People often ask me how I write orchestral music. I think it is a little different for me, because I never studied traditional counterpoint or composing for an orchestra. I learned how to play classical guitar from my dad. He taught me how to play all of his favorite pieces, and for some reason, it was understandable for me. It made sense, maybe because he had always played classical guitar around me, since I was in my mom’s tummy.
My first introduction to classical guitar was the Peter, Paul and Mary song called “A Soalin’.” It is a simple piece, with one high part and one low part. When you play the parts together, it gives you an easy way to get the basics of counterpoint.
I have a few different approaches: I might write a line, or some type of melody. I will record that, and then start writing a lower counterpoint part. One trick I have used is to play slow notes over the faster parts of the first line, and write fast parts over the pauses. I did this a lot in my piece “Air.” It keeps the rhythm and flow going without it being a monotonous exercise. You can also make one part have an ascending direction and have the other part descend. This can have a nice effect.
It’s really necessary to figure out the chords you want under your piece when you start adding more parts. I am not a master of theory, but I know enough to get the sounds that I want. Knowing your chords means you can add an almost limitless number of different parts. Try making the chords under your first two parts hit in a slightly odd or unexpected timing. Then, maybe follow those chords with some arpeggios, and harmonize those. Don’t be afraid to write simple parts. As you continue to layer tracks, it might get muddy if every part is complicated. You might start hearing another cool melody and/or rhythm in your head as you go along. Try making that a high part. The possibilities are endless, and as you go along you will get more and more inspired.
I often start with a chord progression, especially these days. You might feel like you are writing something boring or clichéd, but have faith. You can find a beautiful melody in the simplest of places. You can always add complex parts or embellish the chords later.
I usually write each part on a harp sample now. Once I get something good down, I might try dragging it to a different instrument, like strings, woodwinds, brass, or anything. As I continue writing, I will repeat this process. Different instruments might inspire me to take the piece in a whole new direction. I sometimes scrap my original idea for a better one.
When I was writing for my album Perspective, I used a Proteus 2, which had great orchestra sounds for the time, but it didn’t cut off the notes when I went past the range of each specific instrument. When real orchestras wanted to perform some pieces from Perspective, it took some work to rearrange the parts so everything was in the correct range. Now I use a small version of the Vienna Symphonic Library, which doesn’t let you go outside the range of instruments. Thank you VSL!
Jason Becker is a composer and guitarist whose work can be heard on his solo albums, and with Cacophony and David Lee Roth. Check out this sexy man’s story in the award-winning documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.