Magical Multiples: Writing For Or Playing In a Duo, Trio, or Quartet Offers Exciting Possibilities

magical mulitples duos trios quartets guitar classical guitar1
From the Winter 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY MARK HOUGHTON

Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar, save perhaps two.” This quote, wrongly attributed to Frederic Chopin, probably first appeared in print in England in the latter half of the 1940s. It is, however, an ideal quote to launch an article that aspires to clarify the challenges and rewards of composing for guitar combinations of two, three, and four guitars.

Composers set out purposefully to write for a specific number of instruments. Often, they will be collaborating with established ensembles of fixed numbers by writing commissioned works for them. The nature of what governs the path of setting out to compose can vary widely. In his 1962 book The Infinite Variety of Music, Leonard Bernstein summarized six ways to compose music. In order of desirability the first five were: 1. To conceive a piece, complete, in one sitting; 2. To conjure an “atmosphere”; 3. To create a fertile theme; 4. To create a tune—having less potential for development than a theme; and 5. To commence with a harmonic progression or chord sequence. Bernstein also talks of a sixth method, which always results in his falling asleep: he would lie on his bed when thinking of ideas for compositions, and sometimes drift off to sleep! This list of methods does sum up the principal ways composers have been exercising their craft for hundreds of years. Writing for guitar and guitar ensembles embodies these methods—and we also have some unique characteristics to bring to the game.

It’s a generally accepted fact that, individually, guitars in ensembles (of any number of instruments) contribute better when the music allocated to each is written as a single line. In my opinion, writing any sort of open score music is best done “in the head” (or, as I like to call it, the “mind’s ear”). The best way I can describe the process is via the genre of fugue writing. Imagine a fugue written expressly for three voices (for example, guitar trio). The conclusion of a fugue exposition brings all the voices together—subject, answer, counter-subject. The success, from a potential-for-development standpoint, relies on the compatibility of three components: melody, harmony, and inversion of the three ideas—and also rhythmic compatibility. If we deconstruct the exposition back to three component parts, our fugue subject will have been our original idea, followed by the invention of the remaining parts. When reciting the main subject in our mind’s ear, we have a natural knack of being able to create complementary rhythms that shape our answer and counter-subject material. It’s not necessary to then strictly develop the materials around formal fugue construction, but doing so will provide a resource that can be used to further develop your composition ideas.

When writing for guitar, we have an array of traditional writing tools for composing and a range of idiomatic technical tools unique to the guitar—all skill sets that allow the core principles of musicality to be satisfied. The same tools and guiding principles are used regardless of the size of the ensemble. Traditional writing tools include the considerations of primordial line (conjunct and disjunct movement of scale tones), rhythm, contour, harmony, pitch range of our instrument, degree of technical difficulty, and musical form. These tools take precedence when assembling the music. Idiomatic technical tools include such devices as natural and artificial harmonics, pizzicato, ponticello, tasto, glissando and portamento, string bends, percussive left- and right-hand effects, and so forth. These technical considerations can bring sparkle to compositions and add a unique stamp that only the guitar can offer.

Having briefly outlined some ground principles, for the rest of this article I’d like to focus on the combinations of two, three, and four guitars, with some suggestions on how to consider using these combinations in ensemble, and what adding an extra guitar does toward shaping the way forward.


A duo has advantages over solo guitar in that it allows a more successful application of legato in multiple and simultaneous areas of the compositions being played, plus the capability to play a wider pitch range, with more line complexity and variable articulation between the two guitars. However, to achieve this complexity of sound, either or both guitars must add to our single-line melody and play a third and/or a fourth melodic line. Introducing more lines immediately creates a problem for true ensemble playing: timing or synchronization on the beat between the two guitars, to present the music as a whole. This is not a problem confined to guitar players, though it is perhaps more critical for the guitar, due to the percussive nature of attack. On this topic, all that can be said in this brief article is that getting to know your ensemble partners through performing music together, with a thorough understanding of the expressive components of the compositions being played, will help you to synchronize your playing as accurately as possible.

From a composing point of view, having both guitars simultaneously “on the beat” (a difficult proposition because the timing needs to be exact) can be avoided very easily by simply not allowing both guitars to play on the same beat, but rather, staggering the parts—one guitar has a part written that plays the first beat, the second part can make a later entrance in the measure. It’s the compositional equivalent of writing a “click-track” where one player leads and the other follows. The notion of having de facto click-track support is nothing new to ensemble or orchestral writers. Every composition has a tiered hierarchy of rhythms happening at any one time, from the lowest-pitched parts to the highest. Often (but not exclusively) the lower bass range provides and calibrates the underlying meter of the music—those larger beat structures that give us a sense of forward motion and spaciousness.

