Great accompaniment is an art that an audience may feel but not notice. The guitar work behind a vocal or another lead instrument can be sophisticated, for sure, but it’s not ultimately about dazzling anyone, scoring applause, or even drawing attention to itself. Instead, the best accompaniment is about serving the song—so that it grooves more, the melody shines brighter, and the listener gets pulled deeper into the emotions and the story.
That’s what the guitarists featured here—Mark Erelli, Shawn Colvin, Anaïs Mitchell, Martin Sexton, and Anthony da Costa—accomplish in song after song. All five are top-flight singer-songwriters and distinctive players whose guitar styles are inextricably linked to the character of their songwriting. Though they perform sometimes with bands, all have also spent years learning to hold their own onstage with one voice and one guitar. In that solo setting, the guitar needs not only to lock in with each individual song, but to provide variety and dynamic contrast over the course of a whole night. In other words, the guitar has to be the band—and a versatile band, too.
I spoke with these musicians to find out more about how they forged their accompaniment styles and about the tools they use, and to glean advice on playing effective backup and bringing out the heart of a song. To illustrate their points, they shared examples from their own songs that are transcribed below—check out the companion videos.
“My guitar style was born of necessity,” says Shawn Colvin, recalling the period in the ’80s when she was first finding her groove as a singer-songwriter in New York City. Following the example of Joni Mitchell’s percussive right hand, Colvin developed a pick-based technique that allowed her to be, in effect, her own drummer. “It came in handy when I was doing gigs at clubs where people sometimes listened but sometimes didn’t,” she says. “I could stand out a little bit with this percussive style.”
Colvin certainly did stand out—winning Grammys for her 1990 debut Steady On, and for her 1997 blockbuster song “Sunny Came Home.” Along the way, she’s widened the range of the guitar work with alternate tunings. In addition to standard, her standby tunings are dropped-D and C G D G B D (open G with C in the bass), with occasional variations such as double-dropped-D (“Diamond in the Rough”), E A D G B D (“The Facts About Jimmy”), D A D E A D (“Summer Dress”),and C G D G Bb D (“Tennessee”).
One of the keys to effective accompaniment, Colvin says, is creating contrasts between sections of a song, or even from line to line. “Instead of just wailing on the guitar for the full song, it’s really important to learn how to perform with a lot of dynamics,” she says. “I try to think in terms of band arrangements, and where a band might pick up the song more deliberately or where instruments drop out. Pauses are important—you don’t have to play every second.”
Add some kick—literally—to your rhythm by dropping your picking hand onto the strings near the bridge as you strike with a pick. “I’m using my wrist, basically, to hit the strings, damp the sound, and click or thump the guitar,” says Colvin. As you can see in the video of Example 1, a sample of the double-dropped-D guitar part in her classic song “Diamond in the Rough,” Colvin also taps the pickguard with the side of her pinky, like a mini snare drum.
What Shawn Plays
Martin M3SC Shawn Colvin signature model with Fishman Gold Plus Natural 1 pickup system. D’Addario EJ19 phosphor-bronze bluegrass-gauge strings (medium bass and light treble). Fender medium flatpick or plastic medium thumbpick. Kyser capo.
Boston-based songwriter and guitarist Mark Erelli is one of the MVPs of the indie Americana scene—a real craftsman of song. He made his debut as a singer-songwriter in 1999 and releases his 11th solo album, a collection of eclectic covers titled Mixtape, on January 26. Along the way, his understated mastery of the guitar—acoustic, electric, and lap steel, plus mandolin and other instruments—has also made him a sought-after side musician for artists such as Paula Cole, Josh Ritter, and Lori McKenna, as well as a producer for McKenna and others.
Erelli traces his guitar style back to discovering roots rockers John Hiatt and Steve Earle, and the way they anchored their songs with simple, melodic guitar hooks. “That was a real eye-opener,” says Erelli. “I grew up a fan of the Dead and the Allman Brothers, and on acoustic guitar, Chris Smither was a huge inspiration. But I didn’t know how to do any of that, and I didn’t think I ever would. I thought, OK, I don’t have to be a virtuoso to support what I’m doing with my lyrics and my voice.”
