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|Question of the Month: How do I play guitar from piano or choral music arrangements?|
I'm currently playing rhythm guitar in my church's praise team. We play a lot of hymns as well as contemporary Christian music. I find the hymns to be hard to play smoothly. There are so many changes so it forces you to use a lot of left hand damping resulting in a choppy sound. Also, it can be hard to determine the chords because the score, both clefs, is only a voicing. These arrangements are for piano. Do you have any tips on how to play accompaniment to these old hymns? Thank you for your time.
This problem of figuring out how to adjust the piano score of a hymn to fit the needs of a guitar player is a very common one, and impossible to provide a quick answer to. It is such an important question, however, that I'm going to attempt to answer this as well as I can, not only for you, but for others as well. Bear with me...
First, let's examine the way a hymn looks on paper for the pianist and why it's written this way. Historically, musical instruments like we have today are all pretty new inventions and it has to be presumed that, if you go very far back in history, music was primarily a vocal tradition. The oldest instruments we can find are simple percussion instruments, a flute type apparatus with a few holes in it, a 5 string lyre, etc. - not even enough notes on any of them to play a Major scale. And even the writing down of music on paper is just a few hundred years old. All this to say that music was, in its older form, a vocal thing. Along the way somewhere, people figured out how to sing harmony parts and eventually vocal music became choir music. A lot of music you see in standard hymnals are written out in 2 clefs as if it were a piano score, but it is really an SATB choir arrangement for the 4 vocal parts. The bass and tenor parts are in the bass clef and the alto and soprano parts are in the treble clef. You can easily read the notes horizontally across the page to track any of the 4 parts. This is the important thing about the score; it is 4 horizontal lines for 4 vocal parts which, performed together sounds good to the ear. As a side note, when you look vertically at any one spot in the score, viewing the 4 parts as they stack up, they produce what we call a chord.
Here's the rub. In a vocal score, every note is a chord! No guitarist can play a half dozen chords per measure. And, even if you could, there would be no way to make it sound smooth. Worse yet, those particular voicings, which aren't that bad to play on a piano, are often impossible to reach on a guitar, especially the close harmonies. Then, to make matters even worse, there aren't even any chord names written on the chart at all. Well, when you think about it, why would a choir need to know the names of the chords they are producing? So... the first thing to realize is that a written hymn is designed for singers, not instrumentalists, and no thought was given to the guitar at all (a ridiculous idea even 100 years ago because the guitar wasn't even considered a legitimate instrument in times past). Okay, so now we've fully identified the problem. What do we do about it?
I have spent my life in music (I started playing by ear and reading notes on a string of instruments beginning in 1956 - and I was even the Choir President in high school). I've studied theory and I have the ability to look at a choir arrangement, analyze each stack of vertical notes and give them a chord name. This level of knowledge and experience is something that I can't impart in a few paragraphs, but here's the basic idea. The first thing to take into account is what key you're in and to know what chords are common to that key. Then you need to know how chords of all types are spelled (which notes make up which chords). Then you look at the first stack of notes in the score, name the notes, and try to figure out what chord you have, keeping in mind that the notes won't likely be in order. Then you write that chord name above the notes. You'd have to do this for every note in the tune, hundreds of chords. Even for people who have undergone a lot of music education, this is not an easy or fast chore. I'd say that 99% of guitarists trying to do this would throw their hands up in despair within minutes. And, even if you could muster all the way through a tune, you still have way too many chords and you need to weed it down to the most important one or two chords per measure in order to consider it a viable guitar accompaniment chord chart.
Let's just say that a person has indeed named every chord of a choir arrangement of a hymn. Here's the way I would go about eliminating the unnecessary ones. First of all, you might see three C chords in a row, just in different inversions with different notes in the bass. You could start by naming the first one C, then not naming the other two at all, since they are all C chords. Doing this throughout the chart will usually get rid of about 1/3 of the unnecessary chord names. Then if you come across a diminished chord that lasts for 1 beat, it is just a passing chord and can be eliminated. That'll get rid of a few more. Then, the truth is that almost any chord that lasts for only 1 beat or less can be eliminated. What you'll see beginning to happen is that the remaining chords are generally the ones that are on beat 1 (or sometimes beat 3) of each measure. These are usually the 'important' chords. There is a reason for this because the other main ingredient of music (besides melody and harmony) is rhythm. Every song fits into a time signature like 4/4 or 3/4 and the time signature is based on the 'pulse' of the music. When you count 1, 2, 3 while listening to a waltz, for example, you can hear that there is an accent every three beats that happens on beat 1 of every measure. You can feel the pulse of the ONE, two, three rhythm. Just like beat 1 is highlighted in the rhythm, it is also highlighted in the harmony, meaning that the chord on beat 1 is the most important one in a measure. Most of the songs you'll end up working on are in 4/4, however, so let's shift to 4/4 for a minute. It so happens that in that time signature beat 1 is still the most important, but beat 3 (the middle of the measure) is often very important too.
SIMPLIFICATION: So... here's what you could try in order to eliminate a lot of time and trouble. Start with a fresh choir arrangement of a song in your hymnal. Don't bother naming all the chords. Just name the first one in every measure. Now sing it and play along. Most of it will sound pretty good just like that, but once in a while you can tell that you're missing something. In those measures, go back and name the chord on beat 3. That will fix most of the remaining problems. If you still have spot or two where the chord you're playing sounds weird against the melody, chances are that they are on beat 2 or 4. Just go to the trouble to name that chord too. What you end up with is a 16 measure verse that only has about 20 chords or so (often not more than 5 different ones) instead of 100. Make sense?
Now... with all that said, I'm taking for granted that you can read notes, know your scales, understand all about chord construction and can actually name any chord you come across. That's one huge assumption for most guitarists. So here's another angle. Over the past few decades there have been several publications that have come out that include 'lead sheet' charts for hymns (the melody written in notes with lyrics & chord names). One of them is "How Sweet the Sound: Hymns and Choruses With Guitar Chords". Then there are websites that offer free charts like at: http://www.graceevangel.org/Other/Hymns.html. Then, of course, there is the CCLI licensing organization which churches can use as a resource through their 'SongSelect' archive. Another great resource is through 'Lifeway' who produces hymnals and church music resources, including whole orchestral scores of loads of hymns and choruses. It's gotten to where, with a little investment of time and a small amount of money, you can find just about anything you want in print without having to go through the drudgery of doing it yourself. Last, but certainly not least, there's always youTube. If you play guitar fairly well, you can dial up most any song on youTube and watch somebody perform them. Just looking at a guitar player making chord forms is all I need to quickly get the tune figured out.
Without going through a 2-year course in music reading, scale & chord theory, and arranging, I hope I've given some sort of brief overview of the technical side of what's going on here. And, maybe with a little internet research, you can now find some resources that will help shorten the process as well. It's tough being in the trenches in the church music world because some players read notes, some TAB, some nothing at all, and format of the print music you get is all over the map. It all needs to be standardized into lead sheets for church musicians and easily shared. Until that day comes, however, you'll continue to run onto these hurdles. Hope this little dissertation has helped.
And, by the way, part of your question skirts the issue of the 'choppy sound' you often get when playing hymns. I might just mention that a good deal of the choppiness is in the fact that many hymns are written in flat key signatures. In those keys you have little or no open strings in the chords. This not only makes you resort to (difficult to play) barre chords, but without open strings your sound is automatically choppy sounding. So, once you figure out what chords to play in a hymn, you might want to transpose it to a good guitar key and enjoy the ringing effect of all those open strings...