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This article was originally published in issue #7
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To tie in with this month’s interview with Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell - acknowledged as one of the men who brought harmony lead guitar to Rock - we delve into the world of harmony guitar, and look at some licks and lead approaches used by masters of the genre. Jamie Humphries grows extra arms and takes you through crafting your own harmony ideas with this exclusive Tech Session track.
Harmony guitar parts always have the ability to uplift a track and over the course of rock history there have been many pioneers and revered guitarists associated with harmony parts, not to mention a number of classic songs that feature harmony melodies and lines. Such artists as Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy, Steve Vai, The Eagles, Iron Maiden and Brian May are famous for their use of harmony as a creative tool. Listen to such classic tracks as ‘Boys are Back in Town’, ‘Waiting for an Alibi’, ‘The Trooper’, ‘Blue Powder’, ‘Killer Queen’ or ‘Hotel California’ to hear harmony guitar at its best. Obviously there are dozens of other examples, but from my short list you can see the different genres of Rock that use harmony guitar, whether to create euphoric majestic uplifting lines, or create more sinister and haunting melodies and riffs.
We use harmony every time we pick up the guitar and play a chord, as basic major and minor chords make use of 3 part harmony, which is the most fundamental approach to using harmony. The difference, is that when creating harmony melodies or lead lines, we play the notes separately, giving a much smoother and sweeter sound. Before we discuss the track I have composed for this month’s feature, let’s take a few moments to understand harmony.
The basic concept of harmony is that when playing a melody or solo, we use specific notes a certain distance from the main melody line from within the same key, thus producing a harmony. There are obviously seven potential harmony notes to choose from, including an octave. The most common and musical is the 3rd. when producing harmonies a 3rd apart, you must make sure that your harmony notes is exactly a diatonic 3rd above each of the main melody notes you play. When I say diatonic, I mean with in the same key.
Depending on what degree or note of the scale you are playing, you may use either a major or minor 3rd interval from your main melody note. A simply way to experiment with this is to record yourself playing a major scale. Play the notes slowly ascending and then descending. Once you have recorded this, record another pass but this time starting from a note a 3rd above your original starting note. If you for instance played the C major scale, for your second pass start from the note of E. Continue to play up the scale making sure that you are always a diatonic 3rd above, so when you play the note of D, your harmony note is F, when you play the note of E your harmony note is G and so on. Listen to it back and you will hear a sweet ascending and descending harmony line in diatonic 3rds. If you want to go a step further, try a third pass starting a 5th above your original note, so from C that would be the note of G. You will now create a full and very uplifting three part harmony - instant Brian May!
Of course you can use other types of harmony to produce different moods and feels. Another very ambiguous harmony to try would be 4th’s or 5th’s, which have a very neutral and modern sound. Steve Vai is a big fan of these types of harmony when building riffs. You can also mix all of these harmonies up, using 3rd,s 4th,s and 5ths, to create what ever sound you hear in your head.
Now let’s look at our track, but be sure to watch the video for a full breakdown.
The track kicks off with a Wishbone Ash inspired harmony riff that is based around diatonic 4th’s and 5ths in the Key of A Dorian. We then shift to A natural minor for our main verse and here we have a harmony melody line inspired by Thin Lizzy, which makes use of diatonic 3rds from A Aeolian. Be careful with the space between the phrases, you want to be sure that any harmonies played are spot on together. Also take care with the fast ascending figure that leads to the chorus section.
The chorus modulates to the IV chord of the parent key of C major, the chord of F major, giving us a strong uplifting Lydian sound. We kick things off in this section with a descending line that makes use of a very euphoric Brian May-esque three part harmony using 3rd’s and 5th’s. After a simple blues fill to catch our breath we play an arpeggio figure with a triplet rhythm that is harmonizes a diatonic 3rd higher. This is followed by some Brian May style major scale runs using a 3rd harmony, plus more three part harmony lines. The solo concludes with a Harmonic minor feel over a B/D# chord, using Diminished 7th arpeggios performed a minor 3rd apart. The track concludes with our intro harmony riff.
As you can see there is a lot crammed in this track, everything from singing classic Rock lines, to fast scale runs, uplifting three part harmonies, to harmony shred arpeggios. Just pay attention to the transcription and video, and as always practise things slowly to start with and speed them up once you are confident and have the lines clean under your fingers.