Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

How To Build Your Own Fingerstyle Guitar Arrangements – Part 1


Hey Gang!

I get asked quite often about how I approach fingerstyle guitar arranging, and suddenly – this simple idea came to mind.

I hope this gives you a little “AHA!”  moment – to brighten your day.

Disclaimer – there is always “more than one way to do it”.  Here’s one approach that I use, 90% of the time.

The Dark Ages Way of Guitar Arranging

Most guitarists come out of a “chord”  approach, which leads to picking patterns on the chord, and ultimately “jimmying”  little melodies on top.

For example, if you are playing an open position C chord, you sooner or later mess around with lifting your first finger on & off the B string, or using your pinky on the high E string.

If you have done this, you know what I am talking about.

In order to understand the way I approach arranging – you have to throw away this “jimmying melodies on top of the chord”  idea  completely!

The New Age, Enlightened Way of Guitar Arranging

Melody is king.  What do I mean by this?

Please understand, I grew up on Jimmy Page guitar solos (when I had hair I wanted to be him) and later fell in love with George Benson – and Wes Montgomery – not to mention all the jazz greats (horn players, pianists, singers, etc)

When a melody is played by someone who is playing melody ONLY (forget about fingerstyle for a moment), it has to posses certain qualities:

  • Lyricism
  • The Blues Feel (depending on context)
  • Proper Rhythmic Accents for the Style
  • Delicious Fat Tone and Touch
  • Touches listeners hearts

Melodies have to “sing”.  There is a HUGE difference in playing a single line melody that makes people’s hearts sing vs “plunking out the notes.”

You may need to get up (oh no I’m scared) past the 4th fret!

So – imagine that you are playing LEAD guitar, melody only – and you have to pour your heart into a melody, bending strings, sliding – making it sing.  Yes, you may have to practice a melody a LOT to find your “interpretation”.

Examples, off the top of my head, of “lyrical melody playing”:

  • George Benson – “Breezin” & “This Masquerade”
  • Wes Mongomery – “What’s New”, “Portrait of Jennie”
  • Jimmy Page – “Stairway To Heaven”, “Since I have Been Loving You”

None of these are icy cold, precise melody statements.   They all touch the heart and have “love”  woven in an ingredient.

Step 1 – Get Your Melody ‘Singing’

This is your starting point – play a melody with no accompaniment.  Make it sing…break all the rules your teacher told you.

For example, does it “sound”  better on the B string, but is it easier on the E string?

Make the choice that sounds better, sings and will move the heart – rather than the easy and convenient one.

Listen to your own playing with your heart – not your head.

Oh – and are you playing the rhythmic accents exactly where you what them?

Yes, syncopations and exact phrases are hard to figure out….but don’t cop out!

Get that melody sounding as much like the original as possible – or as close to your intention.  Don’t settle!

No matter how incredible your “arrangement is”  – if you leave out the crafting and playing of a great melody – your arrangement will fall flat on it’s face.

Many fingerstyle players do not pay enough attention to this.

Step 2 – Your Bass Desires

Now comes the part where you use any finger available or open string to try and grab the bass note of the chord on (lets say)  beat one of every measure – WHILE playing that lyrical loving melody.

Don’t go for chord shapes.  Do go for lyrical melody – with a bass note added.

The more this comes into focus, see if you can plop out a rhythm with the right hand thumb, against the melody.   Some combinations may be rhythmically tricky.

You may need to look for new left hand fingering solutions for the melody – but do your absolute best to retain the feel.

Step 3 – Fill the Middle

Without losing the lyrical quality in the melody, and keeping a firmness in the bass now you’ll look for possible places to play one or two notes of a chord in the middle.

The middle is “subservient.”  Imagine if you spoke all the time (the melody)  and had a servant by your side constantly saying “yes”  in the pauses.  That’s what the middle does!

Step 4 – Put it on a low flame, and let your soup “cook”!

The top, middle and bottom will come into focus slowly.  Go for your unique blend of lyrical melody, groove, middle, and comfort.

The separate parts will start to “blend” and it will start sounding like an arrangement.

Any questions?


Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

14 thoughts on “How To Build Your Own Fingerstyle Guitar Arrangements – Part 1

  1. Thanks for the great column Adam! This is the same approach I use also. Melody is king! The use of open strings really opens up lots of different positions in open tunings that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Keep up the great work!

  2. Aha! All of my compositions have been created with the chord/melody approach. I will certainly give your method some serious “playing time”. Might just be the creative spark I need. Thanks, Adam. You da man!

  3. Great article by a great player!

    Is there going to be a part 2? Also do you have any advice on creating variation so the song doesn’t get boring? One thing I do is I will play the song with just the melody. Then I will play it tenths. Then I will play it with chords or bass note and melody note. Sometimes I also play the melody in the bass and use open strings for harmony. Sometimes i will travis pick it. Do you know of any other useful ways of creating variations on a tune?


