Actually Finding Your Space

“Ricky is a really nice guy, but I wish that he would play something different than just open chords. Can you teach him some of those whale-sounding thingies?”

Possibly the most consistent inquiry that I hear from players and band leaders on a regular basis, the desire for the electric guitarist to play appropriate parts and fill the correct space is a reasonable expectation to hold. A guitar part played thoughtfully and in the correct register can take a song to new levels of dynamism and space, while a part played without consideration for sonic real-estate can make a song sound muddy and sterile.

However, while there is prolific literature on the need for a guitarist to find their space, there doesn’t seem to be much in the vein of actual strategies for accomplishing the task. Players are told to “stay out of the other instruments and vocals way,” without giving them strategies for finding a positive space to fill. This leaves a lack of confidence in the player, and makes anything they do play to be self-viewed as obtrusive and superfluous. 

So, in the name of clarity and pragmatism, lets examine a process that will allow any intermediate-leveled player to find a useful space for any song or context.

First, we’ll want to recognize the range of our instrument relative to others. With the exception of the keys, the electric guitar has the largest range of any instrument on stage, allowing it to pinpoint target frequencies in a way that other instruments cant. In addition, electric guitar has grown to be understood as a dynamic instrument that utilizes this range expressively, unlike keys, which will typically stay within the same octave range, especially when chording. Both of these traits cause the expectation that electric guitarists should be able to find an unobtrusive, complementary space in which to play, so its not your fault (or the worship leader’s) personally.

Next, lets work from the ground up, to see with which instruments our sound might compete for space:

  • We probably wont compete with bass guitar or kick drums, unless the bass is playing in their highest register, or we’re using some type of sub octave or bass heavy (read: Big Muff) fuzz sound.
  • We have a tendency to compete most with keys and acoustic/rhythm guitar, as these instruments reside in the same midrange frequency that we do. The logistics of “who plays what” here will make or break a mix.
  • We have a chance to compete with vocals, since we may climb into their range for hooks, counterpoint, and other high-register parts. While the chances of clashing are slimmer than with acoustic or keys, the consequences are much greater. To put things bluntly, if you bury the vocals with your part, you’re a jerk.
  • Unless we’re playing really high and washy stuff, we probably wont compete with cymbals. Cymbals are manufactured to sit atop everything and be super cutting, so they’ll usually beat out all challengers for their space.

Now that we know how much of a minefield we’re dealing with, lets go through the way that I typically find my space for a given song:      

  1. First, I figure out (or ask about) the three highest notes that the acoustic guitar will play on the G, B, and high E strings. I use these notes as my low-end boundary, meaning that I will seldom play a note that is lower than the highest note that the acoustic guitar plays on the G string.
  2. Next, I’ll learn to play the vocal part. This may seem laborious, but it might be one of the most useful things you can do while part writing. I’ll probably write a future post on the merits of learning the vocal line, but for now, the main advantage is that if you can play the vocal line, you know where it is on your fretboard, and you can stay the heck away from that space whenever the vocals are in. On the flip side, whenever the vocals aren’t in, definitely use that space. The audience has been trained to expect important things from those frequencies. Give them something to chew on.

These two steps will give you the option to:

  • Play above the acoustic guitar and below the vocal
  • Play above the acoustic guitar AND the vocal
  • Switch depending on the part

Obviously, this can be complicated further by adding additional electric guitars, or other high-register instruments like horns, synths, strings, and triangles. In those scenarios, communication is key. Talk each section out and designate spaces with humility, patience, and positivity, and you’ll not only make an impact with your parts, but by being a leader as well. It doesn’t get better than serving your band and the song at the same time.

In closing, its important to note that the underlying assumption here is that the player will be able to move around the fretboard to find their sonic space with some competency. If you’re unfamiliar with how to voice parts in different registers, try googling the CAGED system, and stay tuned for Articulate lessons on the same topic.

Be sure to leave a comment if you have any questions, and from now on, be sure to actually find your space.