Guitarists are sometimes chided by pianists and other instrumentalists for poaching chestnuts from their repertoire and transcribing them for the guitar. Yet pieces such as Asturias by Albéniz, the Spanish Dances of Granados, and the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin or cello have received vibrant new life in the guitar world. Some pieces—like the sonatas of Scarlatti—seem to have arrived home when played on guitar. Ultimately, masterful transcriptions are good for music and for the legacy of the original composers. Guitar transcriptions give us an intimate view of the musical thinking of great composers who never wrote for our instrument. Here, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Manuel Barrueco, Bill Kanengiser, and David Russell share thoughts on their philosophies and approaches to transcribing and arranging.

Carlos Barbosa Lima ArrangingCARLOS BARBOSA-LIMA
Adding the Arranger’s Touch

Carlos Barbosa-Lima has vast experience transcribing and arranging a broad assortment of music for guitar. Over the course of his long career, he has arranged and performed in a range of styles, including popular Brazilian songs, jazz and ragtime music, Broadway tunes, Beatles songs, and more, in addition to classical music from almost every period.

Born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1944, Barbosa-Lima started playing guitar at age seven and began arranging music for the instrument by ear a few years later. By the time he was ten, he was studying with Isaías Sávio. After his concert debut in Rio de Janeiro in 1958, he began studying with composer Theodoro Nogueira. “He introduced me to the books by Paul Hindemith, which led me to discover the wonderful world of harmony and counterpoint, leading into analysis of orchestral works by the great masters of music,” Barbosa-Lima recalls.

It was Nogueira who piqued Barbosa-Lima’s interest in transcribing. “I became interested in understanding how the wonderful transcriptions by Tárrega, Llobet, and Segovia were done and looked at the original piano music,” he says. “Gradually, I started doing my own transcriptions and harmonizing some Brazilian popular and folkloric tunes.” After Barbosa-Lima played Guido Santórsola’s Concertino for Guitar and Orchestra in 1960, Santórsola began mentoring the young guitarist, deeply influencing his transcribing and his philosophy about music.

Barbosa-Lima advises that transcribers should be faithful to the original score “as an overall guide,” but that “changes have to be made. It’s like translating something from one language to another, and l feel that literal translations never work. Even in pieces by classical composers, some kind of arranging has to be done.” He works by the principle that the new version should have its own identity “with a link to the original,” no matter what style of music he is working in.

“I begin by focusing on the melody and the harmony, then creating a solid bass line,” he says. “The counterpoint and embellishments of the harmonic structure come last. I like to move the melody to the bass or middle range with the harmony on top and below. It’s an orchestration concept.”

Choosing the right key is also an early decision the transcriber needs to make, but sometimes the initial choice may not be the best one. “Many times I’ll change my mind—even after I’m halfway through,” he says. “A good example of that is my solo guitar arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, which I recorded on the LP Impressions in 1985. I started in the key of A, but when I reached a middle section, the harmonic progression convinced me that I had to move the whole piece to G. After I did, the piece gained greater dimension on solo guitar.”

Among the more ambitious pieces Barbosa-Lima has arranged is George Gershwin’s 1924 jazz-infused piano concerto Rhapsody in Blue. “I thought of the orchestral dimension of the guitar, then decided to arrange it as a guitar duet in 1985. Later, in 1988, I expanded the arrangement to two guitars and orchestra, keeping the essence of the original orchestration and adapting whenever needed.” He took great liberties in the cadenzas, taking a cue from the improvised feel of Gershwin’s original piano solos.

“For the cadenzas, I wrote out parts for the two guitars, creating an improvisational Brazilian-jazz flavor,” Barbosa-Lima says. “It was probably a concept ahead of its time and it worked out well.” Sharon Isbin played the guitar duet arrangement with Barbosa-Lima, and later the two performed his orchestral version at a festival in New Hampshire.

