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Producer Steve Skinner on Orchestrating Guitar
Producer/arranger/programmer Steve Skinner is an industry veteran whose credits include Chaka Kahn, Spyro Gyra, Celine Dion, Lionel Hampton, and many more. He was also lucky enough to work closely with legendary producer Arif Mardin (Queen, Norah Jones, Jewel) for over 15 years. I sat down with Skinner recently for a few quick thoughts on both traditional and guitar-specific orchestration.
What’s one of your favorite guitar orchestrations?
Smokey Robinson’s “Second That Emotion.” There are three different guitar parts from three different players. The only other accompaniment I can hear is brass, bass, and drums. Each guitar player stakes out his own tonal area—backbeat chords, a low-midrange funk line, and high-midrange chords—and stays there. None of them gets in the way of the others.
Guitar players, because they can play chords, tend to think vertically—a chord followed by a chord, followed by a chord. Orchestrators and orchestra writers think horizontally about melodies that interweave, and if they happen to form chords, so be it. Groups like Interpol do some amazing things with counterpoint in their guitar and bass lines, which sometimes have a quasi-random feel to them—like one player went to one note and the other went to another note, and they said, “Yeah, I like it!”
How about a favorite classical orchestration?
In terms of creating colors with interesting combinations of instruments, my absolute favorite is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. From the very beginning— where the bassoon is playing at the very top of its range—Stravinsky uses instruments in unusual pairings and brilliant chord clusters. For countermelodies, I love the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The melody itself is very plain—it’s the countermelodies that give it movement and emotion. For counterpoint, I like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. If you look at the score, it’s deceptively simple—parts moving up and down by scale steps, mostly in one key—but somehow the emotional impact is huge.
What did you learn about orchestration from your years working with Arif Mardin?
Never bump into the vocalist’s note. I once got a wrist slap for doing that. You can follow along with a vocalist, but in your countermelody don’t have some of your notes hit their notes and then go away. You either go right along with it, or stay away from it. It’s best to have your countermelodies work around the vocal.
With strings in particular—especially if you’re orchestrating with guitars—you can get away with a lot more dissonance than you’d think. The song “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls is a great example: The guitar is playing a big B chord and the strings are majorly dissonant, but it really works. Some of that is from basic counterpoint rules, like the one about not having two parts simultaneously jump to a dissonance, like a second or ninth. Instead, have one line sustain and move the other line up or down into the dissonance. Then move away from it again. It helps to study those dry old counterpoint rules—I find myself using them constantly.
Are there any books or websites you recommend guitarists check out to learn those counterpoint rules—and any other important lessons about orchestration?
The book I go to most often is The Technique of Orchestration by Kent Kennan. I have the 2nd edition, from 1972, which is still available. There is also an updated version that comes with a CD. If you’re interested in studying counterpoint, both Kennan and Walter Piston have excellent books. I’d also recommend finding and studying scores of pieces you like. Following the individual parts, while listening to how everything fits together, will change how you hear music.
What to Listen for in Orchestrated Guitar Tunes
Curious about the extents to which you can orchestrate with 4-, 6-, and 12-strings? With guitar-specific tunes, listen and try to ascertain the following:
• How many guitar parts are there?
• Are some of the melodies or progressions doubled, tripled, or multi-tracked even more than that?
• Are the guitars playing octaves, unison lines, or harmonies?
• Are the parts in stereo or mono?
• Where are the guitar tracks panned, and at what level are they mixed?
• Are there effects such as reverb and delay—and where are those effects panned?