Expanding Guitar Repertoire Through Arrangements and Transcriptions

expanding guitar repertoire illustration

There is often a kind of hidden conflict between original compositions and arrangements.

Original compositions represent the natural singing voice of the guitar; arrangements are defined as adaptations of compositions for performance with instruments or voices other than those originally specified. Fortunately, it is not a conflict that cannot be resolved. Many artists achieve a sense of balance and proportion in recitals by combining both genres with superb aesthetic effect.

In the 16th century, Luys de Narváez, vihuela maestro at the court of Emperor Charles V, made a beautiful transcription for that instrument of Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz, giving it the title of Canción del Emperador (Song of the Emperor). Presumably it was one of Charles V’s favorite pieces. But because of the inconvenience of packing an entire choir into the monarch’s bedchamber, Narváez compressed the work onto the plaintive plucked strings of the vihuela, to be played at any time according to Charles’ whim or command.

The strongest stimulant for making an arrangement is admiration of a particular composition even though that work was not originally intended for the guitar. A further motivating factor for artists to play arrangements is to beef up the available repertoire, expanding the possibilities of musical variety and substance beyond the standard original stockpile.

Perhaps the most spectacularly ambitious arranger in the 20th century was the Japanese virtuoso Kazuhito Yamashita. In his Yamashita Editions (1981), he set out his approach: “I have always sought, from childhood, possibilities of more large-scale expression than that which exists. I employed the manner of dynamic and symphonic expressions, and tried many other ways in order to give a performance filled with modern sense and to play longer pieces on the guitar, this most expressive solo instrument.”

Yamashita amazed (and outraged) critics in the 1980s with his transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally for pianoforte. (I heard him play this at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and it was indeed an astounding performance.) Yamashita was also the first guitarist to play J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor (the suite that includes the famous Chaconne) in its entirety. He went on to arrange solo versions of Dvorák’s Largo from The New World Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Debussy’s Petite Suite, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody  No. 2, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, and Giménez’s La Boda de Luis Alonso, as well as Sibelius’ Finlandia (for two guitars).


In the early 19th century, several guitar composers had imitated the orchestra and arranged operatic themes. Two notable examples are Giuliani’s Rossinianas and Legnani’s variations on arias of Rossini and Paisello. But the predominant pioneer of transcription was Tárrega, who laid the foundation for the expansion of the repertoire. Tárrega’s contributions encompassed composers from Bach to Albéniz, and inspired his pupils Llobet and Pujol to produce a variety of solo arrangements, as well as transcriptions for duo.

Segovia made extensive use of the transcriptions of Tárrega, Pujol, and Llobet, as well as founding his own Segovia Archives at Schott in the 1920s. His recitals invariably consisted of a combination of arrangements and original compositions. His own work in this area brought in a multitude of composers from all epochs. But Segovia’s greatest achievement was to push the boundaries of J.S. Bach beyond Tárrega—namely his edition of the Chaconne, which has enlarged the horizons of all guitarists.

Julian Bream began arranging pieces for guitar early on, supplying a selection to the Clifford Essex publishing company from 1949, when he was just 15. Once his concert career began in earnest, he demonstrated his own remarkable flair for arranging. (From the 1960s, many of these transcriptions were published in the Faber Guitar Series.)

Eight years younger than Bream, John Williams was at all times an indefatigable arranger but, regrettably, published few of his transcriptions, despite Boosey & Hawkes’ The John Williams Series, inaugurated in 1979. But his arrangements can be experienced on his recordings, one of the most brilliant being his peerless transcription of Granados’ Valses poéticos (available on John Williams Plays Spanish Music, 1969).

In the 1980s Schott started its Edition Narciso Yepes. Yepes, with his Ramírez ten-string guitar, was a fervent advocate of both old and modern repertoire, invariably creating his own approach to every kind of arrangement. Another major editor was Alirio Díaz, who pitched in with arrangements of Mudarra, Corbetta, and Scarlatti for the publisher Zanibon, as well as editions of Barrios and popular Venezuelan and Italian compositions.

The unifying characteristic of all the arrangers mentioned is that they were great performers. Their editions reflect their unique artistic identities. The secrets of such enterprises consist of vision, imagination, and driving ambition to widen the range of the instrument’s possibilities beyond that so far achieved.

Vaulting ambition in this field is to be encouraged—timidity and restraint are not recommended. In terms of innovation, I leave you with the example of Paul Galbraith (an outstanding artist, especially in his interpretation of J.S. Bach), who was ambitious (and brave) enough, with the help of the great luthier David Rubio, to bring forward an entirely new type of guitar, the “Brahms guitar,” with eight strings (it adds a low A and high A) and a cello-like end-pin.

With a new technique to go with it, Galbraith introduced a range of hitherto quite unplayable pieces by Bach, Brahms, and Haydn. His comments are uncannily reminiscent of Yamashita’s credo of some 40 years ago: “As a guitarist I feel I am now able to start out again with a whole new world of unfolding possibilities, made available to me thanks to David Rubio and the development of the Brahms guitar.”