arrangements for various instruments that date back to the earliest ensembles. The job of an orchestrator and/or composer was
to decide which instruments played which notes—and with what
sort of dynamics—in every measure of a composition. Ensembles
started out small but grew through the centuries into chambers
and then into full-blown orchestras and symphonies of 80 or more
pieces with strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Add in a full
choir, and you could be composing for well over 100 people. That’s
a lot of writing. That’s a lot of orchestration.
Take a look at the layout of a typical modern orchestra in the image
below. Notice the way the strings are laid out from left to right—first
violins, second violins, violas, and cellos. The basses (usually called
“contrabasses” or “double basses”) sit behind or to the side of the cellos.
The woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) sit behind the
strings. Then you have the brass (French horns, trumpets, trombones,
and tubas), followed by the percussion instruments (timpanis, snares,
bass drums, and cymbals) positioned at the rear.
With this in mind, think about how many times you’ve heard
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Listen to a good recording of it with
headphones (the London Symphony Orchestra’s is my favorite)
while you’re looking at the diagram above. Listen to how those powerful string lines seamlessly interweave with the brass, woodwinds,
and timpani. In his orchestration, Beethoven wrote string lines that
move quickly from section to section—from violins to violas to cellos to basses. These parts literally pan themselves in the stereo field
[Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony]
is the art of production in
action hundreds of years before
knobs were invented!
simply based on how the various instrument sections are placed on
the stage. This is the art of production in action hundreds of years
before recording-console panning knobs were invented!
Now think about the fact that most of the instruments Beethoven
worked with could play only one note at a time. We guitarists are
lucky to be able to play chords on a single instrument. That means
we have the option of approaching our instruments like orchestral
string sections—we’ve got bass (like an orchestra’s basses and cellos),
mids (violas and second violins), and treble (first violins). When you
think of your guitar like that, you realize that the various strings and
octaves can be used to layer and orchestrate powerful guitar parts.
Early guitar orchestration in the ’60s was often recorded with
multiple players performing their parts live in the same room. Back
then, engineers didn’t have the capability to record so many tracks
of layered guitar, so they recorded everyone at once. With the
Visualizing the Orchestral Landscape
Seeing an orchestra layout—including how strings begin with violins on one side and increase in size across the orchestra pit—
and then listening to something like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony can inspire you to record guitar layers in engaging new ways.