Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Making do on guitar

The other night I was talking to a guitar student about my experience of trying to get certain sounds on the guitar without the right technology, and how useful things came out of this lack. I thought this would make a useful post here.

Several examples came to mind. One was trying to play both parts of a twin lead guitar line. For anyone who doesn’t know what this means, ‘twin lead guitar’ is where two guitarists take a note each and play parallel melodic phrases, usually based on thirds and sixths. With each holding only one note these are generally easy to play and the notes can be subject to typical techniques of bending and vibrato. This arrangement style was characteristic of British bands such as Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash, and there are elements of it in Queen’s studio records (where Brian May would overdub such lines himself) and The Darkness. Providing the lines are not too quick, it can be possible to play both at once. This effort taught me some things about how thirds and sixths work on the guitar. To make the lines sound a little different from each other I discovered that playing the lower note with a pick and the higher note with a finger helped. And trying to do a double-trill was certainly a challenge.

Another example occurred when I tried to emulate Mark Knopfler’s playing on some of the early Dire Straits tracks. The crucial technology for his sound was a Fender Strat, often with the single-coil pick-ups in positions 2 and 4, and played with thumb and fingers. I only had a guitar with double-coil pickups, which wasn’t ideal. I found that by winding the tone down a bit, using thumb and fingers and being careful with the touch,  and also playing nearer the fingerboard helped get a little closer to the sound.

A third example arouse when I wanted to emulate the sound of a 12-string on a 6-string. In some accompaniment figures which are based on simple chords it is possible to look for octaves above the notes which are in reach. That goes a little way to imitating the sound of a picked 12-string.

None of these things could replace the original thing. But they all helped my technique in terms of extending what I could get out of the guitar I had and learning more about the fingerboard and how much guitar technique is in the sense of touch.

I recently mentioned Vaughan Williams’ Symphony 8 as great music for this time of year. I could add to it Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (Ma Mere l’Oye), Prokoviev’s Lieutenant Kije (with the famous Troika that featured in Woody Allen’s Love and Death film), Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, Arnold Bax’s Christmas Eve, Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’, Steeleye Span’s ‘Gaudete’, and Kate Bush’s ‘December Will Be Magic Again’.


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