Lead Guitar and Follow Guitar

You have spent a fair amount of time developing your chops, getting comfortable moving around the fretboard, honing your ear for exciting and explosive lead lines.  Now, you are a lead guitarist and you want to let loose.  When the spotlight is on and it’s time to solo, have at it.  Show ‘em what you got, play that funky music.

When you are accompanying a singer or another instrumentalist, use those fretboard skills and that well-honed ear to be a ‘follow guitarist’.  Let the other person lead the way.  A lot of times it will be useful to think about what you are playing not even as following but as tailing.  You want to be as unobtrusive as possible.  The listener will know that the whole is a little fuller, a little more complete, but they may not know why.

Just like the snap of a twig or the rustle of a branch lets you know there is something else around, power and drama reside in the unseen and the unobtrusive.  They enhance the scene, add suspense, color and context. It makes it all a little richer.  When you finally pop out of the bushes, so to speak, just as the song reaches its most dramatic point or when the guitar has to lead the song forward the contrast between the subtle and the obvious makes both more effective.

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Music Stores

There are only two kinds of stores that I like to go in purely for the sake of browsing, trying things on for size, often with little or no intention of buying – book stores and music stores.  Record stores used to be on that list as well, but it is difficult to find one anymore.  I fear that bookstores may soon meet the same fate, which would be sad.

Music store visits is the topic for today.  I categorize music stores for guitarists in three types, the big chain store, the locally owned and run store and the guitar specialty shop.  Each offers its own unique experience.

The big chain store can be a challenge on a weekend afternoon.  Lots of people thrashing about, amps turned up to nine and a half, aspiring shredders displaying what they know.  In less frenetic times it is place just made for browsing.  You can sit down and play a $3000 Martin or a $300 Squire and nobody will make you feel like a trespasser.  Sooner or later someone will ask if you need some help.  If you say yes, they are usually pretty knowledgeable and ready to help.  If you say no they’ll leave you to your own devices, particularly if it’s apparent that you’re not likely to drop a Taylor or a PRS on its headstock.  If you want to just talk guitar talk, they will be happy to oblige.  The drawbacks – even odds that the guitar you pick up will not be in tune or anywhere near it. But that is only a minor annoyance, I can still tune a guitar to itself without a clip-on tuner.  There are less than even odds that the strings will be fresher than three or four weeks old with lots of miles on them.  It is hard to tell just how good that instrument sounds with those old strings on it .  All in all, though, I’m glad these stores exist.

The locally owned music stores can be a nice alternative, but they run a bigger gamut. Some are geared to the beginner and to school band and orchestra students.  The best of these, however,  have a good selection of instruments, amps and accessories in a range of prices.  The staff in these stores are usually very knowledgeable and interested. They are often friendly to a fault.  You can usually try out anything, but they are going to be asking you what you think and working toward a sale right from the start.  I understand the situation.  They are in a competition and it is stiff.  Nonetheless, it is usually a shorter visit.  And, I almost always buy something – strings, cables, whatever – on every visit.  Just so they’re not entirely unhappy to see me.

Then there are the guitar specialty stores.  The ones with a few guitars in the $300 – $500 range but where most of the inventory consists of instruments in the $2000-6000 range.  The store is climate controlled, the instruments are in tune and polished and the strings are new.  When you play one of these babies, the guy takes it off the rack and hands it to you, making sure your belt buckle is covered.  You know that you are hearing the best the instrument has to offer.  The worker will tell you about the guitar in as much detail as you wish and will make suggestions for alternative choices.  If you want to hear what the guitar sounds like from the front instead of just from behind, the person will play things that really makes it shine.  They’ve got handmade amps and custom electrics, acoustics of all shapes and sizes built with every tone wood you can imagine.

