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How to get the ideal voicings for a fingerstyle song


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I wrote a song on piano. It might be the "richest" song I've ever wrote. I mean, in terms of fat, rich chords. To many of you, it'd be no big deal but to me, not trained in music theory, I'm quite proud of it. When I play it for people, they say it's a keeper. A slow ballad.


Now, I've figured out how to play it on guitar and I've got it down well enough now that I can play it. But there are bound to be some voicings that could make it shine. I mean, fingerstyle acoustic guitar.


Any recommendations on how I could do this? I mean, like, WHO would do this? It might not take an accomplished guitarist more than a few minutes of looking at the chord progression to say no, don't play that E7sus4 like 020200, play it like (whatever).


I play fingerstyle guitar but I'm no virtuoso. Someone gifted could add grace notes here and there and just flat out voice them better.


The song is quite pretty on piano, so I'd like to make it shine on guitar. Hard to haul a piano around.

> > > [ Live! ] < < <

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I usually start by directly transposing the notes from the piano to the guitar (same voicings, same inversions, etc.).

From there, I figure out if the piece can be played that way, since the guitar does have some limitations on what you can do with voicings (especially close-voiced chords). For any parts that are physically impossible, I just try to focus on the most important tones (melody, bass, flourish, whatever) so that the piece retains as much integtity as possible.


Often a little bit of "re-orchestration" happens in the process as I find things that don't really cut it on guitar, or discover possibilities that the fretboard offers that a keyboard doesn't.

It's really all about playing and listening to the piece for me.


Good luck!


May all your thoughts be random!

- Neil






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I wrote this song in F. The cool thing about piano is you can change one note and get a whole 'nother flavor. Like move one finger and go from F to Fmaj7. I don't know much piano either, just play by ear and a tiny bit of theory. But it's cool to just move your fingers over a bit here and there and get "yeah, that's IT."


For the next chord after F and Fmaj7, when I found the right combo, which turned out to be Am7b5, it was like WOW, that's what I'm looking for. I assure you Am7b5 is not a chord I normally play on guitar. Now, I am using it in other songs more.


So, it goes F, Fmaj7, Am7b5, E7sus4, E7. That's the first few bars. Actually, now, I've transcribed it to "G" because I have a modulation later up a half tone and I need to sing the song in "G."


Point it, it's real pretty on piano and I hope to get something figured out for guitar. Coupled to my hauntingly beautiful lyric ;) , it's a winner.


Actually, I play this on my keyboard (in "G") and I start the song out INTRO-wise with G, Gsus4, Cm and I do it with the human choir voicing on my keyboard. And man, does THAT fit the song. (The song is about my sweetheart dying and she comes back in spirit.)


I'm quite keen on the arrangement I've done. I play the first verse with piano voicing. During the chorus, I use the human choir voicing (cuz I'm talking to her in the song... woowoowoowoo... spirit world) and then the last verse modulates up and I add the piano to the human choir voice. It's really kind of moving.


I only hope I can capture something on acoustic guitar. That capo idea might work. But then again, a really good guitarist could probably really add some cool grace notes and stuff.

> > > [ Live! ] < < <

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A good way to "optimize" your chord voicings is to consider the melody of the song, the roots of the chords and the bass note you are playing as separate entities-- and by bass note I mean the lowest note you're playing in any given chord.


Try to play the melody up on top, and voice the chords so that you can use nice counterpoint when you can. Look for places where the bass can ascend while the melody notes are decending it will make a nice contrast. Watch for too much of all the notes moving the same direction all the time, look to use combinations of "open voicings" and "closed voicings" to help make all this possible. Also, it might be obvious but you can't have complete success doing this and playing big six-note chords. Simplify the chords and eliminate doubled notes, ultimately you should play mostly three or four note chords. Done right it will sound full and "rich" because you'll get to move these voices around more freely.


You can spend many years developing this kind of thinking. Howard Morgen has some books that address this type of playing. Also, anything that talks about classical counterpoint will get you thinking.


I've got to run.

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My Unitarian Jihad Name: Brother Broadsword of Enlightened Compassion.

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Yeah, fooling around with an unplugged electric as I read the chords you listed (F, Fmaj7, Am7b5, E7sus4, E7), the first fingerings that sorta floated up like the answers in a "Magic Eight Ball" all shared the same highest note on the 2nd string. The notes on the 3rd string descend chromatically, while the remaining notes wandered around on the 4th and 5th strings. So, like you were quasi-tabbing it (low to high, "x" being an unplayed, muted string) :


(F) "x 8 10 10 10 x"; (Fmaj7) "x 8 10 9 10 x";


(Am7b5) "x 10 10 8 10 x"; (E7sus4) "x 7 9 7 10 x";


(E7) "x 7 9 7 9 x".


You may want the highest notes to outline a specific melody, probably using chord-tones, so you would find positions and fingerings to allow that. Same for movement amongst the inner voices of each chord, and so on. The "bass" notes of each chord could be planned to give a specific bass-line , as well, if you wanted. This might not be as necessary or useful if you played the guitar parts along with a bass and/or keys, but might be very beneficial if you play the song as a solo guitar/voice arrangement.


