In this article I am going to give examples of different approaches to writing guitar harmonies. I feel this is an often overlooked aspect of writing but of course you need a band with two guitarists to be able to pull it off live. This should give you some ideas on how to add new textures to your own compositions.
With harmonies it is very important pay attention to the following:
- Why is this being done?
- Effect created?
- Which interval to use
- Harmonised 100% or some variety?
Guitar harmonies create a different sound/texture to just one playing, and on a simpler level, it can sound really cool! The interval of a third is used most often because it is the easiest and smallest that work. It is also a chord tone up. So if you had the following notes in the key of C
C, E, F, E
harmonising a third up (two steps up in the scale) would give:
E, G, A, G
Other intervals can be used, depending on what sound you want. Fourths can give a medieval type sound, and in classical music harmonising in fifths is usually avoided like the plague! A 5th is exactly half an octave so it is the purest interval, but since it is devoid of any chord notes or tonality it is about as boring as you can get (except perhaps harmonising in octaves). Also, it is technically a power chord which could distract from or clash with other things going on. 6ths are very good to use, though. If you take the bottom part of the above example and transpose it up an octave the parts are now a 6th apart. This still sounds a bit similar to the thirds but it has a wider gap and plenty of rich note blending. Thirds and 6ths usually work best when harmonising simple melodies or scale runs. Sevenths are uncommon but can still work.
Thin Lizzy were one of the first bands to really popularise the twin guitar attack and Iron Maiden have also made extensive use of this approach to create their signature sound. It is important to remember that they didn’t invent the concept; this sort of thing had definitely been going on for a while. Brian May had used it for lead lines and a couple of well known examples are to be found in The Eagles ‘Hotel California’ and the Allman Brothers ‘Jessica’ which you may know as the Top Gear theme tune. You can find examples of guitars playing in thirds in classical music going back 300 years, but in a rock context it already sounds dated. Funny that.
Here we have a harmony from ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ by Iron Maiden. In this case it is to thicken up the melody line, and thirds are used. Strict picking patterns or legato aren’t really an issue here, as long as the notes are played cleanly and lock in with the groove. In a live situation you could still do this on one instrument with the use of an intelligent harmoniser pedal, which Dimebag Darrel did but it’s more common with two players.
The second example is from ‘Waiting For An Alibi’ by Thin Lizzy. Sixths are used here and the effect is similar to thirds but slightly different. This melody can be considered the main theme of the song, and the parts should be played using all the nuances and attention that would be used for a guitar solo. As vibrato is used on some of these notes it is important to make sure that the parts match. In the studio you could have one person playing both (which I would recommend) and this would ensure they are synchronised correctly and that the tones match as well. If they didn’t, most listeners probably would notice but it’s touches like these which separate the good from the great.
In the next article we will look at more progressive examples from the world of Metal. Stay tuned!