Playing Two Parts At The Same Time

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This month we will look at using higher level skills to produce multiple parts of a single song. This is a good application of assembling skills and combining them to create a more developed part. Playing two lines at the same time requires your basic skills are intact and available for heavy duty work.

Most of the time a person trying to learn how to do this, will feel a little lost as they stitch together the multiple parts required to play two parts at the same time. With some work and time, these demanding techniques can become part of your bag of tricks and higher level skills. So now the the holidays are out of the way, gather together your already defined skills and we will put them to a higher use.

Have you ever heard a song that has what appeared to be two different melody lines only to find out later they were both played at the same time, by the same person? The first time I saw James Taylor in concert I noticed that what I thought were a bunch of overdubs and second guitar parts were actually played by one guy all at once.

Listening to his playing and seeing what he was doing made me reexamine all of his music. Much of what I was reacting to is his ability to play a rhythm line while inserting a lead line, or secondary rhythm line, at the same time. It is one thing to play a single part nicely but playing two parts at once is much more difficult.

In order to quality for this difficult endeavor, the distinct parts must be present and the guitarist has to play both parts at the same time. The song is usually held together by the first part. It might consist of chording that is often times finger picked. This individual picking of notes will sound most of the notes in a series of chords played one at a time. While the first part is being picked, a second part is blended in. The first part might have four notes in it for every one of the second part. This differs widely but the effect of playing both parts at once should be, that you start to hear both parts individually and blending together.

Often times the first part sets up the rhythm part while the second part plays off the rhythm by creating a lead or bass line that works up and or down the key. Most of these approaches work out of one key. Both parts adhere to the guidelines for a single key and they exploit some inner working of the key.

Practicing This Technique

When a person learns to play within this approach to music, it is common to see each part practiced and memorized separately. Once the parts are learned separately, you can combine them to create the entire piece. Playing two parts at once can be accomplished by finger picking or flat picking the parts. You could even strum one part and have a separate lead line occur on one string. Picking individual notes works well because, with a little work, you can create a secondary part and fit it within the piece without too much work.

This is the kind of music that is difficult to learn, but once you get the basics of this worked out, you can more easily learn other songs or create your own. I think learning one on one with an instructor is the easiest way to get it. That way you can see him or her play it while you try to mimic their approach.

Often times this type of approach can yield simple lead lines that stay in one place, however, when combined with a full progression, this can be enough to create quite a bit of interest. So by themselves, each part is a little skinny, but when played together they provide a fuller sound.

Classical players have long used this type of approach to weave a song. In fact using a classical approach, it is possible to play up to four parts at once. I suppose there is a way to increase this and play more parts at a single time, but four parts being played at once is the most I have ever heard of. Maybe this craft has been advanced beyond this by now. I think the important thing to take away is it is possible for a person to play multiple parts at once. Playing two parts at once is quite ambitious. I would try to get the hang of this before I started seeking more difficult pieces.

This month I use "Mood For A Day" as the example to become familiar with this technique. Below is a short section from "Mood For A Day" as described in "Who Is Driving". This example contains a distinct bass line and a more active treble line. Together they define this distinct passage in the song. The treble line contains more notes than the bass line. Notice that the treble line rises and falls throughout this passage, and so does the bass line. Together they weave the tapestry of the passage. If you separate each part, I think you will see they are both pleasant on their own.

This is an effective technique when one person must hold down both the rhythm line and some basic lead or melody line. In this example the right hand is responsible for much of the intricate sound. The right hand is picking both parts and is using various combinations to play the notes. Generally I use the first three fingers to hold down one treble string each (G, B and high E strings), while the thumb plays the three bass strings (low E, A and D strings).

Since you can experience some brain overload when trying to tear this work apart, you may want to focus on each line separately. When you understand the assignments of each finger, you can try to combine them and reproduce this song. Mood For A Day actually contains two sections based on this passage and both are very similar.

If you are interested in hearing the entire piece, you can find it on two different albums or CD's. It first appeared on Fragile and then later on the live double album, Yessongs.

A Practical Application

Continued Study

If this interests you I suggest you consider learning some easy classical songs that help develop your right hand and your sense of multiple guitar parts. Combine this with proper technique and you will find a very rewarding and versatile style of music awaits you.