I’d like to present a series of posts on a topic that is essential, highly personal and yet talked about too infrequently: building arrangements for steel guitar. Building arrangements is one of the most daunting and highly rewarding undertakings in playing steel guitar. Anyone who has ever listened to Jerry Byrd recordings, especially from Hi-Fi Guitar on, has probably had to lift their jaw off the floor once they realize what they’d just heard. The same goes for the instrumental recordings by Lloyd Green, Jimmy Day, among many others. Even through the glitzy orchestrations you can hear the soulfulness and ingenuity of a player like Jimmy Day. You will employ everything you know about music in the process of arranging and you will learn not only a lot about the instrument itself, but, more importantly, about yourself. You will learn to hear internally and transfer sounds in your mind to your fingers; you will learn how to problem solve by being creative and exhaustive in the process; you will push your technique to accommodate your ideas; you will expand your palette and use colors you hadn’t thought of; and you will gain confidence in your own musicality.
Most of my life I have been an improviser; I played very loosely in all the music I played. Rather than learning parts to songs, or learning to play complete songs (meaning instrumental arrangements), I felt better just learning to follow my instincts and trying to create perfect parts on the fly. Of course, as a professional sideman you can’t escape having to learn specific parts to songs. That’s the work part. As a leader, you choose which path to travel. That’s the play part.
And I have played a lot! But for the longest time I’ve wanted to revisit that one area of my playing that was neglected: playing complete arrangements of tunes. My favorite music features piano, usually solo or in small groups, and if I could do it all over again, I would choose to learn how to play Ravel, Chopin, Debussy, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, just to hear that music flowing from my own fingers. Alas, I was seduced at an early age by rock and roll guitar! But back to steel guitar—with the steel guitar we are faced with a lot of decisions, and I think it’s the choices we make that show who we really are as musicians/arrangers and yes, artists. Without a doubt, the limitation of being relegated to playing with just a bar in your ‘fretting’ hand prepares you for the prospect of having to do some crazy stuff. It was in listening very carefully to Sol Hoopii’s playing on a few recordings that I figured out a few of his tricks, and that led me down a path of finding my own tricks emboldened with the knowledge that tricks were even a thing and that you can and must learn how to employ these little devices in order to keep that elasticity in your playing. Players like Sol Hoopii would stay up all night just working on a single lick. There’s always the possibility that there is a better way to play something, maybe a possibility I hadn’t even thought of yet. It’s important in creating arrangements that I do my best to map out parts with the right timbre and that are not so awkward to play to the point it sounds like wrestling match between my picking and bar hand. These little lissues tend to pop up at the worst times, like when in front of an audience. It’s important to keep open the option for your arrangements to evolve as you spend more time with them. New techniques or ideas often add a little spice to them.
So what I would like to do is share a few of the techniques I use to arrange tunes, and what the thought process is from early on in deciding on material, approach and critical review.
When an idea for an arrangement pops in my head, it’s usually a melody that I am very familiar with, or a segment of it. There are tunes I can think of where I know one or two sections of it and then just draw a blank. Maple Leaf Rag was like that for me. Actually, that masterpiece by Scott Joplin is a very good place to start this discussion. I have the sheet music for that piece and all other Joplin rags, but wanted to give it a try from memory, just using my inner jukebox to try and remember the sounds and harmony. I recorded a short video clip of the first A section and while it was not really exact, it represented all the harmony correctly, in particular the diminished sounds. I was very excited about this random left turn into Ragtime, but really it has been in the back of my mind for many years to tackle some of the repertoire and see if I could bring another rag, or even a Sousa march to the steel guitar book. Now I had an opportunity to commit to doing it, and I was energized at the prospect.
The first consideration for me is whether a tune moves me in some way. I think you have to be able to listen to a piece and make a connection with it. After all, you will be living with that piece for a considerable amount of time, including well into the future. The next thought is whether I could make an arrangement of the tune that elevates the tune in some way. I have to believe that, even as ridiculous as it seems. Could I elevate a Joplin masterpiece like Maple Leaf Rag? I don’t know, but if what I am doing is getting me excited, then I have to believe I am onto something. I trust myself in that way; I have to. I am also very honest with myself when something is not working. Maybe I will put that aside for a time and revisit later on. I also find it important to document how I am playing things. Sometimes I use video to record it and other times I actually tab it out with notation, making several drafts.
With a tune like Maple Leaf, it’s so iconic that you have to adhere pretty closely to the melody, bass and chords. Making an arrangement that captures the melody and harmony at the same time keeps it exciting enough that you can focus on it as written. It’s even possible and preferable to play two or even three voices on the steel at the same time. Depending on the tuning you are using and the number of strings, you can add harmony, or a bass line, or rhythm, or a trombone-esque slide or whatever. It’s learning what you have at your disposal. This is where you start to realize how important a role your technique will play.
Another consideration for me early in the process is the framing of the arrangement: will it be a solo arrangement, a group or duo arrangement and if so, what instrumentation? These questions help me to make choices about what is necessary to play and not. With solo arrangements, there is likelihood that I will be presenting more than just the melody—bass notes or countermelodies and harmony are frequently used, and often I will have to spend time learning to physically play two voices simultaneously and independently, like a pianist or fingerstyle guitarist. A good starting point for arranging is learning another person’s arrangement and then adding some personal flourishes or touches to it, even combining aspects of another player’s arrangement to make something of a hybrid. This can be done even by just changing the feel of the tune or even the key. I will talk more on this later.
I’ll be back to pick this topic up again in a few days with some musical examples. Thanks for reading and indulging me. Bookmark the site or subscribe to get notifications of new posts.