Concerning our traditional writing tools, duet writing may feature, for example, unison melodic lines (or lines an octave apart that provide a bolder statement), harmonies in thirds and sixths (most commonly, but other intervals too), imitation (canon-like), pedal bass tones that may extend over a sequence of triads (creating a modal environment), and pedal chords that provide a harmony platform over a running flourish of melodic notes. A common duo composition format employs one guitar playing arpeggiated chord figures against a second guitar playing a lyrical melody. One guitar playing a melodic line of harmonics combines well with a second single-line duet part providing a bass and played tasto, to allow the harmonics to rise above and sing. An interesting sharing effect between two instruments called “hocket” can be quite effective, particularly when playing cascading rapid scales: melody notes are alternated between the two guitars (one guitar resting as the other plays a note, and vice-versa). Dynamic balance is an important focus for duet playing, requiring detailed discussion to determine the intentions of the music being presented.


Adding an extra guitar to make a guitar trio creates a modicum of freedom over the guitar duo format. The trio format allows great opportunities to explore the conversational element of three independent melodic lines coming together. The polyphonic nature of the guitar cannot be ignored, though, and a backdrop of one guitar playing chords against two guitars in melodic dialogue is a popular structural choice here. When two guitars combine to present the chord harmony, then chords with wide voicings can provide a lush backdrop to a serene higher-pitched third guitar. Our idiomatic tools have not been mentioned yet, but in my opinion, the guitar trio is well placed to introduce some novel textures using these effects, due to the nature of the writing, which invites the listener in to a fine level of detail more difficult for larger ensembles to achieve. Three guitars presenting triads, with each playing single-line natural or artificial harmonics, is a wonderfully delicate texture to explore. One guitar playing a percussive snare drum sound against two guitars playing intervals a fifth apart and utilizing ponticello can evoke a brass-sounding military band. The transition from duo to trio requires more careful consideration about combining the musical characteristics of each written part, so that all three players present their phrasing, united. With each extra player comes a little more detail of preparation and analysis of the music, with yet more emphasis on ensemble communication.


The guitar quartet is one of the most enduring combinations of guitars, since the first compositions around the end of the 19th century. Its inspiration comes from the genre of string quartet; however, guitar quartet repertoire has not generally followed the string family lineage when it comes to style and form—there are no Classical sonata forms, no extended variation sets, which would be sure signs of a strings legacy at work. Instead, music written for four guitars tends to be progressive, modern. One influence that it does accept from string quartet compositions, however, is the desire to give each guitar an important individual role in the music, which is perhaps why the works written for this genre, to date, are so integrated.  It is here that the full gamut of the guitar’s idiomatic tools shines. The quartet format already successfully satisfies the harmony ideal of being able to play four individual melodic counterpoint lines. Nowhere is the fugue analogy, mentioned earlier, more applicable than in guitar quartet writing.


Looking beyond writing single lines for the four players, there is the potential for subtle orchestration, viewing each guitar as a section (or choir) within an orchestra. Extra harmonies and redundant voicings spread among the quartet can punctuate the music and give it a sense of depth and breadth. Highlighting sections of music by having two guitars playing the same lines at octave intervals apart is a common sight in quartet scores (a simple orchestration used also in piano music). Guitars can also be grouped together in different combinations: two duos; guitar trio with one soloist; or two melody players against two accompaniment players. Similarly, as with the duo/trio scenario, adding an extra guitar brings more responsibility to unite phrasing together. This calls for more scrutiny of the scores being played, followed by discussion within the ensemble focused on shaping the music with one ideal in mind.

Writing new music for guitar duo, trio, and quartet is essential for feeding the amateur and professional concert program communities alike, worldwide. I hope the information here provides some food for thought and encourages guitarists to create and perform more music together. Playing in duos, trios, and quartets is a great social pursuit and a good synergistic learning experience, where friends are made for life. Enjoy!



Fernando Sor: Fantasie, Op.54bis
(Edition Horreaux/Trehard)

Gilbert Biberian: Pierrot (Chester Music)

Nikita Koshkin: Cambridge Suite
(Edition Margaux)

Sergio Assad: Maracaipe


Filippo Gragnani: Trio, Op.12
(Edizioni Suvini Zerboni)

Paul Hindermith: Rondo
(Schott/ Behrend Edition)

Mark Houghton: Beyond Horizons
(Les Productions d’Oz)

Patrick Roux: Carnaval
(Les Productions d’Oz)


Philip Houghton: Opals

Roland Dyens: Austin Tango
(Les Productions d’Oz)

Sergio Assad: Uarekena (Edition Lemoine)

Alfonso Montes: Latin American Guitar Ensembles (Mel Bay)