Barbosa-Lima feels that a successful guitar arrangement should re-create the original music with the personal touch of the arranger. “The overall sonority has to be the foremost goal,” he says. “A link to the original composer’s idea has to be kept, then augmented with inventiveness to create a fresh version of the music. I agree with Segovia and others who say that the guitar arrangement has to sound at least as good as the original. But I would go beyond that by saying that the arrangement has to be creative and fresh, making the listener feel that it sounds better on the guitar.”

Watch Barbosa-Lima play his beautiful and imaginative arrangement of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, from the hit Broadway musical Evita:

Manuel Barruecco ArrangingMANUEL BARRUECO
How Much Furniture?

Since his amazing early albums for the Vox label, Manuel Barrueco has showcased his own transcriptions. His take on music by Bach, Albéniz, Granados, Scarlatti, and Paganini reveals his deep understanding of different style periods and his ability to create a transcription that really sings on the guitar. In 1981 he published his transcription of Suite Española Op. 47 by Albéniz, and has subsequently issued his editions through a variety of publishers, including his own Tonar imprint, whose catalog includes plenty of Bach, plus music by Tan Dun, Ernesto Lecuona, Astor Piazzolla, Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarrett, and others.

In a recent phone conversation, Barrueco shared his thoughts on adapting music for guitar. “In theory, anything could be arranged; it depends on how far away you go from what is written,” he says. “That’s a personal thing. Then it’s up to listeners to decide if they like it or not.”

The process frequently requires transposing the original to a guitar-friendly key, but in one notable case, Barrueco maintained the original tonality that’s not used in a lot of guitar music. “I did a transcription of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin in G minor,” he says. “Everyone knows the fugue from that piece, which Bach also arranged for lute, and it’s usually played in A minor on the guitar. I’ve been asked why I transcribed the whole sonata in G minor rather than A minor where it works better. To me, the last thing we need is another piece in A minor. If it works in G minor, why should we change it? The guitar has difficulties in some keys, depending on the work’s texture. If it’s a single line, you can do anything you want. When the original key doesn’t work well, I find a key where it does work and follow the logic of the piece.”

In transcribing keyboard music, textures need be thinned and octaves adjusted to make the transfer to the guitar. The best transcribers understand how to maintain the composer’s intent and create something playable on the guitar.

“It’s like moving furniture from a bigger room to a smaller room,” Barrueco explains. “One approach is to see how much furniture the room can accommodate, keeping as much as possible. You can stop there, saying you kept as much of the original as you could. But there are some steps you can take after that. The more I work with music, the more I think there is stuff that needs to be taken out. It shouldn’t be about gathering as much information as possible and overcrowding the room. I have done that and speak from experience. You need to see if you can take anything out to make the room look better. That’s usually a final step. You don’t want to just pile stuff up in the room. You have to decide if you want to be accurate and in style, and guess at how the composer might have done it.”

Barrueco sometimes takes another step. “Maybe after you’ve put what you want in the room, it looks kind of empty, so you put a lamp in there,” he says. “Let’s say the lamp represents something original and it’s a risk to add it. You have to decide if putting it into the piece makes the guitar sound better. You want the information of the original notes, but the guitar has to sound good, like the piece was originally written for the instrument. You also have to consider the physical demands of playing the arrangement.”

Barrueco stresses that the transcriber must be very familiar with the composer’s work. “Everything by Bach that I listen to or play accumulates and gives me a sense of his style that I draw on when I make a transcription,” he says. “But once you add a note to a Bach violin piece, it’s no longer Bach. It’s not the original, it’s different. But if you don’t add anything, that doesn’t match his own style of arranging. For example, he made a keyboard arrangement of the C major sonata for solo violin. He was very free with the music and added notes to make the piece sound good on another instrument. When I do a Bach transcription, I hope it sounds like something he would have done.”

