Power in Numbers: Tips on Writing for Guitar Ensembles

guitar composition tips writing for ensembles
Glendale Community College Guitar Ensemble Photo Courtesy of GFA
From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY MARK HOUGHTON

Mark Houghton is an established amateur English guitarist and composer. A winner of two international ensemble music competitions, his ensemble music is regularly played at guitar festivals in many countries, and has been showcased in performances of commissioned works at three consecutive GFA Conventions, while receiving premiere performances in the UK by the prestigious National Youth Guitar Ensemble and Cambridge Guitar Orchestra. Here, Mark outlines some ideas to kick-start writing for combinations of guitar ensemble.

So, you’ve tackled arranging/composing for solo guitar, with a mixture of success and failure, noting some limitations of expressing music on one guitar. During these performance explorations, it may cross your mind to take one of these solo guitar pieces and write it out in open score for two or three guitars, assigning the melodic line to guitar 1, inner harmonies to guitar 2, and bass part to guitar 3. Playing the music in this new “ensemble” with other guitarists allows you to relax the restrictions imposed on the solo instrument and, in turn, promote a dissection of the music to better inform the guitarists present. Here, then, is one of the fundamental ways of future-proofing classical-guitar popularity—musical development through ensemble music.

It’s little surprise in today’s classical guitar culture that ensemble music is thriving and in all manner of combinations with guitar, producing improved musicianship in the process.

Composer, guitarist and article author Mark Houghton

Writing for 2 Guitars

After solo guitar, it would seem logical to first tackle composing/arranging music for a combination of two guitars and, if your compositional skills leave you feeling insecure about creating music, then it’s safer to attempt a literal transcription, or an arrangement of music, written by composers with good harmony/voice-leading constitution to their writing. Rich pickings can be found in the repertoire of music for flute and accompaniment, or easy solo piano pieces. If this seems a little daunting at first, then choose a solo guitar piece and split apart the voices to redistribute onto two guitars. For this, I’d recommend music written by a composer who adheres to an effective three-part polyphonic structure, such as Fernando Sor.

Keep in mind the following considerations when arranging (or composing) for a guitar duo combination: Will the arrangement be aimed at players of similar technical abilities? If so, then consider sharing the melodic “regions of interest” between both guitar parts. Pieces built from simple formal structure (Baroque dances, for example, or early sonatas—e.g. Domenico Scarlatti) lend themselves to this, where “binary form” parts can be swapped between guitars on the repeats, for balance. Try to assign the melodic lines, free of accompaniment harmony, to one guitar, so that the music can be successfully articulated and made to sing (execution of legato always being a high priority here). For compositions/arrangements with more dense counterpoint writing, try not to exceed more than two-part writing for each guitar. When writing duets for lower-grade standard guitarists, consider using simple time signatures and note durations to reduce the sight-reading element of the music, thus allowing focus on the practical application of the music.

3, Guitars, 4 Guitars, and More Guitars

As we expand ensemble writing up to a combination of three guitars, things start to relax a bit more, where parts can be single-line melodies per guitar part. The choice of music for arranging also becomes wider. A collection of music that may have slipped by unnoticed as being of use for the practice of arranging trios are the more than 130 multi-movement collections of “Baryton” trios by Joseph Haydn, written for the composer’s patron, Prince Esterházy. Haydn was keen to ensure that all instruments in ensembles received a share of the workload, and this huge collection has many fine examples of this concertante writing style.

Four guitars is next, and as more guitar parts are added, the inclusion of expressive and dynamic markings on all parts become vital in uniting the ensemble. Rehearsal markings are also required for ensemble directors to use in breaking the musical form apart, to study sections in isolation.

J.S. Bach’s collection of 371 four-part chorale harmonizations are ideal study material that can be transcribed in open score for four guitars. A useful area of practical study, somewhere in the middle between composing and arranging, is to take a well-known melody—a folk song, for example—and attempt your own arrangement of it. Another is adding a fourth guitar part to a trio that you’ve already arranged. The latter is particularly good practice at writing a part for a player who has some technical limitations to his or her playing, or a part that must be easy to sight-read. Try restricting the part to only include note durations of whole, half, quarter and eighth notes, and also across a narrow pitch range. When writing commissioned works, it is good to interact with performers, finding out their needs, whether the music is required for special occasions, and what their technical skill levels are.


When composing/arranging for five, six and more guitar parts, the possibilities for ensemble music start to approach orchestral potential. For example, guitars can be grouped together into combinations of “choirs.” A quintet has the potential to be a quartet with one soloist, allowing a whole host of concerto arrangements reduced to this combination. Six guitars offer quite varied ensemble combinations, such as a duo with quartet, two trios, three duos, etc. Here we enter a world where subtle timbral considerations can have guitars mimicking deep bass cellos, or brass-like sounds, percussive strikes, etc. With such a number of parts to play with, it’s no longer necessary to have everyone playing all at the same time, but rather guitars can drop in and out of the music to regulate the texture, emulating orchestral writing—for example, alternating rapid intervals of thirds on one or two guitars can simulate a violin section; two guitars playing the same lines an octave apart can highlight regions of motivic interest in the music, or reinforce a bass section if played in unison.

Three Mark Houghton ensemble pieces published by Les Productions d’Oz

Inevitably, adding more parts can produce a concentration of music part-writing in a restricted pitch range. There are other members of the guitar family that successfully feature in today’s guitar ensembles and these can add to the upper and lower range.

Compositional Considerations

For most of this article, I’ve only focused on arranging. What about composing? There are many varied approaches, but here are just a few observations of my own that I like to adopt when composing for guitar ensemble.

To keep the music fresh and interesting, restrict the length of pieces to no more than four to five minutes. To help gauge this accurately, a “modular” musical form helps. I often use a formal plan that is episodic in structure—short periods of music lasting perhaps only eight to 16 measures, where ideas—often associations of rhythm—are derived from previous material in the piece; such resourcefulness being closely associated with variation-writing or even improvisation. These episodes are an opportunity to feature guitar parts or combinations of parts as soloists or other more integrated groupings.

Much ensemble music is played in workshops where the music needs to be absorbed quickly, to be able to present it in an evening concert, often on the same day. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, make sure the core sight-reading elements are not too demanding. (I try to avoid an excess of expression markings, preferring the ensemble director to add expressions where required, in rehearsal.) Also, limit frequent changes of time signature, as that may hinder reading progress toward a deadline performance. Utilize much of the total pitch range of the guitar in the part-writing, to avoid a narrow tessitura that can “bleed” parts together when the music is played in reverberant concert venues.

Obviously there is so much more beyond the scope of this short article, but I hope this has stimulated some interest to start creating ensemble music.

Good luck!

 Here’s a cool version of Mark Houghton’s oft-covered tribute to Django Reinhardt, Twangology, played by the Dutch ensemble Gitaarsalon Roadshow:

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