Guitars go beautifully in pairs. Two players can, of course, pump out twice the volume. But the real power of a guitar duo is the ability to broaden the range of sound and expression beyond what one instrument and set of hands can do.
In a duo, one player can hold down the rhythm while the other cuts loose on a solo. One can cover the low end as the other shifts up the neck. While one guitarist drives the rhythm with a percussive strum, the other can add ringing arpeggios on top. From interlocking rhythms to wide, piano-like harmonies and melodic counterpoint, two guitars—skillfully and tastefully employed—can cover a tremendous amount of musical territory.
This kind of expressive range is plainly audible in the music of the three emerging acoustic guitar duos featured below: Pharis and Jason Romero, Ryanhood, and Grant Gordy and Ross Martin. Their styles are quite different—the Romeros carry on the deep duet traditions of old-time music and bluegrass, while Ryanhood plays kinetic folk rock, and Gordy and Martin draw on everything from jazz and classical to fiddle tunes in their virtuosic instrumental music. Beneath the differences, all these duos share a commitment to creating a full-bodied and complete sound with two guitars—nothing missing, and nothing wasted.
I spoke with these duos to find out more about how they work together and what tools and techniques they use, and to glean their advice on creating dynamic arrangements with two guitars. All of the artists shared an example based on one of their tunes, too, which is transcribed here. Check out the accompanying videos, and expanded transcriptions, below.
Pharis and Jason Romero
As partners in music, marriage, and instrument making—they run the J. Romero Banjo Company together—Pharis and Jason Romero are a duo on every level. “Because we live together, we work together, we parent together, we make music together, we literally are 24/7-ers,” says Pharis. “Our phrasing is similar even when we speak now.”
Long before they met, Pharis and Jason had similar musical inspirations too—especially old-time music and early country duos like the Louvin Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and the Delmore Brothers. They credit Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for helping mainstream listeners rediscover the power of a stripped-down acoustic duo. “A duet can fill a lot of space,” says Jason. “A duet can be enough. I think they helped recalibrate people’s ears to that.”
Like Welch and Rawlings, the Romeros blend beautifully—both their voices and instruments—as can be heard on their new album, Sweet Old Religion. Aside from tunes where Jason picks a five-string banjo over Pharis’ rhythm guitar, they duet with vintage Gibson flattops, delivering original songs that in many cases could be mistaken for traditional tunes.
In the duo’s music, the vocals take center stage, and that’s where their arranging process begins. As a first step, they try singing a song in five or six keys to find the sweet spot. “There’s a lot of experimenting,” Pharis says, “figuring out the key for our voices, who’s singing lead, who’s singing harmony.”
Once they’ve picked a key and mapped out vocal roles, the Romeros focus on finding the best guitar positions and differentiating their accompaniment parts. In a typical tune, Pharis holds down the lower end; she plays with a flatpick and, instead of a straight boom-chuck bass/strum pattern, tends to mix in light eighth-note strums (as in booma-chucka) inspired by Tony Rice’s backup style. Jason often capos higher on the neck, cross-picks chords, and adds harmony lines and solos, using a three-finger picking technique adapted from banjo.
In Example 1, you can see how this approach plays out in their original song “Old World Style,” from Sweet Old Religion. Pharis capos at the first fret and plays out of E shapes (to sound in F), using a booma-chucka or boom-chucka picking pattern, while Jason capos at the fifth fret and plays out of C shapes, cross-picking the chords and adding subtle fills. In the yodeling section, Jason plays the melody in unison with Pharis’ vocal, and this guitar phrase also serves as the song’s intro, as shown in measures 1–4.
Spotlight the Melody
One lesson of the Romeros’ guitar arrangements is the power of melody. When you’re working up a guitar part, try doubling, echoing, or harmonizing the melody, as Jason often does. Pharis describes his guitar as another voice in the songs. “If I’m singing lead,” she says, “he’ll play guitar parts that feel almost like harmonies in the background.”
In his fills and solos, too, Jason emphasizes the melody rather than noodling over the chords. “I had that hammered into me in bluegrass,” he says. “The best bluegrass banjo players just play the melody in an interesting way. I’m always trying to play the melody pretty simply.”
What They Play
The Romeros are big fans of vintage Martins, Gibsons, and Nationals—and actually suffered the loss of all of their instruments when their banjo shop burned to the ground in 2016. The shop is back up and running in the same location in Horsefly, British Columbia, and they’re slowly rebuilding their collection.