In his early days, Erelli strummed and sang hard, with rockabilly energy. But over time, he says, “I’ve found a lot more power when I’ve eased up.” He still plays with a pick, especially as a sideman and with the bluegrass band Barnstar!, but performing solo he increasingly plays fingerstyle—for strumming, he uses his thumb for downstrokes and his index for upstrokes.
“The songs are still pretty intense without having the pick,” he says. “Then when you bring out the pick for the one or two rocking parts of the set, they feel really rocking. If it’s just you up there, you really have to use the full spectrum—otherwise it gets to be bland and down the middle of the road.”
One way to create signature guitar parts for songs, Erelli says, is to lead between chords with “walking melodies, usually on the bass strings, that echo or enhance or call attention to what you’re singing.” He cites Steve Earle’s “Someday,” with its simple but catchy G–C–D chord-melody hook, as an early inspiration. Check out how Erelli uses a similar approach in his own songs “Analog Hero” (Example 2) and “Do It Every Day” (Example 3). The guitar melodies, embedded in the chords, help the vocals pop and are integral to the songs.
What Mark Plays
2007 T.J. Thompson 00-30. D’Addario phosphor-bronze light strings. Elliott capo. Wegen or BlueChip picks. For plugging in, Erelli uses a Fishman Rare Earth Blend, wired in stereo, through a D-Tar preamp, but his preference in acoustic concert settings is single-miking vocal and guitar with an Audio-Technica AT4033, sometimes supplemented with a Shure SM57 on the guitar.
As the creator of the folk opera Hadestown, which grew over the course of a decade from a community theater production to a concept album to an acclaimed Off-Broadway show, Anaïs Mitchell has traveled a long way from her solo singer-songwriter roots. But her songs still largely begin with discoveries on the guitar.
“A lot of times the place that a song starts is a guitar riff, like an interesting voicing of a chord, a change between two chords that feels compelling and different, or a little pattern,” says Mitchell. “And then how the vocal line falls over that pattern is almost the whole soul of where a song comes from.”
Mitchell has developed her own take on fingerstyle technique to support her vivid, poetic songwriting. In some songs she uses Travis picking, employing all the fingers except her index. In others, she strums with the pads of all her fingers, almost like a brush stroke. For a little percussive snap, she plays the bass strings with a light upward pull of her thumb. “I need to play a guitar that can handle that,” she says.
Alternate tunings—generally just one string tweaked from standard—help to generate fresh voicings in some of her songs. Mitchell drops the sixth string to D for “Why We Build the Wall” and her arrangements of the Child ballads “Clyde Waters” and “Willie’s Lady”; she tunes the first string to D on “Dying Day” and the fifth string up to B for “Annmarie” and “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
All of the collaborative work Mitchell has done in recent years has helped her understand the power of playing more sparsely and writing lyrics that are more open-ended. “When I started to make records with producers and with a lot of other instrumentation, there’s this thing of, oh, spaces that you leave allow the song to catch the wind,” she says. “That’s been a real lesson. The song is like a vessel for other people to breathe life into.”
Try Open Voicings
Even though a song’s melody may have a clear major or minor tonality, it can be a good strategy to pare down the chords you’re playing so they’re more open or undefined harmonically. A case in point is Mitchell’s dropped-D accompaniment for “Why We Build the Wall” (Example 4), the Hadestown song written circa 2006 that took on an entirely new life during the 2016 presidential election. While the vocal melody is recognizably minor, Mitchell centers her part around the stark D5 chord, which is neither major nor minor. Echoing the melody, in measure 5 she adds the open first string, the second of the D chord. Only in the descending line on the sixth string does she play the minor third.
What Anaïs Plays
1943 Martin 0-17 and a late-’30s Gibson Kalamazoo KG-11, both with K&K Pure Mini pickups through a Fire-Eye preamp. D’Addario light-gauge strings. A Shubb capo is in constant use in her songs, usually up fairly high on the neck.
Acoustic soul man Martin Sexton is such an extravagantly gifted singer and performer that listeners may not realize what a great guitarist he is. His early heroes were all band musicians—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton, Eric Clapton—so Sexton naturally wanted to sound like a band when he began performing as a solo acoustic act in the ’90s. “I didn’t have a bass player, so my thumb kind of played the bass,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a drummer, so my palm kind of slapped the two and four. And then my fingers would do the rest.”
