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The Art of the Ensemble: Crafting Awesome Arrangements

A great song consists of more than just notes and rhythms. Here’s how to put the pieces together to create that extra sonic magic.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Create simple and meaningful blues phrases in the style of B.B. King.
• Understand how to emphasize chord tones over a blues progression.
• Learn how to use repetition to build tension in your solos.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

It’s not about you. Don’t worry, though, it’s not about the bass player, keyboardist, drummer, or the singer either. It’s about all of you, and most importantly, it’s about the song. A fellow bandmate said to me recently that being in a band is the ultimate form of socialism, and I’d have to agree. I’ve been a “band guy” my whole life and it’s the place I feel most comfortable making music. When everyone checks their ego at the door, walks into rehearsal or a gig, and plays for each other and for the song, it’s truly transcendental. Since I started playing guitar, I’ve always been interested in arranging and orchestrating within the context of a band. The way the pieces fit together fascinates me and being the guitarist and singer in the bands I’ve performed with has taught me a great deal about the art of an ensemble.

Less Is More
You’ve heard this one ad nauseam. Our instrument—especially electric guitars—can take up a lot of aural real estate, so lay back. Don’t hit every note in that chord you’re about to play. Play a partial chord, an inversion, a countermelody, or double the bass line. Or here’s a novel idea: Don’t play anything. To illustrate, I’ll give you an eight-bar progression (Ex. 1) that pays homage to the Beatles. If the rest of the band is driving and filling up space harmonically and rhythmically, you don’t necessarily have to as well.

Click here for Ex. 1

Interweave Guitar Parts
Another strategy: Combine or layer multiple guitar parts, especially on intros or other important sections of the song, like a breakdown before your searing guitar solo. Consider Ex. 2, which is something in the style of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Click here for Ex. 2

Here’s the point in the lesson where a simple looper would be effective. Start a loop with Ex. 2 and then play a double-stop part like Ex. 3 over it. Cool stuff, huh?

Click here for Ex. 3

Find Different Textures
Play a part on a different pickup from the other guitarist or roll off the tone knob a bit. Time for that loop pedal again. I backed off the tone knob for Ex. 4, which is a fairly simple boogie part in the key of G.

Click here for Ex. 4

Once you have that going, turn the tone knob back up and play the bright and sparse part in Ex. 5. In this example, I’ve combined some two-note chordal stabs with some melodic bends and plenty of space.

Click here for Ex. 5

Remember to Share
Maybe that intricate and impressive guitar part you’ve come up with is exciting to play, but is it really serving the song? Would it sound better on another instrument, freeing you up to play what the song needs, such as some solid rhythm guitar? I humbly offer up one of my own, “City Boy” from my band, Shotgun Wedding. The main piano riff in the intro was originally a guitar riff. Take a listen to a live version in the video below.

It’s really fun to emulate a banjo (Ex. 6), but when you’ve got a percussive instrument like a piano and a jaw-dropping pianist playing it … use them! Switching that part to keyboard really opened up the song, creating a different vibe. In the process, it freed me to sing and play what ultimately became a much better and more appropriate guitar part.

Click here for Ex. 6

Remember, it’s about the song. If people can’t hear the melody and lyrics because we guitarists are too busy wanking away, there’s no point in performing the song.

Lastly, I’d like to share a piece of wisdom I was given when I was younger. “Be the best rhythm guitarist on the block. You’ll always get the gig.”