Sharpen Your Sight-Reading Skills by Playing Duets with Counterpoint and Triple-Stops

This second lesson in a three-part series on learning to sight-read on guitar adds some exercises that are a bit more complex.

If you are starting to get the hang of sight reading and want to sharpen your skills, try playing some duets with music that’s a bit more complex.

The first lesson in this three-part series showed how to interpret written notation using its associated clues. A circled number refers to the string (high E is the first string), an uncircled number above a note is the fingering number (1-4 for first finger through fourth), and a Roman numeral above the staff indicates the position for your fretting hand, named by the location of your first finger. 

In this lesson, we’ll play duets that feature counterpoint examples, as well as some triple-stops (three notes played at the same time). We’ll be using the same melody and basic composition throughout this series. Remember to trade roles so that you and your duo partner get a chance to play both parts. 

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Speak For Yourself 

Example 1 gets us started by training our ears and fingers to get used to two distinctly different parts played together with a duet partner. In counterpoint, two or more melodies are related harmonically, but the notes and rhythms are different from each other. We’re in the key of G major, so we’ll continue to use the second position, shown by the Roman numeral II. 

The first (higher) guitar part is the same melody used in the previous lesson, while the second is simply an ascending G major scale in measure 1, followed by a harmony line in the next bar. The rhythm of the scale played by the second guitar is all eighth notes, while the first guitar is sticking to the rhythm of the original melody. It’s important for both players to trust their own reading while listening to each other for cues and tempo consistency. In measure 2, the second guitarist has to wait to come in with the eighth note on the “and” of beat 2, while the first player has a note right on beat 2. 

The Supporting Role 

Example 2 introduces the triple-stops. They may look complicated at first glance, but you’ll find that they are familiar power chords, containing only roots and fifths. Since the third of a chord is the note that makes it sound major or minor, power chords sound ambiguous. They are common in rock music and are aptly named since they can be cranked up and offer solid rhythmic support behind a singer. These three-note chords in guitar two provide a bass presence to the melody in guitar one, implying the chord progression C–Bm–G–D. 

Notice that the Roman numerals reflect the changes in hand position needed to reach these chords. This example feels more like a guitar duet in which one person plays the melody and the other plays the chords. Passages like this may show up in standard notation this way, as opposed to using a chord symbol by name at the top of a staff. 

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Teamwork 

In Example 3, the melody line is broken in half and spread distinctly between the two parts. The second guitar starts this time and then the first takes the handoff to finish the line. Take note of the rests in this example to make it work cleanly. Measure 2 is a variation on the original melody played in harmony, but in slightly different rhythms. 

Example 4 features embellishments in the first guitar part, adding ornamental notes to the original melody used in the previous lesson. The second guitar anchors the theme with steady quarter notes, again supporting the more active part by providing a time reference.

 Example 5 puts these ideas together in a complete piece called “Duettes Two.” Measure 1 has a handoff of the melody to get us started, and counterpoint abounds, with different rhythms played in each part throughout the piece. In the second guitar, grab the G power chord in measure 5 at the third fret, then shift back to second position to finish the line up through measure 11. 

Measure 13 applies a familiar-sounding root-five bass line, implying Em, Am, and Bm chords. The first guitar part has accidentals to watch out for in measure 12, all reachable in the second position. 

In the next lesson, we’ll switch keys and change positions, so book another reading session with your duo partner.


sight reading guitar lesson music notation
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jane Miller
Jane Miller

Jane Miller is a composer, arranger, and professor in the guitar department at Berklee College of Music with roots in both jazz and contemporary acoustic guitar.

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