For accompaniment, constant strumming can overwhelm the vocals and bury the groove without providing the breathing room and contrast that a song needs.
Vary your fretting- and picking-hand technique to create accompaniment parts that are more dynamic, supple, and nuanced, both harmonically and rhythmically.
Throughout this lesson, the song that you’ll accompany is the traditional spiritual “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” (Example 1), which has been recorded by such artists as the Swan Silvertones, Mississippi John Hurt, Aretha Franklin, and Pete Seeger. Interestingly, the melody is set in both major and minor keys; this arrangement goes with the minor, as in Bruce Springsteen’s version on the Seeger Sessions album.
As a first step, play through “Oh Mary,” strumming only once for each new chord and letting the strings ring while singing a verse or the chorus on top. Listen to how the melody sounds with all that open space—nice, right? Whenever you want to improve an accompaniment part, playing through the song with one strum per chord change or measure is a good way to cleanse the palate and start hearing new possibilities.
Building from that single strum for each chord, add a bluesy monotone bass note between the strums, as in Example 2. At the same time, reduce the chords by taking out some of the treble strings for a tighter sound. Continue this pattern through the whole progression (as in the video on acousticguitar.com), letting the chords ring through the measure over the thumping bass. This simple and sparse part is more than enough to keep the song rolling.
In Example 3, switch to an alternating bass, with bass notes on beats 1 and 3 and chords on beats 2 and 4. Hold down the full chord shapes, but strum only the strings shown—two or three at a time. Use a light touch with the pick—particularly on the eighth-note upstrokes. Compare the sound of these reduced chord voicings with full chord strums; the harmonic information is all there, but with less clutter.
In Example 4, thin out the part even further by taking out more strums. In bars 1 and 3, strum a chord on beat 2 and let it ring for a half note—right over beat 3. Notice that the rhythm does not halt when you skip a beat. Once you’ve established the pulse, everyone will hear/feel it even when you don’t play it. One of the keys to good accompaniment—and good music in general—is leaving some things unstated, so listeners get the pleasant job of filling in the gaps.
When you’re picking chord tones like this, you actually don’t need to strum full chords at all. In Example 5, play double-stops and single notes while again leaving beat 3 untouched. This creates an airy sound that still carries the song quite well.
You may notice one departure from the underlying chord shapes in Ex. 5: at the end of measure 3, you play the third string open even though with a B7 you’d normally be holding down the second fret. How come? Because you’re hinting at the melody, which hits the G note in that spot. Doubling or echoing the melody like this is a great accompaniment technique—keep an ear out for opportunities to do it.
So far you’ve focused on thinning out the accompaniment by playing fewer strings. Another approach is to shorten the duration of notes. In Example 6, play chord voicings on only the bottom four strings. While the chords are notated with quarter notes, play them shorter than written—mute each chord quickly for a swing-style rhythmic feel.
To mute, relax your fretting-hand grip right after you strum the chord while keeping your fingertips in the shape. Flatten out your fretting fingers a bit to touch and mute adjacent strings. Any fingers you’re not using in the chord shape can help by muting open strings.
At the same time, use palm muting with your picking hand. Rest the side of your palm on the strings near the bridge while you play. If you lift your hand to strum a little harder, bring your palm down onto the strings as part of the strumming motion. The net effect of all this muting is to make each chord punchy and percussive—and let the vocal soar above.
Now try muting with the monotone and alternating bass styles. In Example 7, apply the same muting techniques as in Ex. 6 on both bass notes and chords. Keep your picking-hand palm on the strings for the entire example for continual muting.
Mix It Up
In practice, the best approach is to vary the accompaniment according to the flow of the song, rather than strictly following one pattern the whole way. That’s what you do in Example 8, which runs through the entire 16-bar “Oh Mary” verse and chorus form. During the verse, play staccato—with a lot of muting—using various patterns introduced in the previous examples. Then, in the chorus, let the strings ring more for a nice contrast and to give the centerpiece of the song a dynamic lift.
As you play and sing “Oh Mary” now, compare the sound and feel of the accompaniment with chock-a-block strumming. The song sounds more relaxed and natural. The groove sways instead of rigidly marching along, and the vocal stands out more easily. And you’ve got dynamic headroom: If you want to make the sound bigger and louder, you’ve got unused strings and plenty of room to do so. And if you want to bring the sound down further (maybe even to whole-note strums or bass notes only), you can do that too.
Apply this less-is-more approach to other songs in your repertoire, and you’ll hear how they can take flight when the guitar supports rather than weighs them down.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar’s founding editor, is author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter and a Homespun video series teaching acoustic arrangements of Grateful Dead songs. This lesson is adapted from the forthcoming Acoustic Guitar multimedia guide Beyond Strumming.
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From the book and video Beyond Strumming | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS