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How to arrange a song for fingerstyle guitar or dobro?


Although there are differences (mostly in the technique but also in the sound) between the acoustic guitar and the squareneck resonator guitar, i found the approach to be pretty much the same when i’m arranging a song to be played as a solo piece for either of these instruments.
Regardless of the instrument, the basic principle to fingerstyle guitar or “fingerpicking style technique” applied to the dobro is that you play the melody and the accompaniment at the same time.
If you want to know more about this technique, then first check out some of my tutorials here where i’ve arranged several songs for the dobro.

Now i’m going to show you the few steps that i use and that will hopefully help you learn how to arrange a song for dobro.

Step 1 : Decide on the song and key

The first step is of course to decide which song you are going to arrange. If you’re just starting out, i would highly recommend that you pick a song with a simple melody and chord progression.

Now do a “quick” transcription of the potential song.

First figure out the melody.
Try to play it on different parts of the neck. Can you use open strings for some of those notes? Are there licks that you could play more easily on certain parts of the neck?
Then experiment in a few different keys.
Are some of the previous phrases easier to play in that key? Can you find alternative positions? Does the whole feel of the melody sound different? Better to your ear?

Now figure out the chords.

Then do a “quick” arrangement ie. play the melody while adding only the bass note of the chord on the first beat of each mesure (or any chord tone – for example root, third or fifth for a major chord – but play only one note for now!).
Again try this in different keys. Can you work out easier positions in certain keys when you add the bass notes? Does it sound better to you?

Now make a choice: is this arrangement workable? Will it sound good?
At this point, it would be absolutely legit to consider that a song will not work that well as a solo piece on your instrument (for example, due to its limitations, some chords can’t be easily played on the dobro – which is not necessarily a bad thing either 😉 ).
If there are limitations or obstacles, can’t you take advantage of that and find a way to make your arrangement unique and outstanding?

Step 2 : the melody

Ok, so after (maybe) a few tries, you’ve picked a song. You’ve picked a key.
Bonus: you’ve already started the arrangement work before by quickly figuring out the melody and chords 🙂

Now work carefully on the melody.

Spend time on it. Try to make it sound as good as possible. Use the open strings. Use accents. Use embellishments (hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, sliding…). Work on your tone.
I like to stay true to the original melody most of the time but you could change it too: change some of the notes (make sure it’s still recognizable!), change the rhythm.
Either way, once you know how you want it to sound, go for it but really polish it and make it shine!

Step 3: the bass part

Once you feel happy with the melody, it’s time to add the bass part.

In step 1, you’ve worked out a “quick” arrangement part where you’ve played only the bass note of the chord on the first beat of each mesure.

Now add in some other chord tones and work out a simple but nice steady rhythm.
A good starting point is to alternate between either the 6th and 4th strings or the 6th and 5th strings (or make a combination of both). Sometimes you’ll also want to play only one bass note and let it ring for a whole measure. Be creative!

Step 4: putting it all together

Now put the melody and bass part together. Try to make them fit together and blend as best as possible.

At this point, you’ll probably have to make some adjustments to either the melody or the bass part.
What i recommend is to stick to the melody you’ve decided upon before and change it as little as possible (unless you think it sounds better by changing it!).
Instead, try to adjust the bass part whenever possible.
This said, what you’ll most certainly have to change anyway is either the fingering or positions (or both) because some of the melody notes won’t be played with the same fingers (or in the same position) once you add the bass notes (or vice versa).

Either way, don’t make drastic changes to the melody you’ve worked on in step 2 and try to retain its original feel (or intention)!

Step 5: “filling” it

There is one very last step to your almost-finished arrangement.

Depending on the song, you might want to keep your arrangement simple and stick to a simple rhythm and melody.
But oftentimes, you’d want to fancy it up a bit to make it more interesting and unique.

So what you will do is “fill” your arrangement by playing some more notes of a chord here and there when there is some space (especially when you’ve got a melody note resting for a few beats). This will tighten the overall rhythm and feel of the piece.

Step 6: writing it down and practice!

Once you feel happy with what you’ve got, write down your transcription!

You can either break it down into chunks and arrange for example a whole verse then write it down, then arrange a chorus and write it down etc..or you can do it all at once.
I usually prefer the former but that is up to you.
Either way I like to write down the notes, rhythm, chord names and fingering so that i remember exactly how i played it in the first place (check out some of my arrangements here).

This is an important step, you wouldn’t want to forget an awesome arrangement that you’ve written and start it all over again the next day, do you? 😉

Now that your transcription is written down, decide at which tempo you will play it.

Then it’s time to put some practice in! Don’t neglect this final step because that’s how listeners will judge your work!

Good luck!


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