The best of these stores make you feel welcome and valued but it is clear that this is serious business.  The worst of these stores can make you feel like an intruder, like they are sure you are there for some nefarious purpose. There is one of the good ones in the city where I live.  I love to go there.  I don’t go very often, though.   I feel like I need to be seriously shopping, really looking for the right instrument for me.  The people at the store don’t make me feel that way, it’s just me.  Besides, I think that lust is one of the seven deadly sins.  Playing those instruments only engenders lust.  Actually, I think that I’m afraid that I’m going to find the ‘one’, the guitar that I have only played and heard in my dreams.  Then I will have to find a way to own it. I’m trying so hard to be good.

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Four Ways to Make Yourself Desirable

While this may seem like a topic more suited for a glossy newsstand magazine than for a music blog it is an important subject for guitar players.  There are four ways to approach your playing that will help make you the accompanist of choice for other musicians.  The primary way is to exercise restraint in what you play.  The second way is to exercise restraint.  The third thing is play judiciously and sparingly.  Or, put another way, exercise restraint. Finally, listen intently to the music you are accompanying while you are exercising restraint.

I belong to a couple of songwriting groups and I enjoy the opportunity to listen and learn from others’ creative efforts.  With one group we meet in two different places and two different situations.  Once a month we meet in a club, set up a PA and everybody gets to play a couple of their songs and get some feedback.  In this situation there are people who will ask me to accompany them and I enjoy the opportunity.

The second meeting of the month takes place in someone’s home where we will sit around and take turns playing a song, either an original or a cover tune that has been an influence or inspiration.  We talk about our writing methods and how songs and performers have influenced us.  I seldom play along with anyone else in these meetings.  Why?  Because a lot of other people do and many of them play competing lead lines throughout the song.  Regardless of what the singer is doing or any dynamic changes they are trying to employ, regardless of what anyone else is doing these people are just flailing away impervious to what’s going on around them.  I just don’t want to contribute to the cacophony and make it any harder on the singer.

I know that this playing bothers people because they have told me so.  Plus, I know this bothers me when I am playing.  This is at its worst when someone is playing a new song that no one else has heard before.  They can’t possibly know for certain where the song is going or what it is going to do next. That doesn’t seem to matter.

Now everyone in this group is polite and non-confrontational, at least when they’re not playing guitar, so nobody gets called out. As a result, the madness continues.

The object lesson here is to strive to never play all you are capable of.  Understand that the most important thing is the song and the singer. Strumming or picking one chord  per measure with an unexpected voicing may be the perfect accompaniment.  Playing two half notes during a two measure break might be just right.  Of course you may play them on the fourth beat of the first measure and the second upbeat of the next, but that might just be a better way to add flavoring than a two measure string of eighth notes.

If you are listening carefully to the song, you’ll know which is the better choice.  That restraint, that consideration for the true focal point of the performance is what will make others ask you to play along with them.

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Learn the fretboard

Being a valuable accompanist requires you to play a complementary role to the player or singer you are accompanying.  One of the ways to do that is by offering a different timbre or sound quality from the main parts.  This is especially important when accompanying another guitar, as is often the case when playing with a singer/songwriter.  These performers and those who sing similar cover songs frequently play guitar as well.  The tendency for acoustic guitar players is to strum chords or finger pick in first position where the open strings provide a fullness to the sound.  In these situations it is logical to provide the accompaniment using both the higher pitched notes and the differing timbres that are produced higher up the guitar neck.  Therefore, it is extremely important that you feel comfortable in any key at any position on the neck of the guitar.

When the singer puts the capo on the fourth fret and plays what looks like G, C and D chords, are you comfortable playing in the key of  B at the 7th fret or at the 11th fret?  Perhaps in that case you might even choose to play below the chords, playing in the key of B starting at the first fret.

The beauty of the guitar neck is the way it is connected from open strings to the twelfth fret where it starts all over again.  There are repeated patterns and repeated relationships between notes, chords, scales and keys that allow you to play both chords and lines over chord changes in any key at virtually any position on the neck.

You really need to learn the chord relationships and notes in five major and minor keys in open position, C, A, G, E and D.  The relationships in these five keys can then cycle in that exact order up the neck.

