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How to accompany a singer without drowning them out.

William Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage…and one man in his time plays many parts.” What does Shakespeare have to do with guitar, you ask? Not much, really. But it’s true that, as musicians, we will play many parts over the course of our careers. I have had the good fortune of getting to back some of the biggest names in the business (including Toby Keith) as a sideman. The task at hand when backing these giants is to lay down a rock-solid lead guitar part: I take my solos where needed, throw some appropriate fills in between vocal lines, and generally try to stay out of the singer’s way.

With a band, the bassist generally controls the root, while a keyboardist or second guitarist bashes out the chords and other instruments share in playing fills. In country, there’s normally a steel guitar and/or fiddle to help fatten the sound and give the tune the essential twang factor. With a bigger band, you can get away with smaller chord inversions, and often you can play three-note chords (such as root, third, fifth or third, fifth, root) to make the band sound big without getting in anyone’s way. Or you can just lay out and stab at some of the fills and leads when they come up.

Changing the Rules of Engagement

As a solo artist, the approach is completely different: When I’m at center stage, it’s my responsibility to take over the melody and lead the band—I have to move from playing in the open spaces to playing the lion’s share of the song. And all the rules change again if you’re the only instrumentalist accompanying a vocalist.

I’ve done a good bit of work accompanying singers with just my acoustic guitar. When I played with Rodney Atkins, he and I would do writers in the round, where he would sing and I played. I’ve done the more intimate “An Evening With”-type shows backing Chalee Tennison (who, by the way, is one of country music’s most gifted vocalists). Again, she would sing while I captured the essence of her music al dente. I’ve coupled with my long-time boss, Toby Keith, to perform stripped-down versions of his mega hits. And I’ve backed Mica Roberts on tours where it was just my guitar and her incredible voice entertaining sold-out crowds across the UK and northern Europe.

When you’re performing as a solo accompanist, you have to make the most extreme adjustment in your attitude toward the instrument. The task of creating the groove and setting the tempo—which normally falls on the drummer— is now in your hands. You no longer have a hi-hat to lock into, because you’re creating the feel of a drummer on guitar. You become the band. It’s important not only to play the chords, but to build chord structures that make sense, sound full, and lead the vocalist—as well as the audience—through the song, while giving them a sense of the full arrangement.

We are not all as gifted as guitar virtuoso Tuck Andress at comping full walking bass lines while keeping up with fast-moving chord progressions. But I find it is helpful to pick up important elements of the bass line, such as passing tones or walkdowns. It’s one of the details that helps create that full-band feel.

Get Creative with Dynamics

Dynamics are also extremely important when you‘re the lone instrumentalist. Well, they’re always an important part of music, but when you’re all alone you can’t come down low enough or dig in deep enough as the song calls for it. You can do so much with the arrangements if you just pay attention to how the whole song affects you as a listener. If the complete recorded version of a tune comes way back dynamically on the bridge, you can lay way out and just lightly strum or play muted fifths, giving just a hint of the chord progression on the downbeats. However, if there’s a prominent string line, for instance, you can incorporate that into your playing so the listener gets the full gist of the original arrangement. All this makes a rather stripped-down version of a song more interesting.

When a song calls for fingerpicking, I like to use open tunings where possible to build voicings based on the full spectrum of the song. Using the bass notes on the bottom to keep an unmistakable chord change ever present, I’ll grab some of the standout lines from within the song and throw them on top while keeping the basics of the progression in the middle for the full trifecta. There have been times when I’ve even been known to bang out drumbeats on my guitar to reproduce the beat between changes. It’s all to bring out the details that make the song unique. Because, let’s face it, most songs have similar chord progressions, and that can get old if you simply beat out the sequence with little emotion or vibrancy. Take away the vocals, and the only thing that gives a song its unique character is what the musicians do with it.

Which reminds me to leave you with an infamous story about the immortal Grand Ole Opry star Grandpa Jones. A Nashville songwriter told Jones he’d just written a new song. Jones responded “Oh really? What’s it sung to the tune of?”

Keep jammin’!

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