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From Acoustic Guitar Magazine, March 2006

Expand Your Fingerstyle Arrangements        

Cultivate your own arrangements with a few simple techniques: play the melody in two octaves, experiment with different bass lines, and create variations with melodic fragments.

                                                   by Eric Lugosch

    Are you at the point in your playing where you're trying to cultivate your own arranging ideas and advance beyond the set arrangements you've learned from sheet music or teachers? Have you ever thought "I have an idea in my head, but when I try to play it on the guitar, it sounds like something I've done before"?  This is a plateau many musicians reach. It's natural to feel out of your comfort zone when you try to expand your playing and try to come up with your own arrangements. Playing the same familiar repertoire of set arrangemts over the years can limit your possibilities: it tends to make your hands dictate the way you play, instead of your ears.
    In this lesson, we'll learn a few simple techniques-playing the melody in different octaves, experimenting with different bass lines, creating variations with melodic fragments-that you can use in any piece you're working on and that will help add new dynamics to your arrangements. We'll apply these techniques to "Eighth of January", a traditional fiddle tune many people know as "The Battle of New Orleans".  "Eighth of January" was presumably written or named by a soldier who was fortunate enough to survive the battle that day in 1815. Folksinger and high school teacher Jimmie Driftwood added words to it in the 1940s, and Johnny Horton's 1959 recording made it a country hit. But we'll just focus on the melody.
    I decided to arrange "Eighth of January" in G6 tuning (D G D G B E). G6 has been used by a lot of great guitarists, including Chet Atkins for his rendition of "Yellow Bird", and it's easy to get around in. Since it drops the two lower strings a whole step, you can keep your lexicon of chord shapes on the top four strings and extend your bass lines a bit.

Play the Melody in Different Octaves

Before diving into an arrangement, make sure you know the melody inside and out. Example 1 on page 100 is the first"A" part, played without the supporting bass line. The left-hand finderings indicated above the staff will get you from position to position with a minimum of hand movement. In Example 2, the "A" theme is played again but in a lower octave. One of the easiest ways to to vary an arrangement is to play the melody in different octaves. This enables you to keep playing playing the melody for a longer period of time before it starts sounding repetitious. Learning the melody in two octaves not only helps make an arrangement diverse and dynamic, it also makes you more fluent up and down the fingerboard.

Experiment with Bass Lines

Example 3 shows the first two measures of "Eighth of January" with a Travis-style bass. But the typical Travis-style alternating-bass line can sometimes clutter and detract from a simple melody. In Example 4, the bass notes are played on just the first and third beats, giving the melody more breathing room. Some people call this playing in "half time". Don't overlook the fingering notations above the staff; they are there to help economize your hand movement. If you have trouble with measure 2, play those two sets of notes on the first and third beats (Example 5) a few times until you're comfortable, and then add the melody notes as shown in Example 6.

As a solo guitarist you're free to diverge from the standard chords a traditional band might be required to play. For example, to give "Eighth of January" more of a contemporary feel, I used a descending diatonic bass line in the B section (Example 7) instead of the usual static I chord. Notice the full barre positions on the ninth and seventh frets in the second measure. Those barres will dictate which fretting-hand fingers play the melody. I suggest getting the bass line down first with the correct fingering, and then adding the melody.

Melodic Variation

Example 8 is a variation of the first four bars of the B section. Instead of starting in the upper octave, this time I start in the first position, using a melodic fragment from the third measure of the B section in example 7 to get started. It ends with a cascading run in the fourth measure that echoes the first measure. If you have trouble grabbing this phrase, practice it by playing the melody by itself (Example 9) before adding the bass notes (Example 10).

"Eighth of January" with Variations  

My arrangement of "Eighth of January" on page 102 (and the linked PDF file) uses all of these devices.  You don't always need a complex new idea to enliven a piece. Sometimes adding the simplest of things can make a big difference. For example, notice the measure of 2/4 (bars 12 and 26).   This little 2/4 phrase gives you time to catch your breath before going back to the "A" theme. I hope you enjoy this arrangement and find some of the ideas useful for spicing up and expanding your own arranging.


A good way to approach a piece of music that you are arranging is to get a copy of the sheet music and a couple of recordings. Immerse yourself in the music and listen to how various artists have handled the piece.
The "Eighth of January" was first recorded in 1928 by the Arkansas Barefoot Boys (Echoes of the Ozarks, County Records,

It also appeared on the early 60s recordings Folk Banjo Styles, played by Tom Paley, and Eric Weissberg's New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass (reissued as "Dueling Banjos" from the original sountrack: Deliverance, Warner Brothers), and has been recorded numerous times since.

Check out versions by guitarist Tony Rice (Tony Rice, Rounder) and fiddlers Scottie Stoneman (Live in L.A. with the Kentucky Colonels, Rural Rhythm,, Benton Flippen (Old Time, New Times, Rounder,, and Chubby Wise (American Original, Pinecastle,

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