Let’s look at what I mean.  Here are the five chord forms I listed in open position.  I have presented these as if you were sitting across from me looking at where my fingers are on the fretboard.

I suspect that none of this is particularly new or exciting, just the basic chords you learned on the first or second day you started to played guitar.  However, focus on the shapes of the chords rather than what chord they are.  In the diagrams, the red finger position indicates where the root note of the chord occurs.  When the red position is behind the nut, it means that the open string is a root tone.

Now, let’s look at how these chord shapes relate to one another as we go up the neck.  Here is a C Major chord played at five different places on the fretboard.  The green lines in this diagram indicate where a barre with the first finger is used.  The barre, of course, takes the place of the nut as you move away from open position.





This chain of chord shapes is always the same.  An ‘A shape’ is always followed by the ‘G shape’ and always preceded by the ‘C shape.’  If you know where to play a chord using one of these shapes, you can figure out where to play that chord anywhere else on the neck. More importantly, if you can locate the root note of the chord you want on any string, you will know how to form at least two versions of that chord.  Each root tone is a part of two chord shapes.

Let’s look at the A major chord and how that can be played at any position on the neck.





The sequence of shapes is the same, G shape follows A shape, E shape follows G shape, etc.  Once you reach the 12th fret, the pattern repeats.

Now this is not news to some people.  They have figured this out or they have learned it from someone else.  But, I am always surprised by the number of players who can play the same chord in different places, but haven’t seen the repeated pattern.  This one bit of understanding connects the fretboard and helps you to move fluidly from one position to another in search of the right notes and the right timbre to add the perfect accompaniment.

Let me know if you have thoughts to add or questions to ask.

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Making Musical Sense

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to take a class with renowned jazz guitarist Herb Ellis.  As one friend said at the time, ”Herb has more swing when he snaps his fingers than a lot of people have when they play a whole solo.”  Herb was humorously bemoaning the fact that George Benson was gaining a lot of attention by scatting along with his solos. Herb said that he had always done that, but nobody thought to mic it and record it. He could have been a big star!

The discussion had a more important point behind it.  If you can’t sing what you’re playing on the guitar, perhaps what you are playing is a bit much.  Herb called it ‘playing what makes sense.’  Now this may seem somewhat ironic coming from a guy who could solo with Oscar Peterson on Sweet Georgia Brown played at about 220 beats per minute, but it is still good advice.  Playing what makes sense is more than the speed of the notes.  It is possible to sing or scat quite fast.  Making sense also involves both intervals and phrasing.  It involves spaces and note lengths.  It involves silence as well as sound.

One of the differences between playing an instrument like a guitar or a keyboard and playing a horn or reed instrument has to do with respiration.  Wind instrument players, like singers, are regulated by the need to breathe.  Guitar players and keyboard players don’t have the same restraint.  While this allows for longer and more complex lines and phrases it can also be a trap.  Those long, extended lines can really stand out and command attention.  They can also run together into an ill-defined mush that is more self-indulgent than it is edifying.   It should be the principle of tension and release.  You want the listener to be saying, “Oh, I thought it was going to stop there,” once, twice or even three times before getting to, “that was interesting” when the line does resolve.  You definitely want to avoid going to the point where the listener is saying, “Please make it end, when is it going to stop?”

As a guitar player, there are a number of solos from recordings that I ‘sing’ along with. Some are sax solos, some are piano or organ solos, most are guitar solos.  When a song comes on that they like most people sing along with the lyrics.  I just listen until the solo starts. The common denominator on all these solos is that I can sing along.  There is a melodic sensibility that is somehow human.  Think about what a monster guitar player Ella Fitzgerald would have been considered had she been playing along with what she was scatting.

I think that a lot of blues players know this instinctively.  The whole driving force behind the blues guitar was to express human emotion in both raw and primitive and in its complex forms.  By necessity that demands some semblance to the human voice.

These are three of those solos that I like to sing along to, what are yours?

