By Adam Levy

Many professional guitar players find themselves onstage or in the studio accompanying singer-songwriters, some of whom also play guitar or other chordal instruments. In such cases, the singer-songwriter rarely tells the sideperson exactly what to play. It’s usually up to the player to come up with musical parts that complement the singer and vitalize the song arrangement. Creating cool parts from scratch may seem to be a mysterious art form but it needn’t be an intimidating prospect. In this Weekly Workout, I’ll offer some tried-and-true tactics, that—if practiced and comprehended—will ensure that you’ve always got a few aces up your sleeve.


Week One

Knowing a variety of voicings for any particular chord is an invaluable asset to any sideperson. This is especially true when working with a singer-songwriter who plays guitar, because you need to keep what you’re playing out of the way of what they’re playing. As a general principle, using opposites can be a good starting point for crafting your part. For example, if the artist is playing voicings in a low register, try playing higher voicings. If the artist is up high, try playing below. If they’re using full-voiced chords, try smaller shapes, such as triads. If they’re playing rudimentary chord shapes, try adding a seventh, ninth, or other colorful chord tone.

Ex. 1a–1d illustrate all of the close-position inversions of a G major triad playable within the first 12 frets. (Close position means that the three notes in each of these triads are within the same octave. In open-position chord voicings, the notes are more spread out.) It would behoove you to memorize these shapes in all 12 major keys so that you can complement virtually any other voicing in any other register.

That said, rudimentary triads are not the right sound for every musical situation. It’s important to have other types of voicings at your fingertips. You’ll find interesting examples of G-major voicings in Ex. 2a–2d. Ex. 2a offers a high-and-wide sound. (While this particular shape would be nearly impossible to replicate in other keys without the aid of a capo, it’s still worth learning for the concept at work: Open strings can be used to render voicings with some wide gaps.) Ex. 2b is a first-inversion G triad in an open-position spread. It’s an ear-pleasing chord on its own and can sound even sweeter when strummed or plucked along with another guitarist’s run-of-the-mill G chord. The G (add2) in Ex. 2c is a little more jangly, thanks to the very close proximity of the two highest notes, A and B. In Ex. 2d, the third of the chord (B) is eliminated for a droning sound.

You’ll need to know how to get around with minor chords as well, so check out the triads in Ex. 3a–3d and the specialized voicings in Ex. 4a–4d. In Ex. 4a–4d, you’ll mostly find minor versions of the same chords you played in Ex. 2a–2d. The one exception is Ex. 4c. The non-triadic note here is the fourth, not the third, simply because this shape lays more easily under the fingers than a Gm (add2). Again, you’ll want to memorize these in all 12 minor keys.


Week Two

The focus this week will be on rhythmic opposites. To really get the gist of these exercises, be sure to repeat the Guitar 1 part several times so that you can keep it going in your mind while you play the Guitar 2 part. Better yet, record the Guitar 1 part—using your smartphone, looping pedal, or whatever tech tool you have handy. Then play the Guitar 2 part along with Guitar 1 to hear how they work together.

In Ex. 5, Guitar 1 plays a familiar C chord, using a typical strumming pattern. To go with that, you could play something like the Guitar 2 part, in which all of the chordal attacks are offset from the Guitar 1 part. When the two parts are played together, this can give the combined feel some buoyancy. Notice that the chord voicing in Guitar 2 is in a higher register than Guitar 1 and contains no third (E). Since the standard C chord already contains two thirds (the Es on strings 1 and 4), choosing a voicing without the 3 will help the overall harmony sound more clear.

What’s notable about Ex. 6 is how the two parts don’t change chords with the same frequency. In measure 1, Guitar 2 hangs on the Am chord while Guitar 1 goes to G. In measure 2, Guitar 2 is more active than Guitar 1—with a C shape that gives the static F some melodic motion (in the lower two voices) and an Am that anticipates the repeated downbeat. Both of these serve to give this part some forward momentum.

Remember, you don’t always have to take a song’s chord progression literally—that is changing chord by chord, right on the beat. Experiment with anticipation and delay, and perhaps skip a chord or two. When the singer-songwriter (or someone else in the band) is laying down the primary changes, you don’t necessarily have to, and what you don’t play can be as musically valuable as what you do play.

Week Three

This week you’ll be using common first-position forms you most likely know already. What makes them valuable here is the use of the capo, which—once again—will allow you to keep your part out of the way of another guitarist’s part. This is accomplished by playing the song in a different key (C, A, G, E, or D) that favors first-position chords, then using the capo to match your chords to the song’s actual key.

For example, the singer-songwriter (or other guitarist) is playing Ex. 7a, which is in the key of C major. If you want to get into a different register, you could play Ex. 7b (key of A, capo III), Ex. 7c (key of G, capo V), Ex. 7d (key of E, capo VIII), or Ex. 7e (key of D, capo X). If the other guitarist is already capoed up the neck, you can choose to play below or above them. The table shown in Ex. 8 will help you use the capo to get around in any key. For further practice, take a simple song that you’re familiar with in first position and learn to play it with a capo in two or three different registers, maintaining the original key.


Of course, playing chords is not all you get to do as a second guitarist. You’re just as often asked to play fills and hooks, and even full-on solos. When playing melodies in any capacity, you need to consider some of the same principles you’ve been working with all along in this series so that you don’t clutter the musical arrangement.

In Ex. 9a-9c, you’ll see the same two-bar phrase in three different registers—high, middle, and low. Can you hear how different they sound, even though the notes are the same?

This is just one short example to illustrate the point. Your homework is to choose a couple of short melodies that you know well and transpose each of them up and/or down to as many registers as are practically playable on the guitar. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, transpose these melodies to other keys as well. In the course of your career, you’ll be asked many times to change the key of a melody or chord progression. Being able to do so on the spot is a feather in your cap.