Reverse Arranging

There are great resources for learning parts to songs these days.  I’m guessing that just about everybody who is reading this article has used YouTube lessons, chord charts available on-line, etc. to help themselves learn an unfamiliar song.  One of my favorite sites is where now they have hints and tips for acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keys and drums for many popular worship songs.

But what do you do if you can’t find any useful resources, and you just have lyrics and chords?  How do you know what to play and when?

Starting with the last part of the question – when, is just as important; maybe more important; than what to play.

What I call ‘reverse arranging’ is actually a pretty simple task, but somewhat time consuming.  It involves listening through the song and concentrating very specifically on each instrument’s part in the song, and taking notes for each song section for each particular instrument.  When I do this, I try to start with instruments that I’m NOT playing that particular week.  Why do those instruments first?  Well – here’s my logic; and I’m not saying it’s bullet-proof logic; listening to all of the other instruments first helps to train your ear to what the rest of your band is doing.

Now, just listening through what all of the other instruments are doing first is just a part of the job – writing notes out as to what those other instruments are doing is also important.  Doing this will help to train your ear for cues as to when you come in and drop out.  Do this for each section of the song, and for each unique instrument or part.  You might be the sole electric guitar player and being asked to cover a Hillsongs tune where there are 3 or 4 or maybe more distinct electric parts in the song.

This process of listening through the song, specifically for an instrument and what it is playing and when and with what kind of a style, is ‘reverse arranging’ or perhaps ‘reverse producing’ the song.  Eventually, you will get to the part you are supposed to cover – and if it’s covering 3 electric guitars, having this all written out will help you to decide for each song section which of those parts are absolutely necessary to communicate the feel and purpose of the song.  Jason Houtsma at Worship Artistry does an incredible job of distilling multi-guitar parts down into the essential.  He’s not doing this the first time through the song.  He has reverse arranged the song to some extent to figure out what the essential parts are that can be covered by a single guitar player.

When I do the reverse arranging, I make sure I have a clear hour ahead of me before getting started.  That’s usually enough time to really get my ear to break down the song and listen for key parts as well as pick up on some of the fine detailed nuances for each of the parts – the production ‘sparkly-bits’ that also serve the purpose of the song.  To take the notes, I use a spreadsheet, a pretty nerdy way to break down the song, but hey – it works for me and you might find that it works also.

At the top couple of rows of the spreadsheet, I have a listing out of the song title, a reference YouTube link or other reference to the specific song, with the following rows each belonging to a section of the song – and I write it out linearly – meaning each chorus run through gets it’s own row.  Columns belong to each of the individual tracks/parts.

I write out cues that I hear, not necessarily musical notes, but for example, if I’m playing bass and it’s just single plucks with held notes for each of the chord changes, then I will write a tip to myself – ‘on chord movement only’ or something to that effect.  If it’s playing 8th notes, swing, etc. I’ll leave those tips to myself.

I call this a ‘song map’ because it’s my guide to where I need to go and where to turn, where to stop, go fast, etc.

Ok, enough talking about it, this is a link to an example song did for Bethel Live’s version of “This Is Amazing Grace”.

I do some songwriting and home recording, and doing this for songs has really helped me also not ‘over arrange’ by taking cues for how much various parts are NOT playing.

If you have found this to be useful, or have some other way to decide on how and what to play (or record), please leave me a comment or send me an e-mail.



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