I didn’t mean to turn this blog into just a bunch of pedal reviews, though that’s most of what I’ve been doing lately. So here’s a thought piece from a songwriting/arranging point of view — 4 roles guitars play in a band context. The 4 roles are:
Assuming the guitar is not playing the main melody, then we’d consider the guitar part to be “rhythm” guitar. In the evolution of small-ensemble format that eventually became rock bands, guitar started out being a part of rhythm section in jazz bands — so where we had most to contribute is in the groove department.
When you have a rhythmic role to play in music, you’re most often adding energy to the groove of the song by playing other than just the downbeat of every measure or playing straight whole/half/quarter notes. Well, actually, if you’re playing just quarter notes you can still contribute to the rhythm even if you’re playing straight quarter notes, if your part has pronounced attacks to each note.
Now, this is significant. When in rhythmic mode — those attacks of your notes are critical. If the attack is mushy or subdued, the rhythmic energy of your playing doesn’t come through and you end up playing more Harmonic/Textural role without contributing as much rhythmically. But then, if the rhythm section is already busy then that may be exactly what you want. So the amount of rhythmic contribution needed in a song depends on who else is contributing to the rhythmic aspect. And how you control your own contribution is by varying your attacks, as well as the amount of your activity (how busy of a part you play) You can strum ferociously but do it with soft fingers without using fingernails to produce a pronounced attack, you create more of texture where the groove element is getting covered up or overpowered by other instruments with stronger attacks.
Do you ever pay attention to what the top notes of the chords you’re playing are? My guess is that most of the time you don’t. When playing chords you’re primarily concerned with the Harmonic role and perhaps secondarily with the Rhythmic. But in reality none of these are mutually exclusive.
The most obvious way to make a Melodic contribution to a song is to play single-note melodies on a guitar, whether the guitar is the main melody or just playing a counter-melody beneath a main one. But there are subtler ways to make Melodic contributions without overtly playing a “melody.” For example, string together a few double- and triple-stop chord voicing with attention to the top note of each chords — and you’ll get a guitar part that has both Harmonic and Melodic content, even if the latter seems very simplistic. In the context of a band, simplistic Melodic contribution is exactly what it needs, if there’s someone else playing the melody and you want the guitar to complement it without overpowering it.
So the key to considering Melodic contributions your guitar parts can make is just remove the main/more prominent melodies from the mix and listen to the arrangement. Of course without the main melody the song may not sound too interesting, but if your guitar part had some Melodic content, it may still sound somewhat interesting. It may be good enough to serve as background music to other activities or in a video/game production. The Melodic content in your guitar parts may not really stand on its own, neither attention-grabbing nor memorable — but if you can discern some recognizable movements in the notes that poke out of the mix, it adds enough interest to turn completely generic, boring music into something more listenable. I realize this is a bit vague in writing — a video demonstration gives a more concrete example.
Now, this is an easy part for us guitarists. We’re often play chords and the notes in our chords create a Harmonic contribution to the music. It frames the sound/impression formed by the combination of notes and voicings.
So what’s appropriate here is — when does the guitar part should not play a Harmonic role, and if so, how do you remove Harmonic content?
To answer that question, first we have to ask — what other instruments in the mix are playing Harmonic roles? Is the bass sticking to a fairly orthodox part and always playing root of the chords? Are there piano/keyboard/rhythm guitar or other instruments playing chords? Generally speaking, if bass and one other instrument in tenor range (the range similar to guitar when playing regular chords in low-fret positions) are playing chords, having guitar play more chords is a bit redundant. If I were the guitarist in this situation I’ll look to mix things up by playing higher positions, and cut down on the Harmonic content by playing 1-2 notes of the chords, perhaps add tension notes or drone notes that don’t necessarily belong in the underlying chords. Of course, I may stick to just playing some melodies, too. Or another approach is to focus on a Rhythmic role by repeating just one-two notes in a highly rhythmic riff, choosing not to support the chords or loosely follow the chord progression.
So, by default guitars tend to play a Harmonic role in most situations — so my suggestion here is to recognize when to restrain on the regular, predictable Harmonic content. See if there is enough chord playing in the mix already and if so, look to play other roles.
Finally, a Textural/Timbre role has more to do with the guitar’s tones, though of course choice of notes and rhythm contribute to the texture that a guitar part creates, too. If you are an electric player, you could conjure up all kinds of textures using effects — delays, reverbs, chorus, vibe, tremolo, etc. Or go way out there like Tom Morello and focus on creating noise and abstract sounds out of a guitar — that’s more an extreme example of guitar focusing heavily on Textural contributions above all else. (well, Morello is a highly Rhythmic player, though, so most of the time his parts are both Textural and Rhythmic) Guys known for effect usage like the Edge demonstrate how to use electric guitar rig for a heavily Textural role.
Note, though, that if you focus on Textural roles, your guitar parts can end up being somewhat sparse (for example, if you play busily with heavy delays you can easily become too overpowering) and/or attacks of the guitar not coming through (compression or modulation effects like vibe/tremolo/rotary speaker sim), so while this is not always the case, playing a Textural role may prevent you from making a strong Rhythmic contribution, and vice versa.
Combine and Conquer
In reality, of course any instrument can play varying degrees of the above four roles. Some are better at one or two of the roles than others. Guitar is a strong and easy Harmonic instrument, but also with rich potential for making equally valuable contributions in other roles as well.
The key to creating good music is to combine these elements intentionally to create a certain effect. Shoegazers favor strong Textural contributions from guitar over Rhythmic one, while if you’re into metal your guitar riffs probably contain Rhythmic content with varying degrees of Melodic and Harmonic elements.
It’s also a balancing act, to complement what else is going on in the arrangement/mix. In a band context there’s often a rhythm section — drums, for example, make mostly Rhythmic contributions, with little offered in ways of Melody or Harmony — so a flexible and versatile instrument like guitars can act as an element that balances out and fill in pieces that are missing among other instruments’ contributions.