You might not want all four-note chords, and two- and three-note voicings might lend themselves to the way you want it to sound and feel. Even playing one note, depending again on your arrangement and number and registers of instruments, might do as well as six.


Generally, if you start out with the highest and lowest notes of each chord, and then fill in whatever is needed in between- if anything is needed there- you can listen for what is, and what isn't, your arrangement.


By the way, thanks for the practice!

Ask yourself- What Would Ren and Stimpy Do?


~ Caevan James-Michael Miller-O'Shite ~

_ ___ _ Leprechaun, Esquire _ ___ _

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I think one of the keys to a good fingerstyle arrangement is the use of open strings. They allow you to get closer voicings, have more sustain in either a lower or higher part, tend to ring a bit more on acoustic.

The key of F is not the friendliest to open strings... if you use lots of F's and Bflats so that would push me towards a capo at the first fret and possibly a partial capo at the 3rd which would give you open notes of an F with a suspended 4.

Another option would be to change your tuning so that the voicings you want are easier to get to.




"once it stops bein' a mystery it stops bein' true"

David Mowaljarlai - Ngarinyin Aboriginal Elder

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There are several good suggestions here already that address many of the issues well but I suggest that you consider a guitar duet, presuming that you determine that there are no "non-essential" notes that could be eliminated in directly transcribing from piano to guitar.

Since your piano arrangement is what you like, I'd match the pitch structures of those harmonies as closely as possible---widely spaced chords, close intervals, whatever.


A second suggestion is that you begin to leave behind what is, for many guitarists, a basic but flawed way of looking at harmonies.(You may already be doing this but I want to push you further in this direction.)

Many guitarists begin by learning chords as a group of units that are put together to play songs rather than as a series of note groupings that happen to occur in a piece of music.

What's the difference? Thinking in the letter manner emphasises the particular harmonic voicings for an arrangement, which as you've discovered, can be essential for communicating the desired musical effect.


You can restructure the harmonies to adapt them to guitar but the closer you match whatever you're already playing on piano, the more likely the guitar version will match whatever appeals to you about the piano voicings.

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Good answers by all. Except I said I transposed everything to "G" to sing it. So, it's not G, Gmaj7, etc.


I'm not nearly as good as some of you obviously are. I can take the chords as I finger them and arpeggio it and make it sound passable, even good. But not gREAT.


Like, for instance, what I mean by this is take the song "Blackbird" by the Beatles. I can play that song all up and down the neck (as on the record) because I found the tab. And when I did it a long tab ago, I thought "I have arrived." Sho is pretty.


Those three note voicings are sure better than just playing the "standard" chords in first position or whatever.


My keyboard, I just kept playing it in "F" and shifted it to "G" through the pitch transposition key. Cuz I'm not very good. Now, I need to REALLY play it in "G" on piano and see if the voicings will sound the same. Playing in "F" on piano... I dunno... I might have some inversions in there that are special. Just because I didn't have to move my fingers much to find the chord is why I chose them.

> > > [ Live! ] < < <

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I don't think there's any magic formula - only you can know what type of feeling your after in a song - sometimes simplicity is what works. For example Neil Young chose to use non-piano players on After the Goldrush (this was gleaned from the October GP).I was talking to a lady today who plays keyboards at church and pointed out to her that there are people who would give anything to be able to play in such a direct and straight-forward manner.So avoid playing fancy chords just for the sake of it. Usually whoever I'm listening a lot to lately will affect how I approach a song. For me lately it's been Jerry Douglas, so I've been putting a lot of bluegrassy type licks into my playing. For example I started playing some licks at church that I liked on a 3 chord song, This Little Light of Mine. When I got home I started to expand on those ideas so that it is quite a neat little bluegras instrumental. Just for the heck of it I tried the Layla opening riff (fast version) and discovered that it gives you a scale of notes that work very well in a bluegrass setting, and that took me off into Clarence White territory. I'm reluctant to play at church -I don't even attend regularly, but now I'm glad I did because it really pushed my playing in a certain direction and I've become a better player, I think, as a result. I guess the moral is - leave yourself open to different influences, if the inspiration comes at 2am when your just noodling around - and it usually does - then go with it.
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Me again!

I'm usually loathe to use altered tunings since I think the standard guitar tuning is much more generally useful but it occurred to me that this might be an instance when one might be employed.

A tuning could be tailored to include the range of notes you want or to allow for open strings to eliminate widely-spaced fingerings, etc.



Originally posted by LiveMusic:

...I'm not nearly as good as some of you obviously are...

How d'ya know this? Don't sell yourself short!

... Playing in "F" on piano... I dunno... I might have some inversions in there that are special. Just because I didn't have to move my fingers much to find the chord is why I chose them.
Playing notes with the same intervallic relationships will (obviously) give you the same music, though the fingering may not be as easy.
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