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Balancing Guitars In The Mix

Finding space for guitar in your ensemble

It’s just as well that guitarists love to talk about their instruments, because many bandleaders don’t. Not even when they need to. Often bandleaders (and even the players themselves) lack the specialist knowledge required to manage the guitar as part of a larger ensemble. But never fear! Information is power, and these elementary tips can help transform all that “noodling” energy into useful musical contributions.


Cracking the chords

It may come as a surprise, but the guitar is a transposing instrument that sounds an octave lower than written. If the score does not take this into account the guitar can end up fighting to be heard against the mid-range accompaniment of an ensemble. In these cases (a melodic solo for example), the guitarist should be free to play up an octave when appropriate. More commonly, chord symbols in the ubiquitous comping sections are realised by the player in chord forms that are too bottom heavy. Inexperienced guitarists, who are often trying to apply the material they use in smaller pop ensembles, can be unsure how to break free from root E and A bar chords without memorising the hundreds of chord shapes contained in chord dictionaries.

This does not mean the guitarist is being lazy. While the guitar does have the benefit of being able to move musical material up and down the board to change key, the initial assimilation of chord and interval relationships is hampered by the guitar’s two-dimensional geometry and the fact that the notes are not colour coded. As a consequence, the relationship of intervals and internal architecture is not immediately obvious and means that fairly simple relationships involve the memorisation of many different shapes or forms. While the pianist usually has a realised chord score to play from, the guitarist often wades into a minefield of complex chord names and functions that they don’t have a framework for dealing with.

Yamaha Guitars

Simple substitutions

The guitarist will also benefit from learning a handful of simple substitutions that will enable them to compliment what is often a fairly full chord from the pianist. If, for example, the score has the pianist playing a mid-range Cmaj7, the guitarist could play a root position G major triad at the 10th fret, or a first inversion at the 15th to provide a tasty Cmaj9. For the more advanced players, the previously mentioned triangle shaped D chord placed at fret 7 could function as an Em7 without the root or even a F69#11. This approach can be used to deal with complex chords and if voiced in higher positions often keeps them out of the way of the keyboard in both frequency and density.

Tap into the timbre

Be aware of - and capitalise on - the different timbral possibilities of the instrument. The guitar can range from a full-toned participant (melodically or chordally) in the ensemble to a virtual percussive instrument, so a few simple palm and left hand muting skills can go a long way. If the strings are just allowed to ring it’s like holding the sustain pedal down on a piano - good for a very short time but a muddy mess if left too long. The mix between acoustic pick noise and amplified sound (especially when strumming in larger chord forms) can also be adjusted to provide a wide range of useful additions to the ensemble sound.

Don’t turn your amp up to 11 (or sit on it)

The type of guitar and how it is used has a huge impact in any ensemble, and it is imperative that the guitarist becomes familiar with some basic options. Beware of digital effects that compress the sound so much that it ends up sounding okay but with no real headroom. A volume pedal - or careful use of the volume control on the instrument itself - is a far more useful tool than the “boost” in many effects units. Volume must be “real” and to do that you need to move air. The amp needs to be up to the task; volume should be kept down, but the guitar must also be able to cut through when required. This can be a combination of EQ and volume.

Without going into detail about the acoustics of speakers and sound propagation (a dark and mystical art), setting up the amp in a good position is very important. The guitarist should never sit on the amp or aim it towards their calves. Where possible the amp should sit back at least two to three meters from the player, preferably on a sloping amp rack. This reduces the effect of bounce from the floor and gives the guitarist and the rest of the band a better sense of the guitar’s actual sound out front. Everyone needs to have some sense of the overall balance of the group and the guitarist’s sound needs to be heard as equally as other instruments.

Tune your inner taste meter

The most important part of any musician’s tool kit, their ears, are always with them. But they are only effective when they are connected to the inner “taste meter”. The guitarist should calibrate this meter by listening to as many examples of the music the ensemble is playing as possible. When doing so they should consider the following: What is the guitarist doing? How does the guitar interact with the rest of the group? Why does it sound that way and can I emulate that? And, finally, when playing with the band the guitarist should always ensure that what they are doing is adding to the overall musical outcome and consider what they can do to make the band sound even better!


WORDS BY: Dr. Glen Hodges

Glen is a senior lecturer of contemporary guitar with a tertiary music teaching career spanning twenty-five years, and proudly endorses Yamaha guitars and amplifiers.