Practical use of harp guitar in ensembles and accompaniment environments
by David Powell, 9/24/2014
Disclaimer: Techniques and ideas presented here are to be used at your own risk. I am not responsible for damage done to yourself or how many toes you may step on by using the techniques presented here!
Playing the harp guitar in an ensemble is not something to be taken lightly. Most of today’s contemporary players plague their minds with ideas of virtuosic finger-style techniques conducive to solo performing. When approaching a “jam” session with a harp guitar it is difficult to sell the idea of accomplishing the bass player’s role on just the harp strings alone (not to mention kicking the bass player out of the circle). This is of course after the fact the other jammers have figured out what the harp guitar actually is.
So let’s say after promoting the idea over the years and making friends with some of these other musicians that they actually invite you to their jam. And if they are not acoustic “purists” they may even let you bring and amp to plug the harp into to get a little more bass presence. This is actually a good idea since it sometimes gets loud in a group, especially if there is banjo. So you now have the rare opportunity of putting your money where your mouth is and fulfilling the true role of the harp guitarist as an accompaniment to an ensemble. This discussion will hopefully help you to properly represent the accompaniment nature of the harp guitar by providing the techniques needed to support other musicians with a bass presence while still allowing you some freedom to embellish the guitar.
Just the Bass, and Mo’ of it. That’s right; don’t even think about playing the guitar. If you own a harp guitar, then by now you likely are already somewhat accomplished at the guitar. While you are sitting in this new jam circle you may not know the forthcoming tunes that will be presented. It is time to just listen. Listen to the changes as they go by and find the root note of the tune. You can simply drone 1/4 notes or 1/2 notes of just the tonic note over the entire tune! Just that 1 root bass note is relative to all the other notes and chords. Even if it is a Celtic modal tune that goes to the flat7 chord for a couple beats, the root tonic note will still sound OK over it. Get familiar with your thumb stroke on the harp strings playing half notes and quarter notes.
By now you may have learned the chord progression of the tune or someone plays one that you already know. Now you can start alternating those harp notes as a folk bass player might. This will introduce another technique of muting the string you just played before you play the next one, otherwise you get too many ringing at once. You can use your palm to do this by lowering it onto the bank of harp strings, then raising it quickly before you pluck the next note. With some practice you will be able to do this with quarter notes. Your palm pulses up and down against the harp strings just before you thumb each harp note.
On harp guitar we are locked into 5, 6, or 7 notes at a max (except those crazy Gibson style U’s) so make sure you have all the relative notes to the key your tune is in which may include a C# if you are in D major like a lot of fiddle tunes are. This will give you more options of substitute bass notes to play over the chords and will break the monotony of the “Root + 5” groove. Substituting the relative miner bass note (the 6th note of the key) over the root note is another way to do that if it is in the right spot, usually towards the end of the progression before the turnaround.
Ex. Let’s say the tune is Soldiers Joy in the key of D. There are only 3 chords, D, G and A. There are also only 2 parts to the song, an A part and a B part played A-A-B-B. This is then repeated for each soloist to take a lead over while the rest of the group plays rhythm etc. As a harp guitarist you must fill the role as bass player and should cover all the 1 and 3 beats while most everyone else will play the 2 and 4 back beat so everyone will stay together. This is what is called a “Shuffle” or “Polka” groove and you will find it in a lot of bluegrass. So, back to the tune:
The chart is like this:
The A Part: | D – D – D – D | D – D – A – A |D – D – D – D | D – A – D – D |
The B Part: | D – D – G – G | D – D – A – A | D – D – G – G | D – A – D – D |
Pretty easy, right? The “Meat and potatoes” bass line would be root + 5 for each of those chords, so something like this:
A Part: | D A D A D A D A | D A D A A E A E | D A D A D A D A | D A A E D A D A |
Your thumb will be doing the work on this one but it’s a great exercise to learn where your bass notes are and be able to play them without hunting for them.
Now there is a lot of D in there which means you can break that up with a relative minor note somewhere, I do it by playing that B string over the last 2 D’s in the 3rd bar of the A part. Other substitutions are playing an A note over the D sometimes, playing your B string over the G chord or playing a C# over the A in the last bar just before you get back to D so it sorta “Walks” back to the root. It’s also OK to just go back and pulse the root note for a few bars to bring the dynamics of the tune to a more intimate level and accentuate a specific player in the circle. As the bass of the band you have the power to do this.
Adding the back beat. So you want to play the ENTIRE rhythm section now? You must have some real zeal to attempt this next section and you must have mastered the previous section as well. You will be playing the down beats, 1 and 3, with your thumb on the harp bass strings while plucking or strumming the back beats, 2 and 4, with your index, middle, and ring fingers. You will need to make sure your hand can make the reach from the bass strings to the guitar strings fairly seamlessly, and if you can reach them both at the same time it’s even better. This means your thumb should touch the lowest harp string, and your ring finger should be able to pluck the highest guitar string at the same time. If not, then you will need to focus on finding triads on lower 4 strings of the guitar.
Instead of plucking triads, you can strum full chords or muted chords on the back beat. This is sometimes easier and lets you focus more on the bass. I do the strumming technique with my middle finger doing a down stroke on beats 2 and 4 between the bass notes on 1 and 3. Start at a slow tempo, and start with just pulsing the same 1 bass note on beats 1 and 3, eventually work in the root + 5 bass while strumming chords on the back beat. Work up to be able to play the chord changes with root+5 bass notes without looking at your right hand.
Triads are your friend. There are bunches on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th guitar strings that work well to pluck with your index, middle, and ring finger respectively. Learning the CAGED acronym method for finding chords and triads up the neck is a real bonus here. You will have more freedom when playing in the higher positions up the neck to find chords that are a closer reach to the harp strings.
Hammer-on Triads are nice to make suspended chords feel like they move somewhere, and give you voicing for nice sounding leads. They also force you to set yourself up with a suspended chord or triad that sound nice by themselves and can usually be moved around for use in different keys.
Suspended 9th C triad
Suspended 9th A triad
Suspended 4th G triad
Sub Tunings and Capos
A major / E Major / B Major: E F# A B C# D
G major/ D Modal: E G A B C D
D Major: E G A B C# D
C Major: F G A B C D
As shown here, the A,E and,B tuning is useful and is one I use primarily with a capo on the guitar. With capo on 2nd fret you can play in the key of A while using G, C, and D chord formations. The subs stay the same so you need to know to play that A sub with that “G” chord formation because you are actually in the key of “A,” (D sub with “C” chord, and E sub with “D” chord respectively). With practice this is a good exercise in transposition and will give you more options when tunes are in different keys letting you focus more on the bass and not have to worry as much about the guitar chords.
Ex. 1: “Angeline the Baker” in D
Ex. 2: “Fisher’s Hornpipe” in D (arrangement by David Powell for harp guitar):