Guitar

The Guitar is Like An Orchestra

  • By Aaron Shapiro
  • July 8, 2021

I was amazed after recently watching a short interview clip with Andres Segovia from the 1980s where he shared his thoughts on the tone of the classical guitar. At the time of the interview, he was nearing the end of his life and was well established as the world’s preeminent classical guitar virtuoso. Segovia had his guitar in hand and was demonstrating the vastly different timbres he could achieve on his instrument with even the slightest changes in articulation and hand position. “It (the guitar) is like an orchestra,” he explained “to which we could look with the reverse side of binoculars.” What Segovia meant by this is that the tone of each instrument in the orchestra has a way of being reproduced on the guitar on a smaller scale. For instance, he demonstrated this idea on the guitar by replicating the sound of a cello playing a deep melody with vibrato.

Andres Segovia

Andres Segovia

WATCH: Andrés Segovia demonstrates different timbres of the guitar (YouTube) →

After watching this video I couldn’t help but think- If the guitar has enough tonal variety to replicate orchestral instruments, how can I use the guitar to replicate the sounds of horn players in a jazz big band? To try this idea out, I selected four excerpts from some of my favorite big band composers to try on guitar: Sun Ra, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Each of these bandleaders has their own iconic style and signature motifs they use in their music. But the common thread between these big band selections is they all incorporate melodies that use call and response as a theme. When I chose these excerpts I was also listening to the dynamics of each section in the band, and tried to replicate it as faithfully as possible on the guitar.

My intention in doing this exercise was not to replicate each horn part in the band with a dozen overdubbed guitar tracks. Rather I wanted to replicate all these horn parts using just one or two guitar tracks. I initially thought of splitting up these horn arrangements by assigning a horn part to a string on the guitar based on the instrument’s range. For instance, the trombone and baritone sax parts would be assigned to the two low bass strings (A and E) on the guitar. Similarly the tenor sax parts could be played on the middle two strings (G and D) and alto sax and trumpet parts on the treble strings (B and E). I tried to find big band selections that would work naturally with that approach and contained some unison melodic lines. As I was transcribing these excerpts I kept asking myself: How could I make these horn parts feel “natural” on the guitar?

I’ve included a short description of my thought process for each of the four big band excerpts as they relate to my guitar interpretations. Be sure to also listen to the corresponding audio tracks for a side-by-side comparison. Overall, I found the process of learning big band horn parts on the guitar to be useful in a few ways. Sure, it’s helped give me some new ideas as a composer and as an improviser. But most importantly it’s a reminder that as guitarists we play an instrument with a very wide spectrum of tonal color. Replicating the sound of orchestral strings or big band horns are just a couple ways we can tap into our instrument’s sonic palette.

“Hours After” - The Sun Ra Arkestra


Whenever I listen to this Sun Ra tune, I imagine it being the soundtrack to a sleazy burlesque show on Saturn.  As far as its application on the guitar, I was thinking about the call and response between the baritone sax (played on the bass strings) and the rest of the horns (on the treble strings). There’s a change in dynamics that happens between the call and response, so I knew my thumb would have to play the bass notes with a different articulation than the rest of my fingers. 

Sun Ra

Sun Ra

“Splanky” - The Count Basie Orchestra


In Neil Hefti’s arrangement of “Splanky” the Count Basie trumpets and trombones are paired in octaves and play call and response-style melody with the saxophones. To give the effect of the brass player's “call” I played the melody in octaves, and for the sax’s “response” I played some closed chord voicings that mostly landed on the middle 3 strings. I recorded this excerpt on two separate guitar tracks, and listening back it sounds like a guitar duo with hints of Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel.

Count Basie

Count Basie

“Hot and Anxious” - Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra


To capture the vibe of Fletcher Henderson’s “Hot and Anxious” I supplemented the melody with four-note block chords. The “call” in this tune is played by a wailing clarinet with trumpets and the sax section responds with melancholy, soft chords. I tried to capture these two different moods in my guitar interpretation which was played fingerstyle with no overdubs. 

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson

“In A Mellow Tone” - The Duke Ellington Orchestra


When I was listening to this excerpt from Duke Ellington’s Blues in Orbit record, the first thing that caught my ear’s attention was the difference in dynamics between the brass and sax sections. It sounded like the trombones and trumpets were playing the backgrounds right up to the microphone and the sax section would play the melody at a further distance away- hence a bit quieter and more of the “room” sound. This studio effect actually made me listen to the melody a lot closer because it was a bit softer in the mix. When it came time to record my guitar version, I layered two separate guitar tracks with this contrast in mind. I was also taking cues from the horn player’s articulation and ornamentation. Duke’s arrangement is a reminder that music is not only about which notes you play- it’s how you play them.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Hours After - Sun Ra and hi Arkestra
E=MC2 - Count Basie Orchestra
Hot and Anxious - Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra
Duke Ellington - Blues In Orbit