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FEATURE: More Than One Guitarist

I recently played on a bill with a blues/rock band featuring bass, drums, myself, and another guitar player. Another band  on the bill had two electric guitarists, an acoustic guitarist, and a special guest guitarist, plus bass and drums. Working with another guitarist (or guitarists) takes planning, consideration, and work. Otherwise, the band’s sound can quickly turn into messy mush, where no one can hear anything or tell who’s playing what.

In the studio, you have the luxury of controlling the mix and making edit decisions to create the best blend and sound. But live, it can be tougher. Occasionally, two or more guitar players will end up in a band where each just instinctively knows what to play in order to ensure that everyone has space to be heard and and the sound stays coherent. But if you’re not that lucky, here are some tips for making it work.

Divide and Conquer

The easiest solution to making things work with more than one guitarist is the time-honored tradition of one player being the rhythm player and the other being the lead player. If this works out, congratulate yourself! Though, of course, there are also advantages to having multiple lead players in the group. You’ll just have to work a bit harder to make it all come together well.

Plan It Out

If you’re not going to strictly divide your duties, then take some time to plan out who will be doing what for each song – it’s unlikely that you’ll all be playing lead simultaneously. Maybe you can trade off on who does the fills and solos on each song, alternate solos, assign things based on the player whose style is best suited to each part, have the player who wrote or came up with the song choose parts, alternate between playing high and low parts, or come up with some other scheme that everyone can agree on and that seems fair and balanced for all players. Compromise will be required, but if everyone is focused on the best sound, rather than on stroking his or her own ego, then this won’t be a problem.

Choose Your Octave

Instead of always playing unisons, try playing lines in octaves or as harmonies. Here’s one tip: put the strongest player on the main melody line, rather than the highest line. A strong foundation will result in a better sound than a weak melody with a strong harmony on top.

Turn It Upside Down

Take advantage of having more than one player by having each perform a different version of a part in order to broaden or thicken the overall sound. For example, if one player is doing open chords low on the neck, then try having the other play inversions of those chords in another position higher on the neck.

The Sum Is Greater Than the Parts

Rather than everyone playing full-on 6-string chords, each guitarist can try playing partial chords. Maybe one player can do root-fifth power chords on the lower strings, while the other does triads or the extended parts of the chords on the upper three strings.

All Together Now

Be careful when playing unison lines or when you’re all playing the same chord or rhythm parts. The key to this working well is having balanced volume levels, being in tune, and practicing the parts until you’re tight. One sloppy player is bad enough; multiple sloppy players is just a mess.

Exercise Restraint

There’s nothing worse than playing with a guitar player (or other musician) who feels as if they must fill every single space, leaving no room for anyone else to play. Do you really need to play licks or fills while the other player is soloing? Allow room for each musician to play, and control your volume and dynamics to let each other be heard, so the most important part comes through clearly.

Complementary Tone

For my band’s performance, the other player and I sat down in advance and decided he would use a Strat with single-coils through a Super Reverb amp using a FullTone overdrive, while I would play my PRS with humbuckers through my Hot Rod Deluxe with a ZenDrive. By using very different tones, it was easy to hear what each of us was doing, and it was easier to keep volume levels under control. If, on the other hand, both of us had played Strats through Super Reverbs, it would have been hard to differentiate each of us. Plus, our tones lent themselves to different parts, broadening and enriching our sound.

Here’s another tip: for more individuality and expanded possibilities, consider having one player use a cleaner tone while the other uses a dirtier one, or have one use chorus and echo while the other uses a dry tone, and so on.

Volume Control

For most bands, the hardest part about having more than one guitar player is that the situation often dissolves into a volume war. It takes real self-control to set your volumes to achieve a nice blend, then restrain yourself from reaching over and turning up “so you can hear yourself better” as the song progresses or as your solo nears. Experiment with amp placements and angles – make sure the amps are pointed at each respective player’s ears (not knees), and try to point them so that no one is getting blasted by another player’s speakers. Remember, great overall sound is the key. You have to hear yourself, but you also have to allow room for everyone else to be heard.

I’d like to offer a corollary: rein in your volume when the other player is going for it – pull back your rhythm playing so that their solo or fill can be heard. Balancing volume levels is a matter of consideration and respect.

Roll Tape

If you want to ensure that the guitar parts are all working together, then record a few rehearsals. Afterward, sit down with the other guitar player(s) and listen through. Can everyone be heard? Is anyone playing too much or stepping on the other player(s)? It can be difficult not to just listen to your own stellar licks; one way around this is for each of you to consciously focus on the other player’s parts. Can you hear everything they’re playing, or is some other player (meaning you) stepping all over them? Try to be as objective as possible. The goal is for the band and the music to be as great as possible, not for one person to dominate.

Having more than one guitarist in a band can be a beautiful thing; you can cover songs with multiple parts, play harmonies, expand the sound and the capabilities of the band, and maybe even learn something from each other. All it takes to make it work well is a little planning and consideration.

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