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Idiomatic Adaptation for the Guitar: Partnership Between Composer and Performer

  • May 4, 2020
  • A Research Document Submitted to the Graduate Faculty and Lecture Recital Committee at Shenandoah University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in Performance — Guitar
  • 134 pages.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • List of Figures
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
    • Background, Purpose, and Questions
    • Literature Review
    • Method
  • Chapter 2: Analysis of Idioms
    • Fretboard Fundamentals
    • Texture
    • Timbre
    • Gesture
    • Artistry
  • Chapter 3: From the Collaborators
    • Andrés Segovia and Manuel Ponce
    • Stephen Robinson and Harold Blanchard
    • Michael McCartney and William Bland
    • Eliot Fisk and Robert Beaser
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices
    • Appendix A: Interview Transcripts
    • Appendix B: Ponce, Sonata romántica, Smith edition
    • Appendix C: Composer, Guitarist, and Publisher Permissions


Many composers recognize writing for guitar as some of the most challenging music to write. Non-guitarist composers benefit from a partnership with a guitarist to produce idiomatic guitar compositions. Without a partnership, these guitar compositions frequently include unplayable notes and chords, thus requiring revisions by experienced performers. Because of Segovia’s contribution in the 1920s, non-guitarist composers now collaborate with guitarists to create “idiomatic” pieces for the guitar.

After a review of textbook idioms for the guitar, manuscripts are analyzed and compared to subsequent versions, in conjunction with interviews with the collaborators involved. Results include codifications of common issues created by the composers, explanations of non-idiomatic writing, and theories by guitarists on reasons why actions were taken to fix the problems. Conclusions are drawn from the results to clearly show a benefit of collaborative processes. Research like this could influence and educate future composers and guitarists in the ways in which cultivating relationships might aid in long-lasting and accessible guitar compositions.


Composers today, specifically non-guitarists, have available a limited library of effective instructional texts to define idiomatic writing, proper notation, and creative vehicles for guitar composition.
Playable music, or idiomatic music, can only be evaluated subjectively by the performer and the style in which he or she plays.
I found that it is not a manual that composers need, but a comprehensive catalog and guide to idiomatic possibilities and the ramifications of making specific sounds on the guitar.

From the Interviewees

I think composers definitely need help. Every composer I've ever spoken with has always said the guitar is the hardest instrument to write for. Always. And a lot of them are afraid of it. They’re really afraid of it. I think they’re afraid of putting a whole lot of time in and then not getting the results they want because everything has to be changed, because they just don't understand it.

-Dr. Stephen Robinson, guitarist

The guitar is the hardest instrument to write for of all because there are so many ways you can approach a single chord or sound, how the chord positions and the way the movements go from one chord to another. A chord can seem perfectly, perfectly reasonable. The basics of writing for the instrument, the open strings and so forth, if that's all it were, that would be one thing. But then the movement between the strings and for everything, there are usually at least two or three possibilities. So, you can't really nail down a single and I don't think guitarists do from guitarist to guitarist. That's part of the interpretation of the instrument.

-Dr. William Bland, composer

The ability to have a sounding board literally and figuratively in a player is crucial when it comes to a non-guitarist composer writing for a guitar. Not only that, but not all guitarists are created equal. This also means some great guitarists are not great sounding boards. A composer needs to be flexible, creative, and have a mind which is open to new and different ways of going about things, particularly to somebody as inflexible as a player. It only has one way. I've seen plenty of players like that (not just guitarists but players in general) go by the book. Then it limits a composer…you get rudimentary knowledge.

-Dr. Robert Beaser, composer

The composers who write by ear basically get it right, and the few things they don't are fixable. Segovia had a wonderful short way of describing what to do. He said, “Write for a violin with six strings or write for piano with one hand.” And as usual, with Segovia it's a short formulation, but it's so right on. Violin with six strings or piano left hand. And that's pretty much it!

-Eliot Fisk, guitarist