Thinking about taking your skills to an accompaniment gig - or maybe just jamming with some friends who want to sing along? Check out these 5 helpful guitar tips from Mount Pleasant, SC teacher Christopher A...
Guitar is a great instrument to accompany everything from horns to winds to piano to vocals. Whether you’re backing up a soloist, choir, band, or songwriter, there are a few tips to make the experience memorable for you and more importantly the vocalist or other musicians. Let’s get started by discussing some of my sideman gigs.
I’m an up-and-coming guitarist who’s auditioned for the local jazz quartet. They call me in to play along with the other members in a live setting and I’m given a lead sheet with chords. I read over the sheet and look for tempo markings, key changes, and form. Once I’ve done that and begin playing I remember my place in the ensemble. This is paramount to being a great sideman. You are providing a rhythm and chord structure to a song. It’s imperative to do so without blaring out your part and playing too loudly for the melody to be heard. Finding the pocket, or the main beat of the groove, will allow the soloists greater freedom and give the group a tight, focused sound.
My next step as a sideman comes when I visit an open mic and there’s a vocalist who doesn’t have someone to play her song. I know the tune and volunteer to play for her. As I start into the song I am deliberate with my rhythm changes and tempo of the tune. While I’m backing her up I remember to play quieter than the vocals. That means my chords and picking shouldn’t overshadow the vocals. This may mean turning your electric down or strumming lighter on an acoustic guitar. Your job as a sideman is to complement the vocals by providing steady rhythm and musical dynamics with your playing that reflect what the singer is crooning. I remember watching others back up voice majors in college and sometimes the singers were timid and afraid to sing out. It didn’t help when they had a guitarist beside them playing louder than them with their head buried in the chart, oblivious to the singer’s plight.
That leads to the next point - know the form of the tune. Be prepared to play the intro and make notes of what lyrics come in when you are playing the different sections of the song. The vocal cues will help you provide the best back up for the song and ensure you don’t get lost along the way. Remember that singers are human, too, and knowing the form of the song is helpful should they forget a verse or jump to a chorus earlier than you anticipate. You’ll be able to get to that part quicker with a chart and the knowledge of the song’s form.
That brings me to the most important tip - listen to the singer! I know it seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen groups where the singer is laying into a vocal and the guitarist is chugging away on loud chords or playing a screaming solo over the vocals. By not working together with the vocalist you can ruin their instrument, their voice, by making them sing harder than necessary to compensate for your overly loud amp and playing style. This is not something you want to be known for, so remember: if you can’t hear the vocals, you’re too loud.
The last key is to be prepared for anything. Bring a capo along. Sometimes a key won’t work for a singer and capoing up will allow them to sing their song without you relearning the chords. Sometimes words are forgotten and they sing the song differently than you’ve learned. They may come in too early or too late on a phrase. Your part in all of this is to be flexible and make them sound great regardless of what happens along the way. By putting the singer/band first, the song ends up being the main attraction and with any luck you’ll earn the respect of the singer, other musicians, and the crowd. When you play your part and listen to the other parts around you, the music sounds best.
So rock on, it’s time to shine but remember the guitar tips stated above:
- Know your place in the ensemble
- If you can’t hear the vocals you’re too loud
- Know the form of the tune
- Listen to the singer
- Be prepared
- Be flexible and make those around you sound great
Applying these common sense guitar tips to your sideman work will afford you more chances to accompany singers and other instrumentalists. Get out to your local open mic or audition for a band. Respond to the Craigslist ad from a vocalist looking for someone to back them up. These opportunities will help you develop the skill set to be a great sideman and ultimately a better musician.
Christopher teaches mandolin, violin, music performance, and guitar lessons in Mount Pleasant, SC, as well as online via Skype and Google Helpouts. He has over ten years of experience in teaching in classrooms and studios, and his lessons focus on providing the budding musician with the tools to become a proficient player. Learn more about Christopher here!
Photo by Damien Mathieu