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Why composers don’t write for electric guitar

Because it’s too hard.

First they need to figure out what’s technically possible.

Then there’s dealing with different effects units and different brands of effects.



Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XI for classical guitar is an example of technical difficulty. When he wrote the piece, Berio consulted Elliot Fisk to see what’s possible on the guitar.

What’s possible for Fisk isn’t necessarily possible for other players. Fisk’s hands are enormous. It wasn’t physically possible for me to play the second chord, and I have a pretty good stretch.

Hand size isn’t a consideration when writing for most instruments. Because of this, composers often forget to consider it when they write for guitar.



If a composer decides to write for effects, which ones does she use? Delay is the easiest. You can specify what you want and it will reproducible on any delay unit.

Distortion is another story. Is it distortion you’re looking for or overdrive? Amplifier overdrive or stomp-box overdrive? If it’s distortion, then what kind of tone? How much distortion?

Reverb is tricky, as well. The composer has to be specific; some players like lots, some like a little. If you just put “reverb” on the score, you really don’t know what you’ll get. This goes for most effects.

You have to sit down with the player, and go through their effects in detail. But then you’ll only get that player’s range of effects.


Guitars and amps

Even saying “clean tone” is a problem. Clean with a Fender Telecaster is different than clean with a Gibson SG.

Same with amps. Every one sounds a little different. What you’re hearing in your head isn’t what you’ll get from every player.


Multiple pieces

So, you can try to nail down the sound you want from the electric guitar. But since each player’s sound is defined by a different guitar/amp/effects setup, you’ll only get what you imagined from the player you consulted.

For a lot of composers, this is a serious problem. They want to communicate accurately what’s going on in their ears, and they want the piece to sound the same regardless of who plays it.

This isn’t really possible with the electric guitar. But personally? I like the idea of a piece that changes each time it’s played. All pieces do. It’s just more dramatic with the electric guitar.



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Rhythm and number

We tend to think about rhythm in terms of number. I’m thinking specifically of the way we break up beats – 1/8 note, 1/16 note, etc.. This can be useful when organizing material.

Think about music is as an unbroken, continuous sound. Then take this sound and break it into pieces in an organized way by imposing a repetitive number sequence on it.

A string of eighths notes can be thought of as our continuous sound.

stream of 1:8


Using the number two in a specific way – by placing a rest after every second eighth note – produces this:


broken 1:8



Alternating two and three gets this:


2 plus 3 on 1:8


Right away you can see how complex this can get. You can alternate any sequence of whole numbers or fractions. Of course the longer the sequence gets, the more difficult it becomes to remember it. This reduces clarity.


Alternating values

You can use this technique with alternating rhythmic values – eighth notes, sixteenths, triplets – and get much richer rhythmic profile. Here I’ve used the number pattern 2-4-1-3 (two eighths (rest), four sixteenths (rest), one triplet (rest), three eighths). Place a rest after the last eighth note, and then repeat the sequence.




It’s not really four sixteenths, as you can see, but it sounds like that. The point is to take an unbroken stream of notes of similar or varying values and break it up in a coherent way.



So you can use a sequence of randomly changing rhythmic values, and place order on it by using a repeating number pattern.

Experiment with the length of your patterns. Longer patterns work best when the rhythmic values aren’t changing much. Shorter patterns are good with rapidly changing values.

The idea, as always, is to find a balance between clarity and complexity.



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Accent patterns

In the last post, I talked about a piano duo I’m writing. I focussed on melody in that post, but I’m going to talk about accent here.


Why accent?

When you accent a note, you make it pop out of the texture. Regardless of what else is going on, that note becomes the thing that everyone pays attention to for the moment that it exists.

So there needs to be a good reason to accent notes.

A couple of common places to accent a note is at the beginning or the end of a phrase. Another is on the highest note of a phrase.

Another reason (and the way it’s used in this piano duo) is to create an accent pattern. In this piece there are four accent patterns, one for each of the four hands.

I use four-note chords for each of the four hands in the piece; I’m simplifying the idea here by using single notes.


Pattern 1

Accent every 10 notes


Pattern 2

Accent every 13 notes


Pattern 3

Accent every 16 notes


Pattern 4

Accent every 19 notes.


That’s the algorithm.The choice of 10 for pattern 1 is arbitrary. The other patterns get larger by 3 each time.

Here it is in score format.

accent score



These four patterns create a composite pattern.

Here’s a condensed version.

accent score condensed


And here’s a version of only the accented notes for maximum clarity in terms of what the composite pattern is.


accent score-only accents


Combine this idea with the melodic aspect discussed in the last post, and you can see the structure start to deepen.

We’ve used melody and accent. What other parameters can you create patterns for?




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Piano duo

I’m in midst of writing a piano duo. Here are the first bars of the left hand of one of the pianos.


2pianos,bar 1


Basically, it’s the same four chords repeated. At a certain point this stops being interesting if you don’t change something. There’s a lot that can change. In this post I’m just talking about melody.

But first some terminology.

