The guitar is built for accompaniment. If there’s a song to be sung, what better instrument is there to simultaneously provide the chordal structure and rhythmic underpinning? That said, there’s more to accompaniment than simply strumming basic chords. Let’s say someone is teaching you a new song and says, “It’s C for two bars, then F for two bars, G for two bars, then back to C.” Any competent player can handle that. What separates great accompanists from average-Joe strummers is that the pros know how to put just enough spin on things to make such well-worn chord progressions sound fresh.
One surefire way to move beyond accompaniment clichés is to introduce accents into your strumming patterns. First, try Ex. 1a, a straightforward groove played with alternating down/up pick strokes. (Set your metronome to a moderate click, about 112 bpm, and let the chords ring out as long as possible in this example, as well as all of the others.) Steady-eighth strumming patterns like this can be useful at times but may become tiresome to the listener because they’re so predictable and insistent.
You can make this pattern more interesting by accenting a few of the beats, as shown in Ex. 1b, implying a grouping of 3-3-2. The asymmetry gives this one-bar pattern a bit of swagger. Even this figure can lose its charm, however, if repeated over and over. Ex. 1c illustrates another variation. It’s more spacious, as you’ll hear, because it repeats every two bars instead of every one. The eighth-note accent grouping is now 3-3-3-4—asymmetrical, once again.
What separates great accompanists from average-Joe strummers is the pros know how to put just enough spin on things to make well-worn chord progressions sound fresh.
You can do more with the 3-3-3-4 pattern by modifying the chord ever so slightly on each of the accented beats. Ex. 2a shows one way to do that, with alternating C and Cadd9 shapes. Ex. 2b shows another possibility, with the same two chords voiced higher up the neck. Ex. 2a might work best in a solo setting, where low-register chords are effectively supportive. In an ensemble setting—with other guitarists, or even a full band—Ex. 2b could be a better option. Its higher register may help keep your guitar from getting buried in the mix.
Even with the rhythmic variety that accents can provide, strumming lots of eighth notes may be too heavy-handed in a full-band context. When that’s the case, try converting some of the eighths into quarters, as shown in Ex.s 3a and b (based on Ex.s 2a and b, respectively). In both of these situations, the guitar part breathes a little more while the accents remain intact.
Strumming isn’t the only way to accompany, of course. Using arpeggios—chords broken into melodic patterns—is another useful tool. Ex. 4a employs the same 3-3-3-4 groupings you’ve been playing in the previous examples, but here you’ll pick single notes. This produces lighter guitar textures, which—once again—may be particularly effective in a setting with multiple musicians. Ex. 4b is essentially the same, but with the arpeggios rolling low to high instead of high to low. (Note that all of the accents are in the same places.)
The 3-3-3-4 accent grouping will suit a variety of grooves, but it’s not a rhythmic panacea. If you try it out at your next recording session or band practice and it doesn’t feel quite right for the song at hand, the pattern may need a small tweak—like you’ll find in Ex. 4c. Here, the original pattern (Ex. 4b) has been displaced by one eighth note so that it begins on the and of beat 1. Ex. 4d offers another subtle twist, with the pattern beginning on beat 2 this time.
This 3-3-3-4 concept has many possible applications and can be easily adapted to fit a variety of musical settings—your own tunes, cover songs, or anything else. Work with this material a little bit every day, craft new variations, and you’ll soon see your accompaniment skill set growing and growing.
Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist and songwriter based in Los Angeles, where he is department chair of the guitar performance program at Los Angeles College of Music. His guitar work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, Amos Lee, among others. adamlevy.com
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