Intelligent Arranging for Guitar Ensemble

Like most guitarists and guitar teachers, I work in a school one day per week where I have individual pupils and a guitar ensemble class. I have come to love running the ensemble and I now see it as being central to my work as a teacher.

Learning guitar can be a lonely pursuit. My wife, Kirsty, is a violinist and she often reflects on the great days she enjoyed as a teenager, when orchestral playing was at the hub of her musical and social life. There’s every reason for guitarists to take the same approach.

Much of what we teach is done to develop the technique and musicality of our pupils. A good tutor book will contain pieces which develop both hands without strain. Pentatonic-inspired pieces are particularly good for this as they are easy to sing and memorise, as well as tending to be idiomatic for the instrument.

One of the obstacles is finding ensemble repertoire that serves a pedagogic purpose. It is for this reason that I tend to make my own – many of which are published on SMP press. I’d like to show some which have been particularly successful.

I tend to arrange music which is popular and timeless. This often translates as ‘pop’ melodies. I see no problem whatsoever in making interesting arrangements of music in any style. Why should we be hostile to pop? I once saw a collection of classical period music for guitar quartet where the editor had divided parts of simple Sor studies across several instruments. For the average pupil, this was about as motivating as a three-day Health and Safety seminar in a cardboard box factory. I pity the poor kid who played open E for 16 bars in one particular arrangement.

Firstly is my arrangement of Hallelujah. The careful listener will hear that I have created parts in harmony to the main melody. There is also call-and-response contrapuntal writing added at the chorus. Finally, the Guitar 3 part is intended for beginners but due to the key selected, they get to play the main tune. I tend to add chords to my arrangements as I have some pupils coming to the class with a strong technical ability but having only ever played chords. As I address their weaknesses in their one-to-one sessions, I put their strengths to use in ensemble.

Nearly every guitar teacher has pupils of a wide range of abilities. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to vary the difficulty of the parts. The challenge lies in making them stimulating for all.

Next is my arrangement of The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. The listener will notice that the melodic parts are again spread across the guitars. The original key of E flat minor (played with a capo) has been replaced for a far more friendly A minor. Chords are again included. The challenge was creating musical variety in the absence of the lyrics. Varying texture, octaves and rhythms was, I hope and believe, the solution.

My arrangement of Imagine by John Lennon is quite new but introduces a number of concepts to the learner. Firstly, a key of four sharps. The melody is limited in range so the learner approaches this by playing in a fixed position rather than worrying about remembering the sharps. This is the approach taken by professionals as you will know so why not introduce the concept now? The two main melodies are shared across the guitar 1 & 2 parts. Guitar 3 is for a beginner in my group and guitar 4 for a player who also plays bass guitar so the challenge I’ve written is rhythmic. The slides and slurs in Guitar 2 sound tricky but have been fingered in areas which make them easy and exciting. I have many primary-school kids playing this part with no difficulty.

I have also taken popular folk melodies and treated them to classical procedures. My arrangement of Carrickfergus for guitar ensemble uses modulation, chord substitution and counterpoint.

Finally, we live in an age where our learners are very comfortable with technology. With an investment of less than £50, I have taught myself how to make split-screen films. My learners can access these when they are practicing. Parents like to see a teacher engaged in the process at all hours of the day too!

You can find the films, downloads and audio excerpt of many arrangements here. Let me know your thoughts.