Though it may be a shot to the pride of some players, in most situations, our parts aren’t going to be the focus of the songs on which we play.
The harsh reality is that in most music, the vocal is king, but rather than use that reality as a source of musical angst, the best of us will use the presence of the vocal as an opportunity to be constructive.
In fact, a great part-writing strategy is learning the vocal melody as a guitar line before writing any actual guitar parts. Knowing where the vocal lives and how it moves can help us write our parts with more certainty, care, and precision, and will ultimately help us become the guitarist that every singer-songwriter dreams about.
Learning the vocal melody helps, because it allows us to…
1. Use it as a compositional resource.
Few things register as more professional in the ears of listeners and fellow players as a lead hook or solo phrase that alludes to the main vocal melody. By taking the main melodic theme from the chorus or pre-chorus, and either reproducing it note-for-note or slightly altered in your lead playing, you’re establishing both a mastery of the musical material you’re working with, and a willingness to work together with the rest of your band instead of living like the lone wolf, mercenary, road warrior guitar player we all know you could be.
2. Stay away from it.
There are times where your guitar part can and should provide an interesting counterpoint that lives in the same sonic real estate as the lead vocal, but those times are few and far between. For the most part, you should acknowledge where the vocal is going to live, and treat that register as a sonic no-man’s land any time the vocal is actually happening. Sadly, this will mean that you’ll have to stay away from certain melodic ideas that would sound great in a vocal-less mix, but the clarity that your full band sound will gain should be more than worth it for you, and your audience. As a plus, when you play in a different register than the vocal, you run much less risk of having your vocalist complain that you’re too loud, which is always a plus.
3. Double it.
Something really special happens when two melodic instruments intentionally work together to give a phrase extra presence, punch, or thickness. By learning the vocal melody, you can pick out important moments, and lend a hand with your instrument to really make the part shine. Often, this involves playing either an identical unison part to the vocal melody, or choosing a harmony in thirds or fifths to add an extra harmonic component. In these situations, its important to complement, and not overtake or upstage the vocal, so consideration for how your part blends with their line is crucial.
Hopefully, these three benefits provide enough motivation to start learning the vocal line, but they’re really just scratching the surface of what can be achieved when you gain a working understanding of the melodies happening around your instrument. Ultimately, an exercise like learning the vocal line is teaching us be good listeners, which will always be the foremost attribute of good musicians, and of players who make their music say what they mean.