I'm wondering about the difference in the process of composing a song for a Fingerstyle Guitar vs what would be considered a Classical guitar piece. Note: I'm an amature hobbiest, so please excuse my music theory ignorence or misuse of terms.

How I compose for a Fingerstyle Guitar

As I was taught by people like Justin Sandercoe and Paul Davids:

  1. Figure out the melody by itself (as if played with one finger)
  2. Choose the chords which accompany that melody best
  3. Figure how I want the bass line to be within the chord (I like to make Ragtime covers, so most of the time it is a Travis-picking of sorts, containing octave notes or root and 5th)

The end product is that I play regular chord shapes in the open position (many times with a capo), and there is an octave difference between the bass and the melody. Obviously the shape of the chords are being broken here and there to create the melody, but they are the foundation to my arrangement.

Example 1, example 2

What I see in Classical Style arrangements

I don't see people playing with a capo or staying in the open position. Many times the person runs through the whole neck. From this I conclude that they play the melody mainly on the 2 top strings and the bass line on the bottom, thus creating a 2 octave difference for a fuller sound - did I get it right?

However, I didn't get the impression that classical players are relaying on chord shapes as the foundation of the song and an anchor between the bass and melody. It looks messy. I feel like they decided on the melody, the bass line, and try to do finger acrobatics to play them together, squeezing some fill notes in between when possible. Sometimes that results in recognizable chords, sometimes in shapes which mean nothing to me, or maybe are more exotic chords.

Example 1, example 2

How much did I get right and what am I missing? I tried arranging my folk-fingerstyle songs in that "classical manner" above, but without much success. . .

  • good ideas! and wonderful example: nothing else matters I used to improvise on the guitar just tapping on the frets (hammer on) and looking what happens, experimenting and playing without any theory. you'll find out some great - but simple - patterns. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 22 '19 at 10:10
  • This is a very hard thing to pin down. I think all guitarists use chord shapes, but classical guitar relies on open string resonances for tone, a lost art in my opinion. So what a classical guitarist thinks when they play a chord may be different than a modern guitarist. Typically the melody is in the top voice. Because of this it has to be played on the top strings or you run out of options for harmony. This is NOT a classical approach and is taught in modern guitar books. I think if you are a self taught hobbyist you may not have come across this. – ggcg Sep 22 '19 at 16:33
  • The basic chord shapes in classical are the same as in any style. They may not be recognizable when melody notes are added but they are the same. Also, a lot of classical guitar music is arrangements of symphonic pieces so the guitarist isn't writing a song. – ggcg Sep 22 '19 at 16:36

It is very difficult to generalize, and you surely can find many counter examples. Advanced musicians often go beyond the basics of their primary style. I will try to answer anyway, based on my experience in classical guitar education and performing classical repertoire.

Training in classical music puts large emphasis on continuity of the melody, or even several melodies at the same time in case of polyphonic music. This is at times may result in less obvious harmony, or individual melody lines straying from the chords.

Typical classical guitar repertoire includes many contemporary pieces, which often use very advance harmonies. This might be why classical guitarists are more likely to incorporate such sounds in their arrangements.

Classical compositions, even those based on simple chords, rarely use "basic chord shapes". The whole neck (and sometimes beyond) is a pool of sounds you can use and there is no reason to limit yourself to the basic chord shapes.

What is perhaps less emphasized in classical music training is the rhythm. The foundation of most popular music styles (jazz, rock, country, you name it...) are accented upbeats and steady rhythm and tempo throughout the song, which is rather uncommon in classical music. The "rhythm section" might not be the first thing a classical musician thinks about when arranging a tune.

To summarize, musicians experienced in various styles have different sensitivity to various elements of music, they put different weights on them, which results in different choices in arrangements. But just listen to Tommy Emmanuel's fingerstyle arrangements, and you will hear amazing polyphonic voice leading, proving that there are no boundaries to a talented and hard working artist.

  • 1
    Great explanation. Do you have any examples of classical guitar pieces or styles with a lot of rhythmic emphasis? I would've thought flamenco guitar would be one example, but I just checked and apparently toque is not considered real "classical" a la Segovia. – user63785 Oct 15 '19 at 18:04
  • There are obvious flamenco inspirations in "Concierto de Aranjuez". Also you can find many chord based compositions of Gaspar Sanz. – user1079505 Apr 2 '20 at 16:33

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