Help me to arrange folk songs!
April 13, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to write arrangements of folk songs for (one) guitar and (one) voice, but I don't know where to start. More details below the fold.

I've been playing classical guitar for a few years now. I'm a reasonably competent player, and I have no trouble reading sheet music. I have a very basic knowledge of music theory. I would like to learn how to write arrangements of folk songs (especially British folk songs) for guitar and voice, starting with just the tune and chords. I'd like to do a bit more than just sing over arpeggios!

Here are some more specific questions:

(1) Which singers/guitarists should I listen to for inspiration?

(2) Are there good books on this topic?

(3) How does one figure out good chord substitutions?

(4) How does one add passing notes and other embellishing notes to make the accompaniment more interesting?

(5) Is this something I can reasonably hope to learn to do on my own, or will I need to get a teacher?

In case it's relevant: I'm a baritone, and my guitar is a standard nylon-stringed classical guitar.

For people in the UK: I think my guitar playing is at about grade 7.

Thank you in advance for your answers!
posted by HoraceH to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help you with arrangements, but for inspiration: Martin Simpson playing Fair Annie. Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer playing Tam Lin. Nic Jones playing Little Musgrave. Or maybe this is closer to what you were looking for?
posted by mr vino at 10:39 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ideas:

- Start by trying to imitate other people's styles (e.g. how would the early Beatles do this song? how would Metallica do this song? or whatever artists you are familiar with) and/or various genres (what would this song sound like as a reggae tune? as a lounge act?). Once you get a feel for different possible styles and arrangements, you will start to figure out what your style is or what kind of arrangement you might like.

- Get ideas from pieces of songs you like (e.g. I always liked the way that one transition sounds in that one song... look up how to play it... oh, it's a Vsus4 chord transitioning into the I [e.g. Gsus4 into C, in a song that's in C]... start throwing bits and pieces like that into your own arrangements). Learning more about music theory might help, but really if you know how various chords are formed (e.g. what "sus4" means) and know the scales (e.g. so you can identify that G is the 5th of C) then I'm not sure a deeper knowledge is really necessary -- although it couldn't hurt, and could introduce some new ideas (e.g. circle of fifths)

- Just play around in other ways with different ways of making the same thing sound different, e.g. different voicings of the same chords, or using different chords that also contain the note that's in the melody or that also resolve to the next chord coming up, or different rhythmic patterns inspired by other songs or styles you've heard before. Just start by playing around. Maybe you feel like you don't want to copy other people -- you don't want to just take the rhythmic pattern from Song A and combine it with the notes from Song B and call it your own arrangement -- but don't think about performing it for others yet; just play around and start hearing things in different styles; it will spark your own creativity.

- The more you play around with different things and try to notice little parts of songs and analyze what is going on there and try to replicate it in a different key, the more you will recognize patterns (e.g. bass lines often descend one note at a time) and throw those things in in places where you think they might fit.

- Ad lib. Sit down and play whatever comes to mind. You'll start to form melodies in your head that are probably subconsciously inspired by things you've heard before but who cares, no one's listening. Just play around until you find something you like. You'll accidentally hit on things that you want to include in future arrangements.

- I don't think it's something that you can learn from reading or being taught, but I do think it is something you can develop in yourself. I'm not an expert at arranging, but I've gotten better at it over the years just by continuing to do it. When I started, my arrangements were not very interesting, I'm sure. And they're probably still not great, but I definitely do incorporate more different elements and patterns than I used to, just because I got bored with what I was doing and kept trying different stuff and seeing what I liked.
posted by jef at 11:01 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not a musician, nor do I possess any actual musical talent, but I'd start by getting/listening to The Alan Lomax Collection. It is free, thanks to the Library of Congress.

The Lomax family has a long history of collaboration with the Library of Congress. John A. Lomax, Sr., began a ten-year relationship with the Library in 1933, when he set out with his son Alan, then eighteen, on their first folksong gathering expedition under the Library's auspices. Together they visited Texas farms, prisons, and rural communities, recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues. John Lomax was named "Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song," which in 1928 had been created in the Library's Music Division. Alan became the Archive's "Assistant in Charge" in 1937, and he continued to make field trips and supply recordings to the Library until 1942.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 9:02 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

This site is clawhammer banjo oriented, but it does describe a methodical approach for developing arrangements using the melody as a starting point. Some of it should be adaptable to your situation.
posted by doctord at 10:09 AM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone! I'm excited about getting started with this, and you guys have given me some good pointers!
posted by HoraceH at 8:15 AM on April 23, 2014

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