Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Two guitars and voices

I've talked a lot about how electric guitar fits into a full band (drums, bass, two guitars, maybe keys) but I haven't talked about playing in smaller settings - like just two guitars and some voices. These smaller groups can get a rap as small time, usually because it's a couple guys who don't know a bass player or drummer and are forced to be an acoustic duo, but if it's done right, it can be just as powerful as a full band. Here are my tips for playing in a small band like this:

First, get into a different mentality. You have to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a small band in order to make the most of it. I love the intimacy it can provide and the silent spaces between phrases you don't get with a full band. It won't, however, have the drive you'll get from bass and drums. I've you've ever seen MTVs unplugged or heard a song you like done acoustic, you've probably noticed the acoustic version is more chill. Get in that mentality... chill.

Advice for the rhythm player:
Congratulations, you're playing three instruments now - bass, drums, and acoustic. You'll have to make up for the loss of bass and drums by filling in their roles. In a 4/4 song the drums will hit the bass drum on 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4. Bass follows the bass drum for the most part but will almost always have the loudest accent on beat 1. You can incorporate all these ideas into your playing by hitting the root note of your chord on beat 1 (playing the basses note and hitting where the bass drum would hit) and accent your strum on 2 and 4 (accenting where the snare would accent). Now I'm not saying to only hit your strings on the quarter notes, I'm saying to accent those beats within your strum patterns. Listen to some acoustic songs and you'll most likely hear what I'm talking about. Chances are you're naturally accenting these beats anyway!

Advice for the second guitar:
Never ever, ever, ever play the same thing as the rhythm player. That's the biggest piece of advice I can give! It will sound like one guitar if you do and won't add anything. The capo is your friend. If you want to strum chords like the rhythm player, capo and play in a different register. For instance, if the rhythm player is playing in E, capo 2 and play in D. Having two guitars playing in different registers and in different voicing (what you'll be doing if you capo) makes a big sound. It sounds kind of like a 12-string.

Decide if you're playing acoustic or electric. You'll find more acoustic duos out there than acoustic and electric duos, but both have their place. Believe it or not, playing acoustic will give you more drive. "But electric guitar is rock and roll," you might say. "Kind of," I'll respond, "drums, bass, and electric are rock and roll. Electric on it's own is not." Electric guitar doesn't have much kick to it. When you combine it with bass and drums it gives an amazing sound - my favorite combination of instruments, actually. But on it's own it's squishy. Acoustic, on the other hand, has punch to it. The down side of acoustic is there's very little sustain to notes. If you try to play an electric part on an acoustic guitar it's going to sound smaller because the notes won't blend together and each individual note will die faster. If you want to play something that sustains, grab your electric. On acoustic, to get around the sustain problem, I like to find ways to add open strings to what I'm playing, or capo to make open (technically hitting the capo) strings ring out. They'll sustain better than a note you finger and it gives you more notes to work with.

Vocal harmonies are huge in small groups too. If the second guitarist doesn't sing harmony, try to find a singer to sing with the two of you. It really fills the vocals out.

Here are some video examples of what I'm talking about:

Shane and Shane singing Rocks won't Cry. This is in 6/8 so my 2&4 suggestion doesn't hold true, but you can hear how they still accent certain beats.

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds - Christmas Song. My favorite acoustic duo! Showing how simple you can get and how adding silence is ok.

Matt Wertz - Red Meets Blue. Audience recording so there's tons of reverb. This is a great example of how to play electric and acoustic together. The electric fills the room and Matt plays percussively on acoustic.

1 comment:

Karl said...

Great post! I especially agree with acoustic having more drive than electric if there's no drummer. That's so right on. Without a rhythm section, the electric becomes more bluesy out of necessity. It's pretty bad when you hear chunking, overdriven power chords without a drummer.

And props on the harmony thing, too. Harmonies are so crucial, especially if you're like me, and don't have the greatest voice. A good female vocalist singing harmonies can make you actually sound decent. ;)