Miles Davis’ solo on “So What” from Kind of Blue

Don Felder’s guitar solo on the Eagles “One of These Nights”

The horn section solo on Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening”


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Artists and Engineers

I was reading an interview with Bil VornDick in Premier Guitar magazine the other day.  http://digital.premierguitar.com/premierguitar/201304_1#pg128. Bil is a very successful, highly respected Nashville engineer and producer who has been practicing his craft for many years.  I have been thrashing about in the home studio recording swamp for a while and I thought it would be interesting to see what I could learn from an expert.  He had a lot to say about how he mics certain instruments and how he works with artists to get the best performance.  A lot of good information is in the article.

However, one of his answers really leaped out at me.  When asked where someone who is setting up a home studio should spend their money he had some suggestions.  Then he said, “…I work with a lot of artists who should just be artists but they also want to be engineers and they don’t realize that there are two hats.”  He goes on to talk about songwriters who spend so much time trying to learn recording that they stop writing songs and guitar players who stop practicing their instrument.  They end up being not as good at either as they could be if they focused on one – the one they are already good at.

Now, I’m not sure that I agree entirely, but I can see his point.  I wonder, though, if it is too easy to equate a level of technical polish with an equal level of value.  It seems to me that there are less than perfect recordings that are way better than some that have better technical attributes.  Beyond a basic level of acceptable technical quality it is still the performance that drives the quality standard.  If you play well, if it’s a good song, if there’s some heart and soul in the performance that will come through.  That will move the listener.

Still, there is, I suppose, a certain level of arrogance that leads a guitar player to think that it will be easy to learn how to record and mix well.  I can just imagine what I would think if the engineer told me that he was going to start playing guitar and it shouldn’t be that hard.  After all, he had learned how to be a good engineer.

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Frank and Horns

I like Frank Sinatra.  I didn’t always.  My parents would play his records when I was a kid.  When I was very young the basic rhythm and rhyme was enjoyable.  Then I reached a certain age where I realized that I was supposed to scoff at such old folk’s music.  It wasn’t hip, it wasn’t new enough or now enough.  The problem was that I would still find myself humming the melodies and singing the lyrics, unable to stop it if I tried.  Now that is just good songwriting, musical and lyrical hooks that act as ear worms.  They just latch on to some outcropping in your cortex and hang on tenaciously, refusing to be shaken off.

Later when I started listening a bit more closely and even playing some of these tunes in high school jazz band I started to appreciate the arrangements as much as the songs.  I continue to be knocked out by the skill of the arrangers like Nelson Riddle and David Rose in this type of music.  From the singers like Frank, Dean Martin, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald to Bobby Darin to current day songsters like Michael Buble and Harry Connick, Jr., the arrangers are a vital part.  As an accompanist, I am drawn to the horn parts.  In the more swinging tunes the two and three note staccato phrases provide contrast while longer legato phrases will echo the melody line.  In the best arrangements these accompanying parts mean as much to the total sound as the lyric and melody itself.

There is much to be gained from the way instruments other than guitar are used in an accompanying role.  Both phrasing and harmonic elements tend to be different than the things we usually play.  Incorporating some of these horn based lines and structures into your own bag of ideas can give you some unique and complimentary contributions to your craft.  If you’re not keen on the swingsters mentioned there are plenty of other places to find good examples.  George Martin used plenty of horns with the Beatles.  Albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver are loaded with good examples.  Much of the past and current R&B and Soul music make extensive use of horn accompaniment either with actual horns or with synthesizers playing horn-like parts.  Of course bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears featured horn sections, but others like Steely Dan really put horn accompaniment into a pop/rock context.

Listen for the horns in any music and then listen to what they are adding.  There is much to be learned.

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I was visiting a friend’s recording studio today and listening to some songs he was in the process of mixing.  This was a singer/songwriter sort of project, but the instrumentation was pretty full.  On most tracks there were lead and harmony vocals, bass, drums, acoustic and electric guitars.  Some tracks had keyboards, percussion, fiddle even sax on a couple.  But even with all these parts I noticed a quality in these mixes that I call ‘air.’  There was a fair amount going on in the mix, but it didn’t seem crowded.  Every part had its place and they all worked together but nothing stepped on any other part.  There was room to breathe.