These days, many solo performers use loopers, harmonizer pedals, and other gear to build a one-man-band sound. But Sexton prefers to rely on his hands and voice, in real time. “I never wanted to be tricky or gimmicky,” he says. “I don’t ever want to be thought of like a guy who plays 50 instruments at once while walking on a tightwire, like a circus act. I just want to deliver the songs in the best way I can.”
For Sexton, the most important aspect of accompaniment is the bass. To deepen his sound, he keeps his guitars tuned down a half or whole step (his current bandmates refer to songs as being, for instance, in the key of “E Marty” or “A Marty”—that is, Eb or Ab), and he always runs his guitar through a subwoofer in concert.
“If I tap it, boom, it’s a kick drum,” he says. “If I play the lower notes with a muted palm, that’s a nice, [Paul] McCartney-esque melodic bass line. It allows you to make people feel the notes in their chest and in their feet, and not just hear them with their ears.”
Think Like a Band
To dial in a band sound on one guitar, consider the different roles you are covering with bass, drums, rhythm, and lead. In his improvised ditty in Example 5, Sexton breaks down the component parts: fretting a bass line with his thumb, slapping the strings lightly on the backbeats, grabbing pieces of chords, and adding a few lead riffs.
Though he’s clearly got serious chops, Sexton is careful not to overuse them. “I try to do lead licks sparingly, so they’re a treat when they happen,” he says. “My philosophy is less is more, and also silence is golden. If you can have silence actually happen within a phrase, that’s when people get goose bumps. They don’t get goose bumps when a song starts turned up to ten and in the middle it’s turned up to ten and at the end it’s turned up to ten. Then it’s a nice dance song, but it’s not goose bumps.”
What Martin Plays
Godin A6 acoustic-electric (his workhorse guitar since 1999), Taylor 814c, and 1964 Gibson J-50. D’Addario phosphor-bronze medium strings, which he rarely changes because he likes a deader sound, especially on the low end. For amplification, he says he’s not picky about DI boxes and uses no pedals.
ANTHONY DA COSTA
Like Mark Erelli, Anthony da Costa is at heart a singer-songwriter, but his unique voice on rhythm and lead guitar has led to a busy second career backing other musicians—in particular Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz.
Raised in New York and now based in Nashville, da Costa hit the stage at 13 and soon made a splash with his precocious folk-rock songwriting at the Falcon Ridge and Kerrville festivals. On guitar, though, it wasn’t until he was sidelined by tendinitis in college that he began to reassess his hard-strumming style and find a more nuanced approach, at first on electric and then on acoustic. “I think what this has all done is help me develop a voice that is a lot more based in support and texture,” he says. “My solos are never going to be the flashiest, but I hope they help to tell a story.”
Da Costa typically tunes all his guitar down a whole step, using lowered versions of standard tuning, dropped-D, and DADGAD. (On acousticguitar.com you can see a video of him demonstrating the lowered DADGAD in his song “I Don’t Want To.”) “I’m obsessed with really low, full, warm tones,” he says. “I’m sort of allergic to too much brightness. Just playing acoustic guitar a step down offers me a voicing that I never really had before.”
Pick the Melody
“One of my favorite things to do is to link my voice and the guitar together in harmony or in unison or in an octave,” says da Costa. You can hear this technique at work in his song “Talking to You,” from the new album da Costa Deluxe. He tunes to dropped D, lowered a whole step (to C G C F A D), and capos at the seventh fret—you can accomplish the same thing by tuning to regular dropped D and capoing at the fifth fret. Example 6 shows his lovely fingerstyle guitar intro and the first few lines of the verse, with the vocal and guitar melody right in sync.
What Anthony Plays
Collings Waterloo WL-12 and OM1 JL (Julian Lage signature model). Trance Audio Amulet M (mono version) pickup through a Fishman Platinum Pro EQ/DI with either Strymon Flint (reverb and tremolo) or TC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini (reverb) in the effects loop, and Lehle volume pedal. Elliott capo. BlueChip CT55 and Dunlop Primetone picks (1.4 mm).
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