Currently, they play a pair of Gibsons chosen for a specific tonal contrast. Pharis picks a 1939 J-35 that has a deeper, woodier sound compared with the percussive bark of Jason’s circa 1936 L-00. “They complement each other,” she says, “and aren’t so blendy that they get lost.” For banjo, Jason performs with a five-string model he custom-built with woods salvaged from the fire.
Both string their guitars with John Pearse phosphor bronze medium lights, swapping the .022 third string for a .024. Pharis uses a G7th capo and BlueChip picks, while Jason uses a Kyser capo and banjo-style Dunlop picks: a plastic thumbpick and two brass fingerpicks. On banjo with the duo, however, Jason usually plays with his bare fingers. “For the most part I want that thick, low, kind of underwater sound on banjo with Pharis,” he says, “so it’s not just shrill and harsh.”
The duo uses mics only onstage. For single miking, they play through an Ear Trumpet Edwina. With a four-mic setup, they use a pair of Shure SM87s for vocals, and mic their instruments with either Telefunken M60 small-diaphragm condensers or (in touchier sound situations) Shure Beta 57s.
Ryan David Green first got the idea of forming an acoustic duo with Cameron Hood, a high school friend in Tucson, Arizona, when he heard Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds’ 1999 album Live at Luther College. “I was super excited by all the cool, fiery playing that Tim Reynolds was doing on that record with the songwriting of Dave Matthews,” says Green. “So initially I wanted that sort of a model with Cameron.”
The Ryanhood duo began with similarly defined roles, with Hood as the main songwriter and Green on lead guitar. But over time the partnership developed to where they co-write all their songs. “It’s hard, ego-wise, to let somebody manipulate everything you write,” says Green, “but the results are better and more exciting.”
The duo’s rock roots are evident in their high-energy performances and especially in the guitar work of Green, a Berklee-trained player capable of full-on shredding. Their music taps into contemporary folk and pop too, in the vein of Jason Mraz or John Mayer, showcasing tight vocal harmonies as much as instrumental interplay.
On guitar, the two players have broadly defined roles. “I’m playing more of the lower walking parts or just holding down more of a foundation,” says Hood. “We both do play chords, but typically Ryan will be doing either the soloing or the higher voicings, little melodic chimey parts.”
In keeping with their electric guitar backgrounds, Hood and Green tend not to use capos. On tour they tune their guitars down a half step, just to ease the vocal strain, and often use the lowered equivalent of dropped D (with the sixth string tuned to C#).
In addition, they experiment with tunings, in many cases altering just one string. Hood’s favorite is raising the second string a half step (to C if the guitar’s in standard tuning) for “a nice little extra jangle” when playing in C major or A minor. For the song “Embers,” from their recent album Yearbook, Green drops his third string to E. “I’ve done songs in the full open-D tuning and all that stuff,” he says, “but I often find [changing] just one of the inner strings makes such a dramatic change compositionally that it’s all I’ll need.”
Ryanhood’s song “I Didn’t Put Anything Into Your Place,” shown in Example 2, is a case study in subtle arranging for two guitars. Green tunes his bottom two strings down a whole step and plays an intricate fingerstyle pattern up the neck, while Hood (in standard tuning) fingerpicks supporting power-chord-type voicings on the low end—Green compares Hood’s part to the left hand of a piano player. As the song progresses, Hood adds more of a percussive backbeat and eventually switches to full strumming with a pick. “The song feels like it grows,” says Hood, “because my part starts so quietly and so simply.”
Make It Count
While there’s nothing wrong with two guitars banging out the same chords, Green and Hood say that if you want to take fuller advantage of the duo format, have each player take on specific jobs.
“If you’re playing a second guitar part, a good question to ask is, will it be missed if it’s not there?” says Green. “You know you’ve come up with something good, something essential, when a song begins to hinge on your contribution, your additional voicings.”
Ryanhood’s guitar arrangements are so locked in together that both musicians feel as if they can’t even play them with one guitar. “If there’s a harmony line that I’ve written to connect one section to the other, we will separate that line out,” says Hood. “I will play these three notes and he’ll play these higher three notes, so we’re literally playing in harmony, even though either one of us is capable of playing it alone. We’ve written the songs so that the other is indispensable.”
