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Jazz Advice

Important Tips For Composing And Arranging



Guitarist Greg Chako provides some advice for composing your own lines, harmonies, exercises, and ultimately, your own songs or albums. 

The great Lester “The Prez” Young is rumored to have said, “Wanna join the throng? Write yer own song!” Now I interpret that in its broadest sense to mean: be original, have your own style or sound, don’t be an imitator. But its literal meaning, to write your own lines, harmonies, and songs, is great advice for all music students. Why?

One reason is that composing and arranging is an excellent way to stimulate your creative juices, and to break out of the rut of feeling that you’re just practicing and practicing without really getting anywhere. All serious students may sometimes feel that they’ve reached a sort of ceiling that they can’t seem to break through; or that they’re simply tired of practicing and don’t want to do it anymore (for the time being); or . . . as in my case in 2020, it was something to do when I had lost all my gigs and opportunities for socialization due to the Covid lock-down. 

You might think that Covid was a perfect time for practicing, and on the surface it was, but at that time I felt depressed and somewhat hopeless. I didn’t feel like doing anything! However, what I did do was to write some original music and solo guitar chord-melody arrangements. My practicing was focused entirely on creative output, and it sort of saved my life… I was less depressed because I was newly creating with guitar in-hand!

For my private guitar students, there is a lot of learning the lessons I have prepared for them, however, learning to play the lessons I provide them with is never the ultimate goal. That initial step is merely to lay the foundational basis of knowledge required of all beginning to intermediate students and to provide them with examples of what they can and should learn to do for themselves. It’s my hope that through the examples I provide and what they discover for themselves by working with their instrument, they’ll be encouraged or inspired to write songs, short etude exercises, or their own single lines over a ii-V-I progression.

I believe that it’s important for all of us to make the transition from only practicing things that others have prepared to creating music that is highly personal as quickly as possible. We can get a high sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from writing music that we don’t get from merely a good practice session. Writing your own lines, exercises and songs can be empowering and inspiring. And my role as a teacher is not to always show students what to play but rather, to teach them how to play! Creating your own music is a major step towards developing your own style.

Years ago, I was exploring the use of fourths by harmonizing a C-scale with fourths instead of the usual thirds. So, instead of using triads (C, Dmin, Emin, F, G, Amin, Bdim), I used 4th intervals like this:

(note that the chord diagrams are labeled by the top note and not a chord symbol) 

I spent quite a bit of time exploring and expanding the idea of using the above voicings and the two inversions of those 3-notes, but until I used this self-studied theory in a song, it remained a purely intellectual exercise and not actually music. In 2001, I recorded Integration II, and at least two of my song melodies on that album were directly influenced by my practice of harmonizing a scale with fourths.

Utilizing my private practice materials in my publicly recorded works was not an isolated occurrence. I am largely self-taught, and the methods and materials I developed over the years were born from solitary work on the guitar, as opposed to my being shown something by someone else. While I didn’t think about it as I was doing it, I now believe that it was those early years of practice and exploration that informed my writing.

I see virtually no point in practicing something which has zero to little chance of ending up in a song or in your playing. Writing songs gives your practice wings! Composing and/or arranging transforms your theoretical exercises into original musical statements.

There are very few things, I believe, more gratifying than writing (and recording) your own music. But whether or not you have any desire or chance to become a recording artist like me, the fact is that there are numerous benefits to creating and composing your own lines, harmonies, exercises, and ultimately, your own songs or albums. 

If you feel bored or “spent” with what you are playing or practicing: try writing a song! If you don’t feel like writing a song, then make a completely original arrangement of a song you like and learn to play it by memory. When you’re done with that, do it again and again, until the concept lines between being just another player and being a composer begin to blur. Take Lester’s advice and join the throng!

And check out Greg’s latest release – Tokyo Live

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