Assuming you have learned to play the guitar a little on your own, getting out and playing with other musicians can be an extremely rewarding endeavor. There’s nothing like the feeling — and sound — of making music with other human beings, translating what you’ve learned on your own instrument into a group effort that produces something real. It’s magical. And you don’t even have to be an expert on the guitar yourself to get out there and have fun with others. Provided you know a few chords at least, and understand how to learn new ones that friends might show you, playing with other like-minded beginner or novice musicians can often help you improve faster than you would all on your own, however hard you work at it. There’s nothing like the team effort of rehearsing together to help you develop your sense of rhythm, melody, dynamics, and overall timing. However good you feel you’re getting all on your lonesome in the bedroom or basement, you never really know how you’re coming along as a musician until you throw down with a few others.
Essentials for a great rehearsal
A lot of the rehearsal basics you can work out for yourself. The bare essentials are:
- A space to play where the noise won’t bother the neighbors or other residents.
- Guitar and bass amps that are loud enough to be heard over the drums, but not so loud that they get you in trouble with the “bother” issue above.
- A PA system that lets the vocals be heard just a little over the amps and drums.
- Three or four (or more) musicians who are ready to play!
Beyond these, however, it helps enormously to understand a little bit about how different instruments — or even two or three of the same instrument, in the case of the guitar — can work together, or against, each other to create a sonic blend. That’s what we’ll concentrate on in this installment of Gibson’s Back to Basics.
Starting a power trio
Power trios (bands made up of guitar, bass and drums, plus a singer) have been so successful over the years partly because they provide a sonic spectrum in which each instrument naturally avoids stepping on the toes of the other. For this reason, this format is also an easy one to get sounding good if you’re just starting out playing together. Often, however, you’ll want two guitars to fill out the sound better, and to adequately cover the parts in the songs you want to play. Once you get two of the same of any kind of instrument playing in a rock band, you need to put some thought into differentiating the parts that each performs, in order to avoid battering away in the same portions of the frequency range. The combination of two-guitars, bass and drums can make a lot of music, which is why it has been such a mainstay of rock and roll for more than 50 years now. But two six-string guitars can also really get in each other’s way if the musicians behind them aren’t working together and approaching the arrangements as a team, rather than as competitors, each trying to outshine the other.
Rhythm vs. lead guitar
When two guitars are playing together in one band, they usually divide their duties into the traditional roles of “rhythm” and “lead,” the former strumming the chords that underpin the melody, and the latter playing the hooks, riffs, fills and solos that add dynamics and “dressing” to the arrangement. Often when bands form from a group of beginner or novice players, the more advanced guitarist will take the lead-guitar role, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Rhythm guitar is equally important — it keeps the song chugging along — and often the rhythm player will be a good guitarist who is also a singer, and finds it easier to sing while playing chords. Most often, if two guitarists are of roughly similar abilities, it’s a good idea to share lead and rhythm roles, and playing a little of both is definitely the best way to develop your chops. There are no set rules for this, and the lead/rhythm roles can even swap within the same song.
Very often, none of the aforementioned “hooks, riffs, fills and solos” are required through sections of any given song, and two guitars will both strum the rhythm chords. For these passages, you want to craft parts that avoid having you play the exact same chords in the exact same positions, which, however accurately you do it, often comes out sounding like a sonic tangle that over-crowds the mix. Consider having one guitar play first-position or “open” chords low down on the neck, while the other plays partial barre chords higher up. Or have one player strum rhythmically while the other plays “jangle” style arpeggios in a different position. There are a lot of ways to differentiate your parts.
Get your guitars working together
Another important means of creating two distinctive and complementary guitar parts lies in crafting different tones. Even with slightly different parts, if they are played on the same guitars, with the same pickup settings, through the same effects and the same amplifiers they’ll end up sounding opaque and muddy. With two very different guitar tones working together — for example, one warm and crunchy, the other bright and chimey — even two fairly similar parts will remain distinctive in the listener’s ear. Listen to any professional two-guitar band, and you’ll usually hear two considerably different tones going on on-stage. You’ll also notice that such players often use different but complementary gear, too: perhaps a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster through Marshall and Vox amps respectively, for example. Even if you’re already stuck with two similar guitar and amp rigs, you can differentiate your tones by setting your pickup selections and amp EQs differently — work with it until your own ears can easily pick out each instrument, even when you’re playing the exact same thing. I recently saw a gig by a great surf/instrumental-style band with three guitarists in the lineup that at one point in the set had two 12-string guitars and one six-string all playing together, plus bass. Thirty-four strings in all! A muddy mess? No, because they all crafted distinctive tones and played distinctive parts.
Get your different tones and your different parts cooking in harmony, and you can really start to make some music. Consider the dual-rhythm attack of one clean, jangly guitar strumming full, open chords, while another slightly dirty guitar chunks away at power chords (chords that contain just the root and the fifth of the scale, and can therefore be played over both major and minor melodies). This blend has driven many a hit song very successfully … and either one of these guitars can break into riffs, fills and solos and still stand out in the mix. Get your guitars working together, rather than against each other, and you will be a good ways down the road to sounding like a real band. Now all you need to do is get the drummer and bassist to cooperate, and we all know how difficult they can be!
Read more of Gibson's Back to Basics:
How to Get Your Gear and Yourself Gig-Ready
How to Get Ready for The Studio