  4. Wow, Adam… Exactly what I needed! I love beautiful chords and all the added notes that make them beautiful. So when trying to arrange those beautiful compositions from people like Bacharach, McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, I was trying to fit in all the 9’s, 6’s, 13’s etc. When watching your vids, I became a fan of your Stevie-arrangements and it inspired me. I wanted to arrange songs like “Golden Lady” and “Love’s In Need Of Love Today”. Although I gave up on the last one (the backings…… too important to miss it on any arrangement) I was still struggling with “Golden Lady”. And I was, like you said, goofing around, trying to build a melody AROUND the full chords. This helped me!


  5. Adam, loving your videos and would love to see you live one day as I think you as a player are exactly where I want to be in ten years! I do have a qestion though – when I have worked out my melody line how do I find the right chord that fits around those individual notes to thicken it all up and make it sound like I am actually playing that piece?

    Thanks again man, you rock!

  6. How about playing the song in the key it was written in like fake books? Some times it’s hard making an arrangement in those keys.

  7. Hi Adam,

    I’ve been following your tasty playing on YouTube for a while. You have a great facility for arranging and performing engaging and expressive interpretations of songs. I admire your talents and artistry!

    I, too, am a fingerstyle guitarist and have been performing, recording and teaching for over 40 years. You hit the nail on the head with your synopsis on approaching a vocal song and building the guitar arrangement. I’ve been using a similar approach for many years. Are you familiar with Eric Schoenberg? He used to live in Cambridge, MA and was a partner at the Music Emporium. I mentored me a bit (in the early 1980s) on arranging concepts for fingerstyle guitar after hearing both his duo recording with his cousin, David Laibman of Scott Joplin and other complex piano rags for fingerstyle guitar and also his own solo recording of covers of Beatles and other popular favorites as fingerstyle pieces.

    That’s when I first had the breakthrough moment of seeing the arrangement as 2 to 3 voices moving horizontally concurrently rather than vertically (chord forms). What a freeing realization!

    I’m sure you’re aware of another mentor of mine, Pierre Bensusan. I call him a mentor even though after following his music for the past almost thirty years and teaching myself several of his challenging pieces, I finally got to meet him and know him when I brought him here to Sedona, AZ to perform and teach a master class just a couple of years ago. His style is also in line with your thinking. In his original pieces as well as the Celtic and world music he plays so masterfully, his melodies are always expressively articulated so beautifully as they glide above the counterpoint and bass lines.

    The characteristic of a player who successfully masters this approach is that listening to someone arrange and play at this level, it sounds as if each voice in the arrangement is totally independent and almost as if each voice is being played on a separate instrument.

    Adam, your music has this effect as does Bensusan’s and Schoenberg’s.

    Much kudos! Continued success to you….

    Rick Cyge

  8. I’m a little surprised that you didn’t put more emphasis on groove here, but my guess is that you see groove as not a separate component, but integral to melody, bass, and fills. But from hearing you play, I would guess that definitely the bass and the fills would have to get sacrificed if they got in the way of the groove. And if the groove and the melody don’t fit together, then there’s something seriously wrong to begin with.

    You also say that chords come third, but listening to you, it sounds like chords is only one possibility of what comes third. Sometimes, you will fill in with something other than a chord. I was really pleasantly surprised to hear Jobim’s counterpoint piano melody line after the first phrase in the bridge of Girl From Ipanema. And in In My Life, again in the chorus, you could say that you are playing the chords, but from the original, what you are playing is the backing vocal harmonies. So, vocal harmonies, counterpoint, maybe an instrumental fill line, maybe even just a rhythmic drum pattern — I’ve heard all of those in your arrangements. Chords is what we guitar players tend to think of first, but its amazing how far of a back seat they take in really nice arrangements.

    • Groove is of course the first & last, but for explanation of a song layering, I had to simply set that aside.

      “Chords” were originally lines if you go way on back to gregorian chant, which got another interval tacked onto it, and eventually 3 part counterpoint where the goal was a “set of intervals” that we know as a triad today.

      In “In My Life” and “Ipanema” I am doing the same bass rhythm, alternating root-5th and getting as much of a ringing cross string approach to the melody that I can. It gives the illusion that more is going on than there actually is.

      “In My Life’s” counter vocal line over the melody was all that was needed to make this “complete.” I flesh things out more when I can & if it sounds good, but often just the lines needed sound good if played clearly.

      Thanks again!

  9. hi adam,
    I enjoyed reading the article on how to arrange. Is there a book that you recommend that teaches exactly that. thankyou

  10. I have listened to this flute & guitar melody, and after watching somebody playing it fingerstyle with a single guitar in Youtube I tried to learn it. However I am not experienced enough to detect all of her notes, fillings and chords, so then I faced the challenge of trying to figuring them out, visually and by ear. In addition I discovered more versions done by different people, and all versions were different! Being a bit dissapointed on my poor skills, I soon realized I better do my own version, and I think your article has set the guidelines I should follow, thank you very much!

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