Take Your Sight-Reading to the Next Level with Duets in Higher Positions

In this final installment of our three-part lesson on developing sight-reading skills, we'll move up the neck and try out some new rhythms and harmonies

If you are making progress on sight-reading duets with a partner and would like to take things to the next level, it’s time to revisit some familiar materials, but in a different key, this time playing up the neck and negotiating some trickier rhythms.

In this final installment of our three-part lesson on developing your sight-reading skills by playing duets [editor’s note: see part one here, and part two here], we’ll use the same melodies from the first two lessons, this time transposing them to the key of C major. That means we’ll be reorienting the fret positions to better suit the new key. We’ll also try out some new rhythms and harmonies. Call your reading friend, set up a couple of music stands, and make an afternoon of it. Remember to trade parts for each example.

Shift Keys

In the last lesson, we stayed in the second fret position to play comfortably in the key of G major, which contains one sharp, F#. This time, our music is in the key of C—no sharps or flats. We’ll be using the fifth position for most of this music, as shown by the Roman numeral V. You could also make it work in the seventh position (VII) if you want an extra challenge. In fact, you could freely move from one position to another as you make your way through the melodies, but it’s best to find a position and stay with it, at least at first. 


In Example 1, get started by playing a C major scale to get your bearings. With your hand in the fifth fret position, you can reach all the notes in a C major scale from the low A on string 6, fret 5, all the way to the high C on string 1, fret 8. That means you’ll be playing C major from its sixth degree (A). Notice that this scale fingering has a stretch on the fourth string (D). Beat 1 of measure 3 shows that your fourth finger is playing the note B on the fourth string (the circled number). That’s on the ninth fret, just one fret beyond the reach of your four fingers as they line up in the fifth position (frets 5–8). 

Example 2 stays with the C major scale, this time harmonized in contrary motion. Both players are in the fifth position but starting on different strings. Part one lands back down on the note C to meet the E in part two for a pleasing harmony of a major third.

Generate Octaves

There is plenty of room in position V to play melody lines in octaves with your duo partner. Example 3 illustrates working neatly in position for each part. Octave unisons can be a strong duet sound when played together in rhythm. The player with part two will need to make that fourth-finger stretch again, as we saw in the C major scale position in Ex. 1. Watch for those stretches at the end of measure 1 and the beginning of 2. In the latter bar, part two plays catch up, melodically speaking, and ends up with a close harmony part to player one.

Feel the “Rudolph” Rhythm

Example 4 has a common yet tricky rhythm in the beginning of part one: eighth-quarter-eighth, or short-long-short. I call this the “Rudolph” rhythm since it’s the same rhythm found at the beginning of the seasonal favorite “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It helps your reading if you can identify rhythmic figures this way as a whole rather than counting each beat or fraction of a beat on the fly. The melody here is a C major triad arpeggio, dipping down to the major seventh (B) in measure 2. 


Part two of Ex. 4 uses the root-five bass line we saw in the previous lesson, supporting the melody steadily with quarter notes. To catch the E to B bass line in measure 2, scoot up to the seventh position, then end in the eighth to get the F power chord.

Read Through a Sea Song

Put the examples into practice in “Duettes at Sea” (Example 5). You’ll both start in the fifth position (V), enabling you to reach the high C when needed. Notice how in measure 1, part two finishes part one’s sentence, and in the following bar, part two plays an allusion to the melody. By now, you’ve gotten used to seeing rhythmic differences between the two parts, and that concept of counterpoint continues throughout. 

The position shifts are marked, along with a fourth-finger stretch for both parts in measure 7. Part one has accidentals in measure 12, which shouldn’t take you out of the fifth position. Player two will be shifting positions in the supportive part of a bass line, followed by a power chord in measure 14. 

This song should sound familiar; it’s identical to “Duettes Two” from the last lesson, played in the key of C instead of G. 

Going forward from this duet series, if you and your partner practice reading notation every day for about 15 minutes, you’ll notice steady progress. Give your partner a high-five!

Sight Reading Duets Part 3, musical examples 1-4
Sight-Reading Duets Part 3, musical example 5: "Duettes at Sea"
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 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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