One of my favorite parts of being a musician is arranging songs for solo jazz guitar. It's one thing to learn the melody and chords enough to play along with a group. It's something else to arrange a song so that you can carry the whole load with six strings. There is a lot of illusion involved in solo guitar playing. For example, I can't always keep an interesting bass line going when I'm trying to play melody and chords, too, but if I can play pieces of a walking bass part, the listener fills in the rest. If I choose the right chord voicings, you can often hear harmony lines that I'm not really playing. We all tend to construct patterns to help understand the world around us, and this concept applies to arranging for guitar. If you give the listener enough to grab onto, she can fill in the rest for herself.
I enjoy puzzles. Arranging for jazz guitar provides a lifetime's worth of puzzle satisfaction and frustration. For example, you need to know chords – many, many chords. Lots of chords. Not only do you have to know many chords, but you need to know five or six ways to play any given chord, depending on where you happen to be on the fretboard. **Warning! Jargon alert!** The melody dictates which chord note is the highest note, so if you happen to be playing a Bm7b5 chord with a D on the first string (10th fret), you're going to need to know how to play a Bm7b5 chord somewhere around the 10th fret. If the melody note D is on the second string (3rd fret), you're going to need to know how to play that same chord somewhere around the 3rd fret. **End of jargon alert.** Sorry to get technical, but the point is that you need to know many chords and many variations of those chords if you're going to arrange music for solo jazz guitar, and this is only one aspect of the puzzle.
Although I'm normally very analytical, I tend to write arrangements with a more subconscious approach. Before I write a single note, I may spend one or two weeks simply playing from a lead sheet, making an arrangement up as I go along, letting my fingers do the thinking for me. Melody is king. Above all, I want people to be able to recognize the melody and sing along. After a week or two, most of the arrangement will be complete. At this point, I'll finally write it down on paper. Once it's written down, the editing begins. A writer will revise her story. I'll revise my arrangements. I might find a place where I can add a walking bass line or a more interesting harmony, or maybe I'll finally be able to find a solution for a tricky section that has eluded me.
Just because I've written an arrangement doesn't mean it's complete. My arrangements are never finished. I may refer to the written arrangement if I keep forgetting a certain spot, but otherwise, I'll put the paper away and let the arrangement grow on its own. As I learn new licks and tricks, an arrangement may take a new direction. My arrangement of Misty is vastly different than it was five years ago, when I first wrote it. I never changed it on purpose. It just sort of morphed into something else.
That's one of the beautiful things about jazz. Nothing is set in stone. Just because I played a certain way today doesn't mean I have to play the same way tomorrow. Every time I learn something new, it manifests itself somewhere in my playing.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.