The Art of Accompaniment

Celtic Music for Guitar

As much as we, as guitarists, love to put our instrument out there front and center stage for all the world to see and hear, the guitar usually plays one part in the whole big picture that is a single song. The true art of being a guitarist isn’t in being a soloist or in playing in such a manner that everyone can’t help notice you, but rather in being able to provide accompaniment that is both appropriate and musically exciting to any given song. Simply put, the guitar is an instrument that helps one communicate with an audience, while the song itself is the actual message.

This isn’t to say that the guitar’s accompaniment isn’t important! Quite the contrary! How one chooses to accompany a song can make all the difference when it comes to getting the message across and that’s why great guitarists are able to create a wide spectrum of tonal colors and moods with their instruments. They take all the techniques they know, all the stylistic nuances of various musical genres and either select or blend a combination of them to paint a musical background that best suits the song at hand.

Over the course of a few lessons, we’ll take a look at some of the typical styles of guitar accompaniment and try to explore why and how they work. I hope you’ll enjoy these musical excursions! In many ways, if you think about it, almost all our lessons here at Guitar Noise are much more lessons on song accompaniment than on the songs themselves.

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

For the time being, I’m going to assume that we’re all relatively familiar with the “strumming as accompaniment” approach. That’s actually a rather large general category and can lead to all sorts of intriguing arrangements by its own right, not to mention when combined with other styles.

So today’s lesson is going to focus almost exclusively on the use of arpeggios and how single note chord arpeggios can create interesting arrangement totally on their own. The use of arpeggios as accompaniment has been around longer than the guitar has and is a technique that most musicians learn early in their playing. You can hear it in songs from all eras of music, from the Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun“ to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” (by Garland and Razaf). We’re going to also combine a little bit of fingerstyle work and a dash of “follow the melody” to add a bit more interest to the lesson.

Probably more important than either of those ideas, we’re going to see how the techniques and lessons we’ve learned from other songs can come into play when making arrangements for other songs. Having the ability to hear opportunities to use all that you’ve already learned in playing guitar is vital is you want to continue to grow and evolve as a player.

We’re going to use an old (very old) Stephen Foster song, Oh! Susanna, and give it a twist straight out of our lesson on Friend of the Devil, if you can believe that! Or you can think of it as putting a Green Day – Wake Me Up When September Ends – sort of spin on it if you prefer. Oh, and you’d better read our Friend of the Devil lesson to get a head start on what we’ll be doing!

Whichever way you want to look at it, we can’t start without examining the song and chord structure of Oh! Susanna first. Purely for convenience, we’re going to play this song in G, since both songs cited earlier are written in that key. Just using the first verse and chorus, here’s what we’ve got:

Oh! Susanna

By the bye, I wrote this arrangement for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar as an example of why scales were important and how one would go about incorporating scales into their walking bass lines, just like in Friend of the Devil. Now if you’ve gone and done a quick reread of that lesson, you might be shaking your head a bit. The chord progression isn’t the same in both songs, so how are we going to work things out?

Mostly by listening and counting. Much like Friend of the Devil, this verse of this song is broken down into phrases of two measures. Two measures in 4/4 time is eight beats. There are eight notes in the major scale if you count both the starting and ending notes. Who says math isn’t helpful?

Unlike the Grateful Dead song, where we can use an entire G major scale as a descending bass line, Oh! Susanna ends the first and third phrase on a D chord. This means that we really don’t want to follow use the entire scale. But we can use seven notes of it:

Example 1
Example 1 continued

There’s a little slide, which mimics the beginning of the melody, to start things off and then you’ve got a bass and arpeggio combination much like Friend of the Devil. The big difference is that the open B string is hit first instead of the open G string. The bass note moves from G (fifth fret of the D string) to F# (fourth fret) to E (second fret) to D (the open D string). Then the chord changes to C, so you make a C chord but still maintain the same picking pattern the both the initial C chord and then the C with the B in the bass.

Things change up when you get to the open A string. Beginning with the hit of the note of the open A at the start of the third beat in the second measure, play an Am arpeggio straight down the strings until you get to the C note at the first fret of the B string. Then switch quickly to a D chord but play only the D, G and B strings. Technically, this is a “D5″ chord, or a “D power chord” if you prefer. But since we’ve used the F# twice now (once in the initial slide and once in the descending bass line), the listener will pick up on this and magically hear the D5 as a D chord. Wild, isn’t it? We’ll also help reinforce this sleight of hand by starting the next phrase with an emphatic slide using the F# note again.

The second phrase of the verse starts out as a carbon copy of the first but things get very different in the second measure:

Example 2
Example 2 continued

Here you reverse the direction of arpeggios starting with the C chord on the first beat of the second measure of this phrase. You follow that up with a three note arpeggio of D and then a five note arpeggio of G (skipping the A string as you pick down the strings).

These two phrases then repeat in order to complete the verse. Here is the full verse:

Example 3 - Full Verse line 1
Example 3 - Full Verse line 2
Example 3 - Full Verse line 3
Example 3 - Full Verse line 4
Example 3 - Full Verse line 5
Example 3 - Full Verse line 6
Example 3 - Full Verse line 7
Example 3 - Full Verse line 8

Notice the very slight change at the last two beats. We want to make a definitive break between the verse and the upcoming chorus and using a double stop of the G (third fret of the high E string) and B (open B string) notes seems like a good way to do so. This second play through of the verse, by the way, will also serve as the last two lines of the chorus.

And speaking of which, to give the chorus a bit of a different feel, let’s start it out with a simple “contrary motion” Travis style picking pattern, taken straight from our lesson on that topic: Basic Travis Finger Picking Tutorial. For the first two beats, use the C at the first fret of the B string as your high note and then switch to the note of the open high E (first) string for the third and fourth beats.

Example 4
Example 4 continued

The last line of the chorus repeats the lyric of the first line of the verse. Musically, it’s a repeat of the second (or fourth) line of the verse. So having the accompaniment repeat the phrase as well makes good sense. But it’s an abrupt shift going from the Travis style that starts the chorus to the arpeggio style of the verse. To make this shift both seamless and musically dramatic, why not do a little melody shadowing, as shown in the last measure of the above example? It creates a nice, natural pause for breath to lead into the last line of the chorus.

And here are the notation and tablature for the entire chorus:

Example 5 - Full Chorus line 1
Example 5 - Full Chorus line 2
Example 5 - Full Chorus line 3
Example 5 - Full Chorus line 4

As I mentioned, this arrangement was written for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar and, just in case you haven’t heard, Nick Torres did an absolutely wonderful vocal for the CD that comes with the book. If you’d like to have the sheer pleasure of playing backup for Nick, here’s your chance:

I hope that you have enjoyed this lesson in accompaniment. As always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until our next lesson…