That concept, that notion of ‘air’ is a useful one for the guitar accompanist, too.  There is no need to use up all the available space, leave some air.  The song will thank you for it and what you add will be further emphasized by what you leave out.

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Steve Cropper

You have to be impressed with someone whose sound and style defined a musical genre while their name remained unknown to the majority of people hearing the music.  As a founding member of the Stax Records house band, Booker T. and the MGs, Steve Cropper’s guitar graced the late 60’s Memphis soul records and provided some of the most memorable guitar licks of the era.  From the intro to ‘Soul Man’ by Sam and Dave to the signature lick on ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ by Albert King to the funk defining guitar rhythm of ‘Knock On Wood’ by Eddie Floyd  his riffs set the tone for the tune.  With a minimalist approach, a tight rapport with the rhythm section and an ability to find and fill only the holes that needed filling, Cropper’s guitar playing propels these songs.

As the writer or co-writer of many of the hits he played on, he approaches the guitar as a part of the entire work rather than a focal point.  ‘Soul Man’ is a perfect example.  The intro lick is immediately recognizable, the iconic sound of the song.  However, to me it is the rhythmic figure he plays behind the verse that lifts the song to classic status.  The repeated, syncopated double stops are as important as the melody in making the song work.  Cropper also co-wrote ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ with Otis Redding and his guitar playing on that recording reveals a much different quality to his playing.  Stax releases tended to feature a tight horn section up front, but the guitar was an essential part of the sound.

Cropper went on to play with and produce artists as varied as John Prine, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Tower of Power and many others. Many people who knew the music were first introduced to the man behind it when he performed and acted as a ‘Blues Brother’ starting in 1976.  He has been well known and appreciated by guitarists and other musicians since the days at Stax.  There are a lot of useful techniques and licks for the guitar accompanist to be found in his work.

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Guitar: An American Life

Several years ago, while browsing in a large, well-known chain bookstore near Union Square in Manhattan I happened across a book with the intriguing title Guitar: An American Life.   I bought it and read it at least twice, maybe three times over the next two years before lending it to a musician friend. Author Tim Brooke describes discovering that his guitar had been broken in baggage handling.  He replaces the broken instrument with a custom built guitar made by luthier Rick Davis.  Alternate chapters of the book describe the process of meeting with and contracting Davis to build the new guitar, making decisions on the shape and size and materials and his thoughts and reactions as the instrument takes shape.  The other chapters present both a history of the guitar, particularly in America, and a treatise on the allure of the instrument and the remarkable role it has played in the lives of individuals as well as in the evolution of society.

As players we may acknowledge the importance the guitar plays and has played in our lives but we sometimes take its presence for granted.  How many of our friendships and other relationships have grown from or been forged by the experience of playing guitar?  How many of the experiences we remember well and recount to others have their roots in the fact that we play music?

It may seem a crass generalization, but one of the points that Brooke makes in the book is that a guy shops for guitars differently than for anything else. He refers to it as shopping like a woman. I find this an instructive point. When else do we go to the store knowing that we’re probably not buying but we just want to try a bunch of things on, just to see if they fit?  What other stores to we go into not to get out of as soon as we can, but to stay as long as we can?  Where else do you get into conversations with other customers that you have never met before?  You know you have something in common, even if the other person wants to plug that Gold Top into that Double Rectifier and shred while you want to hear how your Travis picking sounds on that sunburst 000-18.  Those six strings create a surprisingly strong connection even if you have never considered playing with your shirt off and the other person has never performed without bass and drums.

Anyway, the book is a great read and will enhance your appreciation for the instrument. It will also make you yearn to have a guitar built just for you.  I would lend you my copy, but I never got it back from the last person.  Maybe he lent it to someone else – as long as the message continues to spread.  I guess I‘ll have to get another copy, it’s worth another read.

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