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  • Oli Pikett

Guitars in Film Music

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

The relationship between guitars and film scores is complicated. Given the ubiquity of the guitar in contemporary music, and the fact that a great many aspiring composers begin their musical lives as guitarists, one might imagine that the guitar would be central to the sound of film. Yet, frequently, guitars are eschewed in favour of pianos, synths and orchestras when trying to realise the kind of atmospheres needed for cinematic drama.

Part of the answer seems to lie in the limited dynamic and timbral range of the instrument. Just try recording a guitar against a string section or synth pad, and it will become apparent that guitars occupy quite a narrow space within a mix. The decay of a note or chord on the guitar is relatively short and, without straying into the heavy use of delay and distortion effects, it can be challenging to make guitars sound ‘epic’. The long, slow crescendos and lush held notes, which form so much of atmospheric film music, are not easy to achieve convincingly on a guitar.

Another factor might be the guitar’s prevalence in recent musical culture. The guitar has strong aural associations with musical genres of the past 70 years. This is why guitars tend to crop up in the original song (compilation) soundtracks of mid-20th century period films (such as Almost Famous or Forrest Gump). In many of these cases, the guitar is present because it almost forms part of the set of the film - an essential component of the correct sonic reference. That is, of course, not the same thing as a composer using guitars as tools to create effective underscore or thematic material.

Nevertheless, guitars do continue to be used to brilliant effect by film composers. The guitar’s unique characteristics have been successfully exploited in many films, bringing intimacy, playfulness and power to soundtracks. It is an important element of a film composer’s toolbox, precisely because it offers an alternative to the traditional orchestral sound. For composers, it is certainly worthwhile developing a useful vocabulary of cinematic concepts on the guitar, which can be used alongside (or instead of) the more typical array of instruments.

The purpose of the next few articles in this blog is to celebrate and explore the use of guitars in some highly effective film scores. This series will look at several guitar-based film scores in detail, examining how the instrument has been used to enhance to the film’s impact. Hopefully, this will give composers some inspiration as to how to compose with six strings, as well as some thoughts on how to develop their own guitar playing to enhance their scoring palette.

The first instalment will be an analysis of Gustavo Santaolalla’s score to Ang Lee’s 2005 film Brokeback Mountain.

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