Hear the Techniques
Click here to download an example track using these orchestration techniques. Guitars: Guild F-50, Guild D-66, Guild F-412NT, Ibanez AW, and '70 Fender Precision strung up with flatwounds. Acoustic mics include Earthworks QTC1, Earthworks OM1, DPA 4099G, through an Earthworks 1024 and a Focusrite ISA 428. Strings by David Henry, recorded in Nashville.
When one thinks of the term “orchestration,” visions of symphonies, concert halls, and classical music often come to mind. But there’s a lot more to it than that: The art of orchestration can be found in virtually every style of music out there, and whether you realized it or not, you’ve heard its various forms in many of your favorite songs. In this article, we’ll take a basic look at what orchestration is, its relationship to the guitar, and how you can use it in some of your own productions.

From Beethoven to Page
Although Wikipedia isn’t necessarily the best place to turn for life answers, sometimes it hits the right notes, so to speak. And in this case, its definition of “orchestration” isn’t bad: “Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra (or, more loosely, for any musical ensemble) or of adapting for orchestra music composed for another medium. It only gradually over the course of music history came to be regarded as a compositional art in itself.” That windy explanation expectedly hints at its use in an orchestra, but it also mentions that the writing can be applied to any music ensemble. It can be anything—from a simple acoustic-guitar duet to the hardest, heaviest detuned metal tunes. But understanding the layers of orchestration can also help with production and mixing of recorded music.

Before we talk about orchestrating guitar parts, let’s step back for a basic look at the tradition of orchestration. The term orchestra is from the Greek name for an area in front of a performance stage that’s reserved for a chorus. Orchestration itself is the practice of writing melody, harmony, and arrangements for various instruments that date back to the earliest ensembles. The job of an orchestrator and/or composer was to decide which instruments played which notes—and with what sort of dynamics—in every measure of a composition. Ensembles started out small but grew through the centuries into chambers and then into full-blown orchestras and symphonies of 80 or more pieces with strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Add in a full choir, and you could be composing for well over 100 people. That’s a lot of writing. That’s a lot of orchestration.

Take a look at the layout of a typical modern orchestra in the image below. Notice the way the strings are laid out from left to right—first violins, second violins, violas, and cellos. The basses (usually called “contrabasses” or “double basses”) sit behind or to the side of the cellos. The woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) sit behind the strings. Then you have the brass (French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas), followed by the percussion instruments (timpanis, snares, bass drums, and cymbals) positioned at the rear.

With this in mind, think about how many times you’ve heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Listen to a good recording of it with headphones (the London Symphony Orchestra’s is my favorite) while you’re looking at the diagram above. Listen to how those powerful string lines seamlessly interweave with the brass, woodwinds, and timpani. In his orchestration, Beethoven wrote string lines that move quickly from section to section—from violins to violas to cellos to basses. These parts literally pan themselves in the stereo field simply based on how the various instrument sections are placed on the stage. This is the art of production in action hundreds of years before recording-console panning knobs were invented!

Now think about the fact that most of the instruments Beethoven worked with could play only one note at a time. We guitarists are lucky to be able to play chords on a single instrument. That means we have the option of approaching our instruments like orchestral string sections—we’ve got bass (like an orchestra’s basses and cellos), mids (violas and second violins), and treble (first violins). When you think of your guitar like that, you realize that the various strings and octaves can be used to layer and orchestrate powerful guitar parts.

Early guitar orchestration in the ’60s was often recorded with multiple players performing their parts live in the same room. Back then, engineers didn’t have the capability to record so many tracks of layered guitar, so they recorded everyone at once. With the advent of 8-, 16-, and 24-track recording, vast vistas were opened to guitarists looking to explore orchestration in the studio. Brian May’s work with Queen is a great example of this. Now, with digital audio workstations (DAWs)—not to mention all the plug-ins available to help you layer different tones—we have almost unlimited ways to experiment.

A great example of this is how Jimmy Page layered his parts in the classic Zeppelin cut “Ten Years Gone.” The song starts out with a single guitar in the left speaker, with a bit of plate-style reverb in the right. Then the bass plays along in the center until the second guitar part appears in the right speaker playing a lower octave than the first part. Then it breaks back down to the single guitar in the left speaker again. Throughout the song, various guitar parts come in and out at different pan positions—sometimes in mono, sometimes in stereo. Some parts play octaves of each other, and some play harmonies. By the end of the song, you can hear at least six guitar parts intertwining with each other, covering lows, mids, and highs. It’s a fine example of studio production and guitar orchestration.