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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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