Barrueco agrees with the idea that the transcriber needs to create something that sounds at least as good as the original. “If it doesn’t sound as good as the original, what is the point?” he asks. “The point might be that you live in the guitar world and you really want to play the piece. If you live in the musical world and your transcription doesn’t sound as good as the original, why would anyone want to listen to it? You should bring new light to a piece. If it’s done well, the guitar has its own voice, and a good piece should translate well. If you put it in a different light, it may sound even better than the original.”

Listen to Maestro Barrueco play his own transcription of “Sevilla” from Albéniz’s Suite Española Op. 47:

Bill Kanensiger ArrangingBILL KANENGISER
“A Little Outlandish”

Bill Kanengiser has made some pretty audacious choices in the pieces he has arranged for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (of which he is a founding member), as well as for solo guitar. His solo guitar arrangement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, which includes the famous “Rondo ala Turca” (Turkish March) as its third movement, is a case in point. Movie buffs will recall that Kanengiser played his arrangement of the “Turkish March” in the soundtrack of the 1986 movie Crossroads. In the story, the main character, played by Ralph Macchio, is portrayed playing the piece on camera before deciding to leave his classical guitar studies at Juilliard to become a bluesman.

“I’m still pretty proud of that arrangement,” Kanengiser says. “In its day, it was a little outlandish for a guitarist to do that. Now you have guitarists like Paul Galbraith doing a lot of that sort of thing. Back in the day, though, the ‘Turkish March’ raised a few eyebrows.”

For the quartet, Kanengiser has tackled large-scale works such as Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. “When I was a student at USC, I took an orchestration class, and we studied an excerpt from Capriccio Espagnol,” Kanengiser recalls. “I felt that Rimsky-Korsakov was trying to make the orchestra sound like a big guitar. So I was trying to return it to its Andalusian roots. Parts of the arrangement don’t sound as grandiose or colorful as the original. But in places where the orchestra tries to imitate guitar strumming, it really sounds better to have guitars strumming.”

Kanengiser stresses that choosing the right piece is crucial. “There are some pieces that are never going to sound good on the guitar,” he says. “I would love to play the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings, but that’s a great example of something that just won’t work for guitars; the instrument is too percussive. I also think it would be great to play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. You could play the right notes, but it would sound stupid. The measure of a successful arrangement is that a casual listener could think it was originally written for guitar or guitar ensemble.”

Kanengiser considers himself more of a transcriber than an arranger, although he excels at both. “If I am approaching a classical work, my goal is to be as faithful as possible to the original, but to be adaptable so that the overall effect maintains the intent of the piece,” he says. “It was very different when I adapted Ralph Towner’s Icarus in a sort of Brazilian style for the LAGQ Guitar Heroes album. For that one, I recomposed lines and changed the feel.” Similarly, in his arrangement of [Yes guitarist] Steve Howe’s Mood for a Day, he went fully into the flamenco style. “We had flamenco dancers doing palmas and stamping on the floor and we played it like a bulerias on flamenco guitars,” he says. “I really sliced and diced the piece, changing the time signature and the feel. In that type of arrangement, you function more like a composer.”

LAGQ transcribes a lot of their repertoire and also has a stable of writers who know what they are looking for musically. Just because the LAGQ’s John Dearman plays a seven-string guitar doesn’t mean he’s always relegated to playing bass lines. “Our gripe with most published arrangements for guitar quartet is that they are organized as if they were for a string quartet. The top staff has the highest notes and the bottom staff has the lowest notes,” Kanengiser says. “That makes no sense with guitars because a guitar can function as the bass, the lead, or the rhythm. It can even be like drums. It is more interesting for the players and the audience if the parts are passed around.”

LAGQ also seeks to create a spatial effect with their arrangements. “We try to explore the antiphonal potential of the guitar quartet,” Kanengiser states. “This is something a string quartet couldn’t do. Very often in our music, I may have the two guys on the right playing a little duo together, then do the same for the two guys on the left. The piece I did that on the most was one of the Chet Atkins pieces on the Guitar Heroes album. For Blue Ocean Echo, I wanted the quartet to imitate a tape delay by having each of us play the same passages canonically and pass them clockwise and counterclockwise across the group. That created a natural echo effect.”

