Learn how to create guitar accompaniments and solos for traditional songs with Happy Traum
Excerpt from the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Happy Traum
I first heard the traditional gospel song “There’s a Shining Side Somewhere” many years ago, played and sung by the wonderful fingerstyle guitarist (and AG contributor) Mary Flower. We were sitting swapping songs at a guitar camp, and I was struck by the positive and upbeat message the song conveyed.
Although I didn’t know the song until Mary showed it to me, a quick Google search revealed that it had been recorded by a group of great musicians over the years, including Reverend Gary Davis, Ry Cooder and Jorma Kaukonen, as well as quite a few gospel choirs. I immediately went home and started working on my own fingerpicking arrangement, which ended up being the title track of my latest album.
My rendition of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” contains many of the arrangement concepts I’ve used throughout my musical life: creating lively basslines, researching interesting and varied chord choices, add guitar fills between vocal phrases, etc. In this lesson, I’ll explain how I do all of this, culminating in a full 16-bar solo on the song. I hope you will be inspired by these ideas and use them in your own style of composition and arrangement.
Strong bass lines and interesting chords
For me, one of the secrets to getting a good arrangement is to maintain a solid bass line. I use a thumb to get a clear, loud sound on my low strings. A good bass line can suggest interesting tracks to reharmonize the basic progressions. For instance, Example 1 depicts the harmonic structure of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” in its most basic form. Rather than playing the C chord for the first four bars, I add the vi (Am), V/V (D7/F#) and V (G7), to get a nice moving bassline (C, A, F#, G , C), as shown in Example 2. (Note that in the video above, I’m using a capo at the second fret, which makes the music sound a step higher, in the key of D major.)
Sometimes I look for opportunities to play chromatic basslines to add spice, like in Example 3, based on bars 5 to 8 of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere”, moving in semitones from the first F fret on the F chord to the third G fret on the C chord. A beautiful passing chord, the jazzy F#dim7 (F# AC Eb) in bar 2 is very similar to the D7/F# in Ex. 1. The only difference is that it contains the first Eb fret, rather than the open D string. Playing the C chord in bar 3 with the fifth (G) on the bass, rather than the root (C) is what allows me to get that free bass movement here.
I use the same chord progression in bars 9-11 of the form (Example 4). At the end of bar 11, I add an E7 with the fifth (B) in the bass, which leads gently to the Am in the next bar. I love using harmonic surprises like this. For the last line of the form (bars 13-16), I play something similar to Ex. 1, but with the chords falling in different places, starting with C/G, as shown in Example 5. The most important thing in all of the examples above is to keep your thumb moving smoothly, because the bassline plays such an important role.
Lick and fill
To add sparkle to an arrangement and change the texture, I like to play a series of licks on the treble strings in the spaces between the sung lines. There are many possible variations on this theme, and I try to mix them up so it doesn’t seem repetitive. Example 6 shows how I could approach bars 1-4 of “There’s a bright side somewhere”, coming out of the I(C) chord, and Example 7 does the same with bars 5–8. When you learn a song, I highly recommend creating your own treble and memorizing it. This way, you’ll always have lots of different options at your fingertips, which can help your performance or recording sound fresh and inspired.
Example 8 connects all the concepts of this lesson – creating strong bass lines, reharmonizing progressions, and mixing and matching single-note fills – with a full solo on the 16-bar form of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere”. I never play a solo exactly the same way twice; the transcript captures what I improvised in the demo video, but it’s fairly representative of my approach.
This solo is a little more difficult than the other examples, as it moves between the patterns in the open position and the passages up the neck. In bars 5 and 9, for example, I play the F chord in fifth position, with the fifth (A) as the lowest note; in bars 6 and 10, I fret a diminished seventh shape in seventh position for an Adim7, sliding it to the fourth fret for F#dim7. (Interestingly, these two chords share the same four notes: A, C, Eb, and F#/Gb.)
To get a good idea of some variations on this solo, be sure to listen to the version on my album, which I play a bit more uptempo. Then use the solos as templates to personalize that song or any other traditional song.
OK, now I’ve revealed most of my secrets. I hope they help you, whether you’re learning “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” or creating arrangements of other traditional songs. Enjoy!