What They Play
Ryanhood’s Cameron Hood plays a 2005 Takamine EF341SCX acoustic-electric, amplified through an L.R. Baggs Venue DI and Boss RV-3 digital reverb/delay pedal. He uses D’Addario EJ17 phosphor bronze mediums, a Kyser capo, and InTuneGP .73mm Delrin picks. Ryan David Green plays a 2014 custom dreadnought built in Tucson by the late amateur luthier Beth Mayer. The guitar is amplified with an L.R. Baggs Anthem SL pickup/mic, run through a Baggs Venue DI and MXR Carbon Copy delay pedal. Green uses D’Addario EXP17 coated phosphor bronze strings, a D’Addario NS Tri-Action capo, and Wegen picks.
To add percussive kick to certain songs, Hood and Green use PorchBoards for bass thump along with foot tambourines. For further sonic variety, Green switch-hits on mandolin (an unmarked mystery model purchased in a pawnshop) and Hood plays a tenor ukulele (made by Beth Mayer).
Grant Gordy and Ross Martin
Few guitar duos would have the chutzpah or chops to tackle bluegrass, bebop, Bach, and hard-to-classify original compositions all on the same album, as Grant Gordy and Ross Martin do on the instrumental duets collection Year of the Dog. This mix is no self-conscious statement of eclecticism, though—it’s simply a reflection of their backgrounds and sensibilities.
The two guitarists first crossed paths in Colorado around 15 years ago. A disciple of David Grisman’s Dawg music (and, from 2008 to 2014, guitarist in Grisman’s band), Gordy recognized a kindred spirit in Martin, a seasoned bluegrass picker who’d earned a degree in jazz and studied classical guitar as well. “Ross was one of the first people I met who could flatpick but could actually play jazz—he knew a bunch of tunes and was transcribing Keith Jarrett, and was really a broad musician,” Gordy recalls. “So it felt like that left us with carte blanche to do whatever we could conceive of.”
Gordy and Martin both eventually settled in New York City and began gigging as a duo in addition to their many other projects—Gordy currently plays with fiddler (and Grisman alumnus) Darol Anger in the string band Mr. Sun, and Martin is a longtime member of the Matt Flinner Trio.
As with the guitar partnership of Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, Gordy and Martin have fluid roles when playing together. Although there are passages where one holds down chords while the other solos, they switch effortlessly into playing harmonized lines, tossing improvised phrases back and forth, and creating all sorts of rhythmic textures along the way.
“Darol Anger, our fiddle friend, has said music is the only kind of conversation you can have where everybody’s talking at the same time, which is a great way to think about it,” says Gordy. “My favorite kind of music tends to be conversational, where everybody’s really listening and responsive and able to make decisions in the moment about how the narrative is being guided.”
In their arrangements, Gordy and Martin travel all around the (usually uncapoed) neck, consciously spreading their parts. “If Grant’s playing more open position, lower chords and covering some of the bass notes,” says Martin, “then I’ll maybe go for smaller voicings up higher, three-note or two-note or just something that would be in a different range that he wouldn’t be able to grab.”
Some of their music takes a more formal/classical approach, like Martin’s original “Sweep,” an excerpt of which is shown in Example 3. “The inspiration for this tune,” says Martin, “was to create parts that use both fretted notes and open strings to create a cohesive sound that could only be achieved with two guitars.” In the videos above, you can watch Gordy and Martin play the intricate parts separately and then together. Though the combined effect sounds like multilayered fingerstyle (and Martin does maintain right-hand fingernails for classical-style playing), in fact both players are cross-picking single notes with a flatpick.
Know the Form
One key to duo playing, says Gordy, is practicing and internalizing any song to the point where you have a strong sense of the time and the form and can leave space.
“You don’t want to overplay just so you don’t lose your place,” he says. “If you trust the person that you’re playing with, whether it’s because you’ve talked about how you’re going to approach a tune or because you’ve played a lot together, then the form and the time is still going to be there. You won’t have this pressure to state where it is all the time by wiggling your fingers around constantly just so you don’t get lost.”
What They Play
Grant Gordy’s main acoustic guitar is a 1944 Martin 000-18. He uses D’Addario EJ17 phosphor bronze medium strings, D’Andrea Pro Plec 1.5mm picks, and Elliott capos. For electric gigs he plays a Hofner Jazzica archtop, with D’Addario round-wound nickel strings, through a Henriksen amp.
Ross Martin plays a 2002 Collings D2H with John Pearse phosphor bronze medium strings, Wegen TF 120 picks, and Elliott capos.
For duo gigs, Gordy and Martin prefer using two condenser mics for their guitars. In louder settings where mics alone don’t work, Martin amplifies his guitar with a K&K Pure Mini pickup and an Audio-Technica ATM350 cardioid condenser clip-on mic, blended with a Grace FELiX preamp.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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