LAGQ sometimes infuse humor in their arrangements. Their Pachelbel ‘Loose’ Canon was a group collaboration: “We were recording for the Delos label then, and they specifically asked us to do Pachelbel’s Canon—but it actually doesn’t work very well for guitars. We were sitting around and I just started playing the chords and Scott [Tennant] started fooling around with a reggae accompaniment. We all jammed on it a bit. Later, Andy [York] wrote out a bluegrass variation, and Scott came up with a rhumba variation. I wrote a melody for it that works as a canon in the Gypsy Kings style. When we presented it to the record company they were aghast. They included it on the record, but as a bonus track following about 20 seconds of silence. It was as if they didn’t want anyone to hear it! But it has turned out to be our biggest hit on YouTube.”

Ready for a Hungarian-Spanish fusion? Here’s the LAGQ taking on Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2:

David Russell Arranging GuitarViews on Transcription from

CLASSICAL GUITAR: In your transcribing, you’ve taken on lesser-known works by Bach, Couperin, Weiss, Handel, and others that have not been widely explored by guitarists. Is your motivation the desire to play a given piece, or to add to the repertoire of the guitar?

DAVID RUSSELL: It is actually a desire to add to my own repertoire, which indirectly might add to the general repertoire of the guitar. I always enjoy playing works that haven’t been played often on the guitar—not to exclude my enjoyment of the better- known works. For every successful transcription, there are others that I give up on after having transcribed them and spending time learning them.

CG: You have also revisited pieces by Albéniz, Granados, and others that have been very popular among guitarists through editions published by earlier guitarists. In your versions are you trying to get closer to the piano originals?

RUSSELL: Yes, I decided to give Albéniz and Granados my full respect and tried to be as faithful as possible to the originals. There is always a dilemma that if the transcription becomes too technically difficult to play, it also becomes difficult to be expressive musically. Each person has to resolve this problem for themselves and this is the reason why I try to make my own transcriptions of most of the works I wish to play.

CG: Can you describe a bit of your thought process when making transcriptions of piano music?

RUSSELL: I suppose foremost in my mind is: “If it doesn’t sound good, don’t do it.” In some pieces the melody is the most important part of the music; in others, perhaps the counterpoint; in some pieces, the texture. So, after having decided what the priorities are, I focus on those issues during the transcription.

CG: Comparing your version of Bach’s D minor Partita with transcriptions by others, your choices of bass notes and the harmony they imply in relation to the melody can alter the emotional content of a passage. Does your ear lead you to some choices, or are you mainly trying to discern what you feel Bach’s intention was?

RUSSELL: The short answer would be: both. I feel that the harmony can add to the tension of the moment, something which Bach did in much of his music. Often there are more options than the obvious harmonization, and it’s enjoyable to explore them.

CG: When you arranged the Celtic music for the Message of the Sea album, you had a lot more freedom to treat the melodies and chord progressions. What was your idea in adapting this music for guitar?

RUSSELL:  When transcribing music written by great composers such as Bach, Handel, and others, I feel I have to be as faithful as possible to what those composers wrote. In the case of the Celtic music, I felt I could be much more adventurous and in some cases write a sort of fantasy on the melody, while of course trying to keep the spirit of the Celtic music as alive as possible.

CG: In your master classes do you recommend that student guitarists try their hand at transcribing?

RUSSELL: Yes, of course. I feel that anyone who is going to be a professional guitarist should transcribe the majority of the works they are going to play, as this brings a much greater intimacy with the pieces and greater insight into the intentions of the composer. Having said that, I sometimes use other people’s transcriptions, as there are guitarists who have made wonderful contributions to the guitar repertoire. In those cases, I still compare their work to the original. 

Russell plays his transcription of Enrique Granados’ Danza No. 10: