With all the great feedback on the Little Drummer Boy instrumental we posted over the holidays, I thought it would be worthwhile to dive into the creative process a bit. As you probably noticed, playing an instrumental is very different from learning a song with vocals. There is a whole different set of rules. The same thing applies to composing one so I thought I’d outline the process I go through when arranging an instrumental and see if you might be inspired to create one of your own.
1. Start with a tuning.
You don’t have to use an alternate tuning to write an instrumental but it sure does help. While standard tuning is very versatile, alternate tunings lend your playing a certain tone similar to the way a filter on an Instagram photo puts an overall wash on everything in the image. The open strings ring a little differently. You have access to bass notes you may not always have. Your 5th, 7th and 12th fret harmonics can be used in a whole new way. These factors spark creativity and push you out of your comfort zone. For Little Drummer Boy, I started in DADGAD and found my fingers creating chord voicings I didn’t at all plan on. A lot of that song is a happy accident.
2. Find the basic melody.
Once my guitar is tuned, I pick a key that is complemented by the tuning and start looking for the most basic way to play the melody. Once I have that outlined I start playing it in different registers to see how they feel. What feels like a natural starting point? What strings feel the most relaxed? Which ones add the most intensity? Just having a feel for this helps me start to develop a map for the song.
3. Find the bass notes.
Once I know where my melody is, I need to start finding the bass notes for the basic changes. This can take awhile and it might cause you to alter your tuning a little. Is that G string just getting in the way? Maybe lower it to F# to see what that does. I would encourage you to experiment with the bass notes. Sure there are obvious changes but just creating some simple forms that work in standard tuning can sometimes reveal changes you may have otherwise not anticipated. Once you’ve got your basic melody and bass notes, you have your skeleton. Start getting that under your fingers. In the next post we will put some meat on those bones!
4. Explore the space.
At this point you should be getting comfortable with the basic idea of the song. Now it’s time to make it interesting. Every melody leaves space. Singers have to take a breath at some point and this allows other instruments to shine. You however are the only instrument on this one so there are bound to be spaces where not a whole lot is going on. In an instrumental, I would refer to this as “dead air” and that is something we don’t want! One great way to identify the dead air is to record yourself playing your piece. Listen to it with an open mind and it won’t be long before you start to realize there are a lot of boring spots. Never fear! You just need to fill those up.
5. Spice up your melody.
Work your trills, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends and slides to approach notes in different ways. Add harmony notes or open strings to fill out the sound. Add or remove notes from the actual melody. Playing is different than singing so sometimes you just need to accent the melody notes while moving in ascending or descending riffs. You can also look to play notes in in different ways. Tapping or using harmonic notes don’t just look cool. They also sound different. Experiment and see what you come up with.
I find I have to play a song over and over before it feels complete. The more comfortable I am with the song, the easier it is to see its flaws and fix them. Building something beautiful should take a long time, but the satisfaction you feel with a truly completed piece is worth the work. Good luck and let me know how it goes!