Writing and arranging a Latin-rock song for guitar

When I set out to start writing songs in the Latin rock vein, I was inspired by three different sources:

Spanish-flavored jazz rock
Epitomized by six string phenomenon Al DiMeola, this style of music was something I have been playing since high school. Incorporating some Latin rhythms but featuring especially lightning fast guitar playing, it perfectly fit my style as a young man.

Latin jazz
From saxophonist Stan Getz in the ’60s, trumpeters from Herb Alpert to Arturo Sandoval, and percussionists like Tito Puente and Bobby Matos, I have long been fascinated by this style. With a lighter sound in general and a rhythm section much closer to traditional Latin music, it expanded my horizons.

Traditional Latin music
Finally, I delved into the standard formats of cha-cha, salsa, merengue, and the like. It was this phase that finally sparked me to begin writing this kind of music.

The challenges of forming Savor and arranging songs

To me, crafting a complete song is broken down into three somewhat overlapping parts.

Songwriting
This includes chord progression, lyrics, and melody.

Arranging — Song Format
Encompasses what part goes where. In other words, after the first verse and chorus, is there a bridge? Or does it come later? Would there be a guitar solo? Etc.

Arranging — Instrumentation
Now we come to what for me ends up being the most complicated and time-consuming part of the entire process. What will each instrument play, specifically? Does the guitar play chords? Melody?

As far as the keyboards, is there piano? Synthesizer? Horns? The possibilities are virtually endless.

Mimicking the style of Latin music

A large part of the challenge of the final arranging process came from the differences between our band and a traditional Latin group. Standard instrumentation in Latin music is fairly well set: the piano plays “Montuno,” an arpeggiated, syncopated chord pattern; melodies are almost always played by a horn section, led by a trumpet.

Because of the tonal qualities of trumpets, these lines can be quite simple, and include what I call “stabs”: Single note punches that are both melodic and percussive at the same time.

However, the tonal qualities of the guitar are completely different — especially rock guitar, which tends to include distortion as part of the sound. Closer to a saxophone in quality, the guitar is able to hold notes, and play single note melodies, but the fat, rhythmic quality of a trumpet is missing.

The methods I used as an arranger to address these challenges is detailed in following articles, where I dive into the specifics of the arrangement of each song.

Arranging “live” as opposed to doing so in the studio

During the tenure of the band, I have been extremely fortunate to have the time and talent of some very creative musicians in rehearsals. And this was vital to arranging the songs. Why?

The core of any good song — and I mean ANY song — is melody. Without a powerful, compelling melody as the foundation for a song, it is destined to fail. However, it can be easy to use a number of techniques to “gloss over” a poorly written melody. While it may be somewhat satisfying in the short run, it can never save a bad song.

In the studio, if the song sounds weak, there are number of temporizing shortcuts available. Double or triple-track the melody. Add rich keyboard sounds. Pump up the effects like echo and reverb. And any number of other crutches.

When playing a song live, however, you have the people currently in the band, and that is it. Does the chorus sound weak? Write a better one. Is the guitar solo boring? Rework it. Are you losing steam in the verse? Change it.

The point is that rather than being able to cover up mediocrity, you are faced with accepting it (poor choice!) or making it better. In my case, I constantly worked to improve everything until I felt the songs were strong as they could be.

And that is the secret sauce!