The Woodshed: Layering Guitar Parts
By Mitch Coodley ’75
Over the past 50 or 60 years, guitar styles have changed through the influences of each new generation. And yet the basics of guitar playing—in particular, rhythm guitar parts—continue to underpin the current trends of picking, strumming, and the use of effects.
My expertise is music that’s licensed for network and cable television shows. The current trend is to orchestrate music with guitar parts through a variety of textures, layering, patterns, frequency, and processing. Pattern-driven, layered textures can be heard in the music of mainstream bands such as U2 and Coldplay; in indie groups like Rogue Wave and Snow Patrol; and on shows like Lie to Me in Ryan Star’s “Brand New Day,” the show’s theme song. The approach is ubiquitous in production music and commercial spots.
The demo I’ve produced for this discussion shows several basic playing styles that can be layered or edited to create sections, backing parts, intros, fills, builds, and changing tapestries of sound. Instrumental guitar-driven music has to provide compelling movement, usually without a real melody. It should create shape, contrast, a full-frequency range, and movement or interest over time. For this demo, I played four electric parts and one acoustic part. Everything was recorded dry, direct into Logic Pro with Logic plug-ins for all but a few effects.
You can easily duplicate these sounds at home without an amplifier or expensive third-party plug-ins. I using the keys E, A, D, G because of the availability of open strings on the instrument. What follows is a breakdown of the individual parts on my demo track.
Acoustic guitar fingerpicking and strumming can be heard in bars one through eight. The intro begins with a seemingly simple acoustic picking part on an A chord. I use a low, open A on the bottom, but to get a bit more vibe on this part, I finger the middle figure on the sixth through 10th frets using the open B string, along with the fretted C# on the third string. The higher line above the staff is played on the first string. This gives me a nice rub with seconds and sevenths and isn’t a typical part. For two reasons, I’ve filtered and EQ’d this part. First, it gives it an unusual sound, and second, it makes it sound small, mono, and lo-fi. This helps create the effect of a bigger band entrance at bar five, which is set up briefly by the melody of the second guitar part. The strumming part that begins in bar five is basic but serves as a motor to power the track.
I played eighth-note diads with delay and other processing on electric guitar one in bars five through 12. Of course, eighth notes never get old, but the use of a repeating chord tone or tones processed and delayed for ambience is useful for creating a light wall of sound. Placing this in the midrange allows for low and high parts to go along with it.
I played sampled, reversed, or truncated riffs in bars 13 and 25. Riffs never get old There’s an endless supply of riff-based guitar-driven music on TV shows, promos, and sports programming. I’ve generated a simple riff (electric guitars two and three), doubled, and split into panned guitars, high and low. Then I strip-silenced the parts and truncated the licks. In Logic Pro, “strip silence” is basically a digital gating function. It removes silence between attacks and creates separate bits of the remaining audio. This creates a purposely mechanical sound that gives you dead silence between the phrases, and again, more contrast. In bar 14, I sampled the lick and reversed it. That works as a phrase ending that leads into another bit of the processed eighth-note lick in electric guitar one. Here the drums drop out to provide further contrast and change.
In bars 17 through 24, with electric guitars one, two, and three, I played some high eighth-note patterns and put processing on them in bars 17 through 24. I’d go so far as to say, “He or she who controls patterns controls composition.” Patterns (repetitive ostinatos, semi-melodic figures, and everything in between) are very useful. Here I’ve worked with somewhat-melodic eighth-note parts that each breathe and leave space for one another. These are panned hard left and right, where the lower, crunchier part appears on the left and the higher, clean delay part appears on the right. To knit everything together, I added a third part that’s warmer. But when necessary, they remain transparent enough to handle other parts.
The low, crunch fifths like those played by electric guitar three starting in bar nine work anytime, anywhere, and under anything.
I played palm-muted parts (also called “blunting”) on the acoustic guitar and electric guitar four in bars 25 to 29. This approach works with constant eighths or repeating patterns. I doubled the acoustic part and panned the tracks to the left and right. Electric guitar four has a higher-pitched pattern that alternates between an A and an E. These muted parts alone are nice—light and airy—and would make a good intro or middle section, especially if chords were to change below them.
As for the arrangement, we have an introduction; a middle section, or verse possibilities; fills and dropouts, riffs, and an ending. To prove a point, at bar 33 I’ve put all the parts in at once. Normally I wouldn’t do this, but if you listen, you’ll hear that stacking all the parts together can be done tastefully. By simply playing a variety of parts in different registers with different frequencies and effects, you get a complete palette to work with. It’s easy to construct interesting arrangements with these elements.
I encourage you to experiment with guitar layering. Then mix and match, edit and mute, build and hold. In doing this, you can create a nearly orchestral sense with the song’s production. It’s also helpful when you need to create edited versions of your piece. I often have to make versions in 60-, 30-, 15-, and 10-second lengths. All these elements give me plenty to work with for creating a shape quickly or over time.
Let’s face it: A lot of “sessions” are done in your apartment sitting at your laptop. Whether you are the one playing the parts or not, as the producer you have most of the control. There should be a give-and-take between you and the guitarist as you create parts, apply effects, and develop ideas that work together. Start from a riff, a bass line, or a basic strum to set up your phrase. Then start layering. You’ll be amazed by how much music you can generate from four bars of material.