From the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Sean McGowan

It can be both challenging and incredibly rewarding for guitarists to learn and apply techniques and concepts commonly used by composers, arrangers, and other instrumentalists, which may not be as easy—at least initially—to articulate on the guitar. One such concept is counterpoint. While it’s not necessarily intuitive for most guitarists to improvise contrapuntal lines or even write them out (with the notable exception of classical guitarist-composers), it’s an approach that is certainly worth the investment and yields dividends equivalent to sonic gold.

Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.

Counterpoint can essentially be defined as two or more melodic lines played simultaneously using different note ratios (1:1, 2:1, etc.), directions, and intervals, depending on the type of motion involved. In this Weekly Workout, we’ll explore the basic types of counterpoint motion and strategies to use them. 

Week One: Parallel Motion

When you embark on creating or improvising contrapuntal lines, I’d recommend beginning by writing down some musical ideas and working them out on the fretboard first. It’s important to start from a place of familiarity on the neck. Since most of us are accustomed to playing scale patterns in various positions, first try a simple one-octave ascending major scale pattern, as shown in Example 1

Let’s expand on that idea by adding an upper voice in the interval of a third. Here we have an example of parallel motion, in which two or more voices move in the same direction, using the same interval. Example 2 shows the same C major scale, now harmonized in thirds using parallel motion. You’re probably used to thinking of this concept as playing double-stops, which are very common and relatively easy to play in a melodic or solo line. Once you get a handle on playing this example, try reversing it to play the same scale line descending. Example 3 illustrates a longer-form version with a fingering for a two-octave C major scale. Try moving this pattern to other keys or come up with your own patterns.

A couple of things to remember—you can play parallel motion lines ascending or descending using any scale or arpeggio, but you must keep the interval consistent (e.g., thirds). The quality of the interval—for example, a major or minor third—might change according to the scale, but the overall third interval remains consistent throughout. In Example 4 we’re using the notes from the C major scale, but this time moving through the arpeggio. Notice that the bottom line simply outlines a Cmaj7 arpeggio (C E G B); when you harmonize that with the top line playing a third above each note, you get an additional note (D on top of the B), which creates a beautiful Cmaj9 sound. Try this concept with familiar minor- and dominant-seventh chord arpeggio shapes you already know. 

Example 5 illustrates parallel motion with a line built in tenths, ascending through the major scale and descending using an arpeggio figure, all in the key of A major. Again, you can use any interval in parallel motion, but thirds and tenths—think The Beatles’ “Blackbird” or Bach’s “Bourreé in E Minor”—are particularly strong and will always sound great. There’s an added technical bonus, too, as playing in tenths will help to build your horizontal position-shifting technique to cover a lot of ground on the fretboard, as opposed to staying only in one position.

Beginners’ Tip #1
Notice that you may need to change up the pattern or fingering of a scale you’re used to playing to accommodate the second voice. This might involve shifting positions, changing strings and/or fingerings. Think of the notes first, then find a comfortable way to play them in time.

Week Two: Similar Motion

Now let’s expand upon the parallel motion idea. Similar motion uses the same concept as parallel—two or more lines moving in the same direction—but allows for the mixing of different interval combinations. Let’s look at Example 6, which features an ascending and descending C major scale using two separate lines. Here we are expanding the overall line to a 2:1 ratio (i.e., two notes in the top line for every one note in the bottom, or vice versa). The previous week’s examples all used a 1:1 ratio, and of course you could expand this idea using 3:1 (triplets), 4:1, etc. When we employ a 2:1—as in Exs. 6 and 7—the result is a beautiful sound that results in a dramatic, sweeping arc motion, because the intervals gradually expand and contract between small, medium, and larger intervals. It almost sounds like the line is opening and closing as you move up and down through the example. 


Example 7 continues this concept of similar motion, this time moving through an Am9 Dorian sound. In contrast to Ex. 6, this time we are keeping the intervals a little tighter in structure, sticking to thirds, fourths, and fifths. An example like this paired with chord voicings on either side can make for a striking solo cadenza at the end of a song, or an interesting break in between various sections.

Examples 8–10 introduce a new concept of counterpoint: oblique motion. Oblique motion simply means one voice—upper or lower—stays on the same note or pitch, while the other voice moves up or down. This is a sonorous technique that can thicken up your sound in a solo context and create the sonic texture of a pedal point in all registers (i.e., not just a bass pedal). Example 8 shows an ascending C major scale under a top voice of G, essentially serving as an upper pedal point. With that in mind, strong chord tones such as the root, third, or fifth all make excellent choices for static pedals. 

