The Guitarist’s Guide to Counterpoint

The concept of playing two melodies simultaneously has been around for centuries. Such modern masters as Ted Greene, Jerry Reed, and Jimmy Wyble have demonstrated how these ancient principles can be applied to guitar.

Chops: Advanced
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Improve your hybrid-picking technique.
• Understand the difference between oblique, contrary, parallel, and direct motion.
• Learn how to imply chord changes with only two notes at a time.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Counterpoint is one of my favorite tools for composing, arranging, and improvising. The concept is very simple: Play two or more independent melodies at once. However, it’s way easier to define than to execute. In this lesson, we’ll walk through some very basic counterpoint ideas before turning to more musical—and fun—examples.

Composers such as Palestrina and J.S. Bach commonly used counterpoint during the Renaissance and Baroque periods of classical music. However, during those eras, there were rules to follow, in order to make the music sound stylistically correct. Other composers such as Stravinsky, Bartók, and Messiaen explored this technique even further. Guitarists Ted Greene, Leo Brouwer, Jerry Reed, Dusan Bogdanovic, and Jimmy Wyble took various interpretations of counterpoint and adapted them to the 6-string.

I’ve developed a series of exercises that will give you some fresh ideas, no matter what genre you play. These exercises will help you explore interesting ways of playing the guitar and challenge your fingers without getting into too many strict rules. (However, if you want to dive further into species counterpoint, I recommend reading Counterpoint: Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux.) For our purposes, we’ll concentrate on linear counterpoint, which primarily focuses on each individual line without sacrificing the horizontal (melodic) for vertical (harmonic) movement. We work on playing two simultaneous lines, also known as two-part counterpoint.

To play the following examples, you’ll need to use either fingerstyle or hybrid-picking technique because most of the music will occur on non-adjacent strings. Before diving in, it’s important to be aware of the four different ways we can move notes when using counterpoint:

  • Parallel motion
  • Direct (or similar) motion
  • Contrary motion
  • Oblique motion

Parallel motion happens when both voices move in the same direction using the same type of interval, ascending or descending (Ex. 1). Notice how each note moves up a minor third before naturally resolving in the final measure.

Click here for Ex. 1

Direct motion happens when both notes move in the same direction, but not necessarily using the same interval (Ex. 2).

Click here for Ex. 2

When the notes move in opposite directions, we call it contrary motion (Ex. 3).

Click here for Ex. 3

Finally, if only one of the notes moves up or down we call it oblique motion (Ex. 4).

Click here for Ex. 4

Now, let’s take a look at some music. One of the best ways to develop your own counterpoint vocabulary is to internalize how certain phrases are constructed. In Ex. 5 you can see a polyrhythmic idea that combines quarter-note triplets against a simple quarter-note pulse within G melodic minor (G–A–Bb–C–D–E–F#). As the scale ascends the intervals become bigger, generating an interesting effect that gradually moves from a minor third to a minor tenth.

Click here for Ex. 5

We move to a G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#) for the “spiral” in Ex. 6. This is a prime example of how contrary motion can create intriguing intervallic melodies. Strive for a clean, piano-like attack on each group of notes.

Click here for Ex. 6

Diatonic scales aren’t the only method for creating these finger-busing spirals. In Ex. 7 we play two chromatic scales at the same time. It might not be the most musical of examples, but it does serve as a great way to mentally and physically understand how contrary motion works.

Click here for Ex. 7

Now we get into some real music with Ex. 8. This is a call-and-response sequence based around the C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B). Other than a few tendon-testing stretches, the real challenge lies in keeping the quarter- and half-notes ringing.

Click here for Ex. 8

For Ex. 9, I’ve taken two simple motifs and simply stacked them on each other. The top voice has a three-note pattern, while a four-note pattern happens underneath. Make sure to play both lines at the same volume.

Click here for Ex. 9

Another great counterpoint exercise is to focus more on the intervals. For Ex. 10, we’re repeating a pattern of a third, a sixth, and then a tenth. Even though we’re still squarely in the key of C major, there are plenty of harmonic and melodic options to discover. For more of this, check out the late, great Jimmy Wyble.

Click here for Ex. 10

Both Ex. 11 and Ex. 12 take melodic inspiration from the immortal J.S. Bach. Some of the stretches will undoubtedly be awkward and clumsy at first. Focus on creating a pure sound and giving each note its full value before increasing the tempo.

Click here for Ex. 11

Click here for Ex. 12

Ted Greene was one of the supreme masters of using contrapuntal techniques on guitar. I highly recommend searching out his Solo Guitar album for some devastatingly inspiring playing. In Ex. 13, we can see a very melodic way to explore the key of Eb major, drawn upon something Ted might have played.

Click here for Ex. 13

You can also use some of these techniques to imply chord progressions. Over the course of Ex. 14, we move through a Dm–G–C–F–Bm–E7 cycle before resolving to A minor. It’s amazing how much harmonic information can be dispersed in such a melodic way, in a relatively small area of the fretboard.

Click here for Ex. 14

You can modify all these examples to further develop your counterpoint skills. Exploring different rhythms, scales, and modes will help you ultimately absorb these ideas into your own improvisations, compositions, and arrangements.

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