When there’s four notes in a chord, it makes it easier to talk about if we give each note a name. Conventionally,we do this using vocal terminology.


The lowest note is the Bass:

The second lowest note is the Tenor:

The second highest note is the Alto:

The highest note is the Soprano





Movement of voices: notes

Maybe it’s just me, but I like to identify possibilities by creating categories. When there are lots of possibilities, this can keep you from going crazy, and allow you quicker access to your ideas. I’m working with two categories here: notes and intervals.

A note is a single thing; an interval implies a relationship between two notes.

When I think about changing notes, I don’t think about changing relationships. If I’m not changing the relationship between notes, the entire melody stays the same, since I’m maintaining the same intervals between the notes (bear with me here).

If I want to maintain the melody of any voice but change the notes, all I can really do is transpose the entire sequence. This makes it really clear that the voice is changing. Here’s the soprano melody transposed up a whole step. I know: not much of a melody, but it gives me room to move.


sop melody transposed


I can do this with any one of the voices, or any combination of them. If I move only one of them, I can’t go far before I get in the way of the other voices. Outer voices can move further (i.e. soprano can go higher, bass can go lower).

If I move all of them, completely new chords emerge, and there’s a sense of expansion and contraction as voices move apart and back together.


Movement of voices: intervals

When I think intervals, however, I can change any one of the notes and leave the rest. I can also change two, three, or four notes; I don’t have to concern myself with maintaining the original melody of the voice. This opens things up tremendously.

Having said that there should be some relationship to the original. If you’re changing one note, that means the other three will maintain their original shape.


sop melody,1 change


Changing two notes makes the original less distinct, although if you maintain the contour that helps.


sop melody,2 changes



Or you may just want to destroy the whole thing and rebuild it. This allows you to use  transformation to make things more interesting. Here’s a simple example using the soprano melody.


sop melody changed


If you want, you can make the process from transformed melody to original melody take a lot longer, and the melody can be as chromatic as you want it to be.

So if you think intervals, you get more options. The danger is creating lack of clarity. Always try to find a way to refer to the original statement if you want the listener to follow you.

And remember: I’ve only talked about a single voice so far. Every change I make in one voice creates new relationships between it and the other voices.

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Rhythm Stretching

This is a fairly standard idea. Simply take a rhythm and stretch the duration of each chord in the progression (or note in the riff) equally. Use the same chords (or notes) from the original rhythm in the stretched rhythm.

To make this idea as clear as possible, the original rhythm that I use will be quarter notes. In each example, the numbers above the quarter-notes correspond to the numbers above the notes in the stretched rhythm example.


Example 1

For the first example, I’ve stretched each quarter-note equally by an eighth note.



rhythm stretch1

…becomes this.

rhythm stretch2 


 Example 2

You can stretch whichever note(s) you want. Here I’ve stretched beats 2 and 4.


rhythm stretch1

rhythm stretch3


Example 3: Gradient rhythm

Another idea is to stretch the notes in an ever-increasing gradient. In the next example, each succeeding note gets longer than the one before it by an eighth note.


To be perfectly clear:


  • Beat 1 – quarter note
  • Beat 2 – quarter note plus eighth note
  • Beat 3 – quarter note plus two eighth notes
  • Beat 4 – quarter note plus three eighth notes
  • Beat 5 – quarter note plus four eighth notes


rhythm stretch4



Don’t be monotonous

Use this technique as a way of brainstorming variations and generating new ideas.  Stretching a couple of notes in the original rhythm creates a related rhythm. Moving from the original rhythm to the stretched rhythm and back relieves monotony.




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Rhythm Chunking 3: Riffs

Riffs are generally thought of as the repetition of a short melodic unit, or a short chord progression.  The rhythm always stays the same. Conventionally.

Let’s not be conventional.


Melody + rhythm = riff

First, we make a five-note melody.

rhythm chunk melody


Now take those five notes and superimpose them on different rhythms. I’ll use the ones we made in the last posts (The last chunk is new. I needed something to complete the five-note melody I started on the second note of the second-last chunk).


rhythm chunk riff2


Superimposing the five notes on different rhythms creates a nice kind of tension. It allows you to predict (as a listener) what the five notes are without being able to predict when they’ll repeat.


Make your own

Make your own stuff. Create a short melody – anywhere from 4 to 8 notes. Then make 3 or 4 different rhythms and string them together in different ways.

  • rhythm 1, rhythm 2, rhythm 3
  • rhythm 3, rhythm 1, rhythm 2
  • rhythm 2, rhythm 1, rhythm 3
  • etc.


If you spend some time superimposing your melody on these different rhythms, you’re bound to come up with stuff you like.


Long melodies

Once you’re comfortable doing this with short melodies, try it with long ones. Restrict yourself to one rhythm here. If the melody is really long, it can be difficult to hear when it repeats. Using different rhythms makes that even more difficult, and the whole thing can lose focus.

But do some experimenting and see what works. Start with one rhythm. Then try it with two.  Go crazy and use three. Stay sensitive to when it stops sounding good.




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