Let’s say you’re playing with another guitarist and you decide to do a tune you both know in the same key, with the same set of chord shapes. You can fall right in together and sound fine, but you’re essentially playing the same thing. So how do you go beyond doubling parts like this and take better advantage of having two instruments and two sets of hands?
Creating a full-fledged duo sound doesn’t necessarily require playing anything tricky or fancy. Especially if you’re accustomed to playing solo, what you need to do is adapt your approach to the duo format—by listening closely to both instruments and finding parts that support and enhance each other.
To illustrate, this lesson takes a simple chord progression and shows five strategies for developing complementary duet parts. In the videos on acousticguitar.com, you can see the two parts in each example played separately and then together.
1. Pare Down and Spread Out
The progression used throughout the lesson is Am–C–G–D; in number terms, that’s a common i–III–bVII–IV in the key of A minor. These chords can all be played with easy open shapes, so that would be the go-to for most guitarists—and that’s where we’ll start, with both guitars in open position.
If one guitarist plays full voicings of these chords and strums a dense rhythm, that leaves very little room for the second guitarist to contribute anything meaningful. A better approach is to pare down both parts and separate into different pitch ranges, as shown in Example 1. For Guitar 1, go low, focusing on bass notes and partial chords mostly on the bottom three strings; play with all downstrokes and a rock feel. That pared-down part leaves space for Guitar 2 to add a pattern on the top three strings—using just the upper portion of the same open chord shapes.
While a single guitarist could play bigger chord voicings and cover the notes played here by two guitars, the effect wouldn’t be the same. Two instruments can achieve a cleaner separation. And if you’re playing a part like Guitar 2, you can leave notes ringing longer when you’re not also keeping the bass going.
2. Capo Up
A capo is a great tool for spreading out the two instruments’ voicings while still using open chord shapes. In Example 2, stay in open position for Guitar 1, playing an eighth note bass pulse with a syncopated chord hit on the “and” of beat 2. For Guitar 2, capo at the fifth fret, where the chord shapes become Em, G, D, and A. Since Guitar 1 is keeping time and covering the bass notes, Guitar 2 is free to create ascending lines across the top three strings. The two parts are completely distinct.
3. Create Rhythmic Contrast
As the last example suggests, you can build contrast in duet parts not only by shifting into different pitch ranges but by using different rhythms.
In Example 3, Guitar 1 (still in open position) is all staccato chords. Strum the bass-heavy chord voicings on beats 1, 2-and, and 4, with rests in between; instead of a regular D, use a D/F#, with a bass note on the sixth string, for a deeper sound, and mute all the chords quickly after strumming them. For Guitar 2, capo on the seventh fret, where the chord shapes (to sound in the key of A minor) are Dm, F, C, and G. Cross-pick the chords, using a flatpick or your fingers, for a flowing sound that makes a nice contrast with the percussive punch of Guitar 1.
The lower-pitched guitar part doesn’t always have to be the main rhythmic engine. In Example 4, the two guitars swap roles from Ex. 3. Guitar 2 knocks out the chords up at the seventh fret, while Guitar 1 adds the ringing cross-picked arpeggios in open position.
4. Mix Strumming and Fingerstyle
Another effective way to differentiate parts is having one guitarist use a flatpick while the other plays fingerstyle. That’s the idea behind Example 5. Guitar 1 uses an open-position fingerpicking pattern that may remind you of the opening of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping.” Drop the tempo way down compared with previous examples—to around 60 bpm.
So what can a second guitar do over that fairly busy part? In Guitar 2, capo at the fifth fret again and play mostly sustained chords to add a harmonic overlay almost like a keyboard pad, with a touch of melodic movement too. This part thickens the overall sound without competing at all with the fingerpicking.
5. Go Melodic
When one guitar is holding down the essentials of harmony and time, the second guitar can just go for melody alone, which is what happens in Example 6. Guitar 1 uses the same fingerpicking pattern as in Example 5, but this time Guitar 2 (sans capo) adds only an up-the-neck melody harmonized in sixths. Since the notes are not on adjacent strings, play either fingerstyle or hybrid style (with the pick on the third-string note and your ring finger picking the first string). The upper line is the melody, so if you want a simpler part just play the notes on the first string.
This kind of melodic line sounds sweet over the fingerpicking pattern, and the two parts are totally separated—in terms of pitch range, rhythm, and function.
As you work with these types of approaches to duet arranging, they’ll become instinctive. You’ll find yourself simplifying your part to leave space for the other player, or reaching for lines and patterns that fit with the song but aren’t already stated. You’re listening to each other and creating something that neither of you could do alone . . . and that’s the power of two.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar’s founding editor, is the author of the new lesson book/video Beyond Strumming. jeffreypepperrodgers.com
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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