Guitar is one of the first frontiers for some composers, and one of the final frontiers for others. Most of the people who write a lot for guitar (in my experience) play it or have studied it extensively. Others have a hard time getting started, because it is so foreign to composers who don’t play it. This is quite understandable; there are 6+ strings, not all of the strings have the same intervallic relationships, there are multiple fingerings and frets for the same note, chords are hard to create if you don’t know common shapes, and it requires unusual coordination because there are two hands doing different tasks that depend on each other.
So, let’s introduce some simple aspects. Here is a list of some basic tips to get you started at guitar writing, or to improve your fluency in guitar writing.
*Open strings are your friends. They can be really helpful in:
+Filling out a chord by adding open strings that ring longer than fretted notes;
+Making things easier to play by changing fretted notes to open strings;
+Helping the guitarist move around by putting in open strings. This works because the left hand is free to move when it is not fretting a note (during an open string’s duration).
*For a list of chords that are common to guitarists, get a copy of a Chord Encyclopedia. I like Mel Bay’s Deluxe Encyclopedia of Guitar Chords, but there are plenty of good others out there.
*The guitar is generally a soft instrument in ensembles, so the following techniques help make it sound louder and more present in the ensemble:
+Octaves (eg. writing your melody that the guitar plays with an octave below it, so that it is in two ranges now).
+Amplification (a mic and small amplifier really help out in concerti).
+Strummed/rolled chords. This takes advantage of multiple notes and a multitude of possible sharp attacks sounding simultaneously, which can beef up the sound.
+Register. The guitar is weaker sounding the higher it goes, so watch to see if your loud dynamics will really sound loud and sonorous when up high. It is similar to a piano in the sense that the higher you go, the more attack you get and the less note you get.
*Watch out for chord changes. Some chord changes are easier than others, and since this is a case-specific topic, refer to your chord encyclopedia, try it for yourself, and/or ask a guitarist.
*Allow time for shifting of the left hand when moving from low to high positions on the fretboard (from the nut to bridge) and in reversed direction.
*Different tunings enable different sounds, but also mess up common fingerings for scales and chords. My advice is to get the OK from the guitarist you’re writing it for before you do this, or if you’re writing for no one in particular, make sure your chords and fast passages are playable in this new tuning.
*You have 4 primary fingers to work with in the right hand (the pinky isn’t used as often as the rest):
+The thumb is named “P” for “Pulgar”.
+The middle finger is “M” for “Medio”.
+The ring finger is “A” for “Anular”.
+Look up common finger patterns to match tremolos and arpeggios you might want to put in.
*The neck of the classical guitar is much wider than that of electric or more pop-style guitars, and so things playable on a Stratocaster might not work as well on a classical guitar. This is very apparent in stretched-out chord fingerings. It is much harder to play a jazz chord that is over 4 frets wide on a classical guitar than on a typical electric guitar. 4 frets wide is generally a safe spacing limit for chords.
*With the wider neck, also watch out for barre chords, which may be harder over more strings because it requires pressure throughout the barre over a wider distance. (Barre chords are using the same finger over multiple strings; imagine putting an iron bar across multiple strings on the same fret.)
*Just like stringed instruments, guitars have tone colorations depending on where on the string you pluck. Put these terms below the staff for tone colorations. (If you’re familiar with orchestral stringed instrument bow placement timbre terms, these should seem familiar to you.)
+Tasto = sul tasto, or plucking over the fingerboard. This emphasizes the fundamental and deemphasizes the upper harmonic partials, giving a sweeter, mellower sound.
+Ponticello (or Pont.) = sul ponticello, or plucking at the bridge. This emphasizes the upper partials and deemphasizes the fundamental (and is thus the opposite of Tasto), giving an edgier, brighter sound.
+Natural (or Nat.) = plucking in normal position. Use this to cancel Tasto and Ponticello.
*Some common techniques for the right hand are:
+Boom-Chick and Chick-Boom
+Plucked (in unison) chords
+Strums of various types (eg. Flamenco rasgueados)
+Common arpeggios types (eg. PIM, PIMA, PIMIAIMI, PIMI)
+Pedal open strings (eg. thumb keeps the pedal tone alive)
*Some common techniques for the left hand are:
+Hammer-ons and pull-0ffs (fretting notes in the left hand without plucking them in the right, also know as legato technique)
*When in doubt, write what you hear, and ask a guitarist.
The guitar is an incredibly versatile instrument. I know that many of these tips have been cautionary, but the main goal in writing is freedom of expression, and the guitar is a great instrument for achieving freedom of expression. It can take on a multitude of moods, timbres, attacks, unique harmonies, solo and accompaniment roles, and so much more. My advice is dream how you want, and find solutions to problems as the next step.
I hope these guidelines can help you with this “next step”, but as always, feel free to post questions, comments, and additions!