Harmony Guitars

Guitar Techniques 160

Got too many guitarists in your band? Trying to re-create the sound of Queen, Iron Maiden, Steve Vai and many others? This month Dario Cortese will take you for a journey through the world of harmonized guitars!

“Have you been fighting with the other guitarist in your band to decide who’s gonna take the solo? Have you just composed a new song and you’re looking for a way to make your melody more ‘spicy’? Well, here’s the solution for you: harmonizing!” I know that the above sentence seem to be one of those slogans that people shout through a TV screen trying to sell some new product that will change the way we live but in this case this happens to be the truth.

Who hasn’t been, at least one, intrigued by the sound of ‘Hotel California’ by Eagles? Or by most of Iron Maiden’s songs? And what about Steve Vai or Cacophony or Queen? Well, they all used extensively harmonized guitars!

Okay, but what exactly means harmonized guitars? Firstly harmonized guitars use very similar rules and concepts as backing vocals, choirs, horn sections and orchestras. Generally speaking harmonizing means that a melody which usually is constructed by single notes or double stops, is doubled by one or more melody lines that are higher or lower in pitch in order to create a harmony. Each melody line is called ‘voice’. This concept didn’t come out from modern music or jazz but from classical music. To explain how this works let’s work in the key of C and see how we can harmonize a given melody.

Diatonic Harmony

This is the first and most used harmonization system. Diatonic harmony uses only scale tones, resulting in maj, min, perfect, aug or dim intervals in accordance with the scale’s step formula. To understand this further let’s have a look at it on paper. Fig 1 shows the C major scale which we’ll treat as main melody that we want to harmonized.

Figure 1

Figures 2-5 show our melody harmonized in 3rds (higher or lower), 4ths and 5ths. Of course this can be carried on to 6ths, 7ths, 8ths, 12ths, etc.

Figure 2 & 3

Figure 4 & 5

Parallel Harmony

Parallel harmony builds the same interval from each scale degree, regardless of the note’s absence of presence in the scale. Fig 6 shows parallel min 6ths (each interval is 8 semitones apart).

Figure 6

Chordal Harmony

When the melody line is built from an arpeggio, the harmonized melody is often obtained from a different inversion of the same arpeggio as shown in Fig 7.

Figure 7

At this stage you may have noticed that the two voices always go in the same direction. This is of course not the only possible way. There are four different harmonic motions that can be used to harmonize two or more guitar parts (Fig 8-11):

Similar Motion: the voices move in the same direction using diatonic harmony

Figure 8

Parallel Motion: the voices move in the same direction using parallel harmony

Figure 9

Oblique Motion: one voice moves whereas the other stands still

Figure 10

Contrary Motion: the voices move in opposite directions

Figure 11

This should give you enough information to create your own harmonized guitar parts. My suggestion is to start just by studying famous harmonized guitar parts/solos. Once you’ve learnt a few, try to harmonize a melody starting with something very simple at first and moving onto something harder only when a good degree of confidence is gained. Experiment and don’t be scared to try unusual solutions, you might miss some awesome stuff. Enjoy!


Ex 1 – Steve Vai – Shred Style: This example is in the style of Steve Vai’s Passion & Warfare and it features 3 harmonized guitars, with gtr 2 a diatonic 3rd lower, and gtr 3 a diatonic 5th lower than the lead. The main technique used is the picking hand tapping with one finger only and although the speed may be an issue to some the main problem seems to be the rhythm of the phrase.

In fact bars 2 and 3 feature a 4 note pattern within a sextuplet which results in a polyrhythm that is more complicated than it looks. Practice this example slowly for a few days and speed it up slowly over a period of time keeping an eye on the clarity of the rhythm figures.


Ex 2 – Hellecasters/Country Style: This example is in the style of country all-star band The Hellecasters and although they use mainly three guitar parts I decided to stick to two only because this concept can be easily applied in most bands. It’s a two guitar part with gtr 2 a diatonic 3rd higher than the lead.

The main technique here is hybrid picking, in fact to get that staccato sound of the recording I used strictly pick-finger-pick-finger digging in hard with the fingers instead of the more common alternate picking. In bar 5 both guitars play an artificial harmonic.

After you play the 9th fret with the fretting hand you just slightly touch the string 12 frets above (21st fret) with the picking hand. This should result in a harmonic. The example is built around a short blues chord progression in A.


Ex 3 – Stevie Wonder/Funk Style: This example features 8 guitars in total, 2 rhythm and 6 leads. The two rhythms are played using the slap technique and are harmonized a 5th apart from each other. They also have a touch of phaser. S=Slap, P=Pop, m=mute (just hit the strings with the picking hand producing a dead sound) – see GT144 for more details.

The lead guitars are arranged a little bit like a 3 parts horn section with three different lines that interact with each other. When the main groove comes in each guitar is harmonized with an additional guitar a diatonic 4th lower than the reference lead. The boxed numbers represent the order the guitars appear on the GT track.


Ex 4 – Eagles/Classic Rock Style: This example is composed in the style of legendary Country Rock band The Eagles. It features two guitar parts which are based on inversions of the same arpeggio.

To keep a bit of separation between the guitar parts I’ve used alternate picking on guitar one and legato on guitar two. Just make sure you don’t keep your fingers down at all time when playing those arpeggios otherwise everything will ring out altogether.


GT160 – Harmony Guitars
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