In Example 9, the pedal points pivot between the fifth (G), appearing as an upper and lower voice, and the root (C), all within a C major scale. This strong but subtle technique offers a fantastic middle ground between playing solo lines and chords. Example 10 offers a modal example (G Dorian/Bb Lydian) that features oblique motion in a 3:1 triplet ratio against an upper and lower pedal point. As you can see, it’s good to take advantage of an open string whenever possible for the pedal point. Try playing the triplets both as picked notes and slurring with hammer-on and pull-off combinations.

While parallel motion lines can be easily played fingerstyle or using a pick, as soon as the line involves string-skipping as in similar and oblique motion, you will need to shift to a hybrid technique with the pick. Thumbpicks are ideal for this type of playing, or you may want to experiment playing the lines with the thumb and middle finger while holding the pick under the index finger. Personally, I prefer playing fingerstyle and articulating the lower line with the thumb and the upper line(s) with the index and middle finger of the picking hand. But feel free to experiment with a technique that works for you—there’s always a solution!

Beginners’ Tip #2
When playing through 2:1 lines, pay close attention to the duration of the longer note, making sure it sustains for its full value. To do this, you will also have to pay close attention to the fingerings you use. Try using different fingers for each individual note, as opposed to a partial barre or fretting two notes with one finger. Agility of motion is very important when playing counterpoint lines.

Week Three: Contrary Motion

This week we’ll take things up a notch and introduce contrary (sometimes known as contrasting) motion, which features two different lines moving in opposite directions. Of the various types of contrapuntal movement, contrary is the most challenging on guitar—especially when compared to a linear instrument such as the piano. Example 11 shows a common C major scale pattern in eighth position, utilizing contrary motion. Here, we are starting with a large gap and moving inward, by way of the lower voice ascending and the upper voice descending, before meeting in the middle with the unison C on the last beat of the second measure.

Incidentally, don’t worry about stretching to play both of those C notes on the fifth and tenth frets in the tab—those are indicated for reference only. Experiment with different fingerings and choose one that works for you. Then try playing through this scale pattern starting in different places (e.g., lower voice on C and the upper voice on a high E, etc).

Example 12 shows a short line that would sound great in a blues context. This example uses notes from the Dorian mode combined with the minor blues scale to create an interesting moving effect, like two horns interweaving a background line. Example 13 offers another possibility in A minor and also shows the potential for coming up with succinct but effective lines that sound great and are easy to play over just about anything.


Beginners’ Tip #3
If possible, try to stay within a three-to-four-fret position span when starting to explore contrary motion. This will give you a solid foundation to work from (i.e., a familiar scale pattern), and also avoids any unnecessary and painful stretches.

Week Four: Put Them Together in the Blues

Now we’re ready to put all of these concepts and techniques to use in a ubiquitous setting: a 12-bar blues progression. Example 14 is based on a simple I–IV–V 12-bar blues progression in the key of G, and explores the different types of motion you could use when soloing, or even playing rhythmic ideas and riffs behind another soloist. Let’s break this down.

The first bar features a common blues line using parallel motion (moving up and down in fourths) while the second bar expands with a contrary motion line, resolving with a C13 chord voicing. Measures 3 and 4 combine oblique and parallel motion with an open G string pedaling below ascending double-stops in thirds.

The next two bars (the IV chord, C7) feature 1:1 parallel motion using sixths, and a quick 3:1 chromatic figure before getting into a couple of chords that serve to set up the following G7 chord. I like to change up the texture between counter lines and chords, as it creates the illusion of more than one instrument playing. Measures 7 and 8 (G7) depict this strategy by using contrary motion topped off with a G13 voicing to complete the phrase.

Now we’ve made it to the last four bars and the turnaround. Bars 9 and 10 (D7 and C7) feature oblique motion with a blues line under an upper pedal point on the root. This is a common technique used by organists that blues and jazz guitarists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Pat Martino utilized to great effect. Finally, starting in bar 11, we have a classic blues turnaround riff that showcases contrary motion before wrapping up the chorus with full-bodied 13th chords.

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Beginners’ Tip #4 
Try to come up with examples of parallel, similar, oblique, and contrary motion in one of your favorite songs, or over a common chord progression such as the blues progression in Ex. 14. Applying these concepts to “real music” will deepen your understanding of when and how to incorporate these textures easily and successfully.

Take It To The Next Level

Here’s an interesting example that incorporates diminished-seventh chords, contrary motion, and constant structure (moving the same shape up or down the neck) that would sound great as the ending lick or break in a blues.

Sean McGowan is a jazz and acoustic musician who directs the guitar program at the University of Colorado Denver.

Guitar counterpoint exercises music notation sheet 1
Guitar counterpoint exercises music notation sheet 2

Guitar counterpoint exercises music notation sheet 3

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

weekly workout - get your fingers moving with a series of interesting technical exercises
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