words, make the melody - the rest of the song will follow - as close to the original vocal interpretation as possible, ie, having the melody be as conversational as possible. This puts your playing on a higher level by virtue of it having a higher entertainment value - more 'listenable.'

The final suggestion is to find ways to break up using a constant alternating bassline. Find places where the bassline stops and the fingers continue and vice versa. Nice little 2 string runs in place of the general fingerstyle of the tune always add a nice flavor.

3

This is great Dave! Thanks. All great suggestions

  • Accentuating the melody (or at least de-emphasizing the bass) is definitely something I need to work on. I do it a lot with hill-country-style blues numbers, where I play steady four-on-the-floor bass on the low E, palm muted of course. This technique has not worked it's way into my more complex fingerstyle tunes though. I definitely need to just nail that down.

  • Regarding harmony between the bass and melody: well duh, why didn't I think of that sooner? Sometimes the answer is right under your nose. When I play non-fingerstyle, I'm pretty much always using bits and pieces of chords and double stops. I will work on incorporating those into these numbers.

  • The word "conversational" really helps. I think that illustrates what I'm talking about when I say I feel like a player piano. These pieces come out so mechanical, and I need to let them flow more.

  • I also like your observation that the whole song doesn't need to be fingerstyle. Dynamic changes are something I always try to stress in an ensemble setting, so why not in my solo material?

I will try to incorporate as much of this as possible. Thanks again!

4

Glad to be of help. Okay, let's progress a little further into Chetisms. This song, Smile, incorporates a few other things I didn't touch on regarding why Chet's technique was so different from other players. And these techniques are not that difficult to incorporate into your own arrangement of say a popular tune. I used one of these techniques with my arrangement of God Bless America - the extended intro - and it works to perfection.

Chet starts this tune, Smile, with a non-tempo which runs till 1:30 and then morphs into a very gentle alternating bass fingerstyle toe-tapping tempo. Let's consider this first part. This section features a technique of striking a [thumb picked] bass note and letting it ring - why he wanted good sustain from his guitar! - while his fingers play the melody. He further enhances this by playing again sustaining dual melody note(s) - listen close to hear there are in fact 2 notes! - right after the sustaining bass note but before the melody, being played as harmonics. This creates an arpeggio of sorts and is very effective! Later in this non-tempo section he incorporates that second part of the arpeggio, the harmony note, with the first note of the melody for a bit of a change and then back to the 3 part style, mixing in harmonics. It does keep the listener on their toes.

When the alternating bass style begins, creating a tempo, you'll notice how, while the bass is steady, the melody has its own distinct voice, including lovely syncopation played against the steady bassline. This, to the listener, separates completely the melody and harmony passages from the bass, creating the effect that there are two instruments playing. This toe-tapping tempo continues up till the tag, where he again breaks tempo and plays a similar series of 5 arpeggio leading to the harmonic finish. This little series of arpeggios are different than the style at the beginning as it has an index played note first, then the lower bass note followed by a 3 note chord, not the melody picked out as in the beginning......a nice variation on his own theme.

This song is a wonderful study in how within the same song, Chet could play the same thing but in such a different way as to have it sound like a completely different tune! And as always with his playing, there's the clarity and tone of his sound, in effect, what was heralded as the original Great Gretsch Sound. Once the Beatles arrived on the musical scene, George - and others, part of the British Invasion - created a different Great Gretsch Sound.


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