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Backing a song with guitar

One guitar?

If one guitar alone – your guitar -- backs up the singer, rhythm is your prime concern. The pulse of the song, along with the chordal structure is on your shoulders.  The harmonization and the overall mood the listener gets from the song will come from your guitar.  You will need to “sell” the chord changes by actually playing the chord in a rhythmic manner.  Playing a “fill” line instead of a chord won’t do in most cases, unless you are going for very dramatic effect, and choose your notes very carefully.

When you are the only guitar, it will be your work that determines the style of the song.  This is a big responsibility.  If you play in a simple, bluegrassy “boom-chuck” style over simple open string triads, the song will have a more rural, less sophisticated sound than if you were playing, say, barre chords with a driving down-stroke ala Chuck Berry.  It’s different yet if you were to use extended seventh chords.  YOU will determine the “flavor” of the song -- so give it some thought.

There can be room for fills, but try not to get too “busy.”  Certainly you will not want to play a fill while the singer is singing a line.  Wait for a singer’s “rest” to insert a fill.  And remember -- don’t loose the essence of your main job – to keep the rhythm.  Bass lines, walking from one chord to another, can be a good strategy to keep things interesting without sacrificing the beat.

If YOU are also the singer as well as guitarist, you may find that playing fills and singing at the same time just won’t work.  That’s probably because the same part of your brain that controls your singing voice, also controls your guitar’s “solo voice.”  Try to do one thing at a time, but remember that a long pause in the vocal – like between verses -- will be a good spot for a fill.

Two guitars?

If you are not the only guitar, what is your role – rhythm or lead?  If you will be the rhythm guitar, let that be your focus, and let the lead player do his/her job.  It doesn’t work for two lead players to go off in different directions while nobody keeps the beat.  Again, the rhythm player “drives the bus” and will be the most important element in style.

If you are playing lead behind a vocalist, remember that you are there to complement the lyrics, not compete with them.  Look for pauses – holes – to fill.  Leave some unfilled, perhaps.  If there is a “break” for you (a section where you will solo) remember that now your guitar is the “singer” and you have responsibility to represent the melody.  You need not restate the melody note-for-note, but you should think about the melodic statement you will present, and how it relates to the song as a whole.  Try to play in the groove with the rhythm guitar, even if you may disagree with that rhythmic “feel.”  Rehearsal is the place to iron out differences.  In the throes of a performance, it’s better to be fluid than to try to force your will upon the rhythm section.

If you will be switching roles with another guitar, rhythm for lead, try to get the volumes to match.  If you play with the same force for both jobs, either you will be playing weak lead or overbearing rhythm. That is, If you tend to play hard, back off a little when you switch to rhythm. On the other hand, if you tend to strum softly, you may need to “punch” it a little when it’s time to take the lead.

Too many guitars?

In a situation where there are many guitars – say in a song circle or mass jam – it’s very difficult to hear things distinctly.  If all the guitars play with the same voice, they will all blend together.  Judicious use of a capo may help.  If four guitars are strumming in the first position “C” – try putting the capo at the fifth fret on your guitar and play as though it were “G.” By transposing, you will create a “tenor” voice from the capoed guitar that will compliment the baritone of the rest.

Big Band?

If you are trying to play lead over a big assortment of instruments, be prepared to play loud.  But better yet, work on the group dynamic, so that they will leave a sonic “hole” for you to fill, when it’s time for your solo.

The more instruments that play, the more defined each players role should be.  When there is an entire rhythm section, the guitar may be at it’s best only playing a part of the prescribed beat. You may only play down strokes on the beat – or upstrokes off the beat.  A bass, piano, drums, mandolin – they all have a role to play in making the rhythm happen.  Don’t step on others’ toes – or get lost in the mix by duplicating other’s efforts.  Play from your strengths as a player of guitar – you can’t play as low as a bass, or as high as a mandolin, as loud as a drum, or as complex as a piano.  But you have a meaty midrange that can be played with a “snap.”  Nothing else can imitate the strum of a guitar – except another guitar.


©Joel Mabus 2001

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