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Harmony Guitar Solos of the '50s, '60s, and '70s

February 12, 2014
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Above, Les Paul. Below, The Beatles with George Martin in the studio.

What was the first harmonized guitar solo you ever heard? Depending on the decade, it may have been the work of an American icon such as Les Paul or Eddie Cochran. Ten years later, it could easily have been something by the Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin, or some other group of rockers that crossed the pond during the great British Invasion. Or maybe it was during the first half of the ’70s, when hard rock, power pop, jazz-rock fusion, proto-metal, and neo-classical sounds were infiltrating both shores via the music of the Allman Brothers Band, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Deep Purple, Queen, and Thin Lizzy. Whatever it was, I’m betting the experience made an indelible mark on your musical psyche and left you wanting more.

Whether born from composed lines or pre-recorded improvisations, most harmonized solos start out with an established melody. After all, you’ve gotta have something to harmonize! Once a melody is established, you can get to work stacking diatonic or non-diatonic second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and/or seventh intervals above or below it to achieve the desired effect. (Tip: Stay tuned to Fretboard Recipes for an in-depth investigation of harmony.)

Many of the following examples have been arranged for a single guitar, but you are encouraged to multi-track them by yourself, or play them with another guitarist (or two). It makes a huge difference in the sound. Of course, there are many more recent and monumental examples out there, but this month we’re focusing on a brief (and extremely abridged) history of the universe of harmonized guitar solos circa 1951 through 1976. Dig it.

THE ’50S

When it comes to guitar harmonies, all roads lead back to the multi-tracked, pixie-land soundscapes created by Les Paul. Ex. 1a presents a snippet of Paul’s 1951 hit recording of “How High the Moon,” in which Les’ three-part harmonies have been arranged for a single guitar. Play the twobar figure as written, and then repeat it two frets lower to cover the song’s F6-to-Fm6 changes. (Tip: Try moving these voicings to the second, third, and fourth strings.)

Seminal rock-and-roller Eddie Cochran followed Paul’s lead, recording several one-man- band tracks during his all-too-brief career. Ex. 1b (also arranged for one guitar) documents his infectious three-part melody from 1958’s “Meet Mr. Tweedy.” Note how both Paul and Cochran made use of triadic harmonies laced with neighboring chromatic passing chords, setting the stage for things to come.

THE ’60S

In 1963, the British Invasion brought a slew of innovative guitar harmonies to the U.S., starting with the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout.” Although the solo transcribed in Ex. 2a was performed in a single pass by George Harrison alone, he played it in such a way that sounded like two guitars. His trick was to break up the I-, IV-, and V-chord voicings into diatonic thirds by playing on adjacent strings within each chord shape. By the time Rubber Soul was released three years later, the lads were laying down sophisticated double- tracked solos like the one in “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Ex. 2b shows the first half of the song’s intro/solo figure, which consists mostly of diatonic thirds, plus the classical fox-hunt call that incorporates a major third, a fourth, a minor sixth, a fifth, and another major third. Fab stuff, indeed. (Tip: Add the open first and/or second strings whenever possible for extra jangle.)

Later that year, “I Feel Free,” the opening track from Fresh Cream, featured a rather unique approach to harmonizing a solo. Instead of laying down a second guitar part, Eric Clapton creates the solo’s other-worldly atmosphere by playing a single-note line—which functions as a fifths-based harmony—over a bed of dreamy vocalized “ahs” harmonized in thirds, as shown in Ex. 3a. Some of E.C.’s more conventional harmonies include the response riff that appears at the end of his solo and throughout the last verse on “Outside Woman Blues” from 1967’s Disraeli Gears (Ex. 3b), and Ex. 3c’s breakdown of the triadic intro and interlude harmonies from “White Room” (from 1968’s Wheels of Fire). The latter is an excellent example of how to use controlled feedback to get each individual note to sing versus simply playing the 5/4 Gm-F-Dm-C progression with full chords.

Jimi Hendrix (who first made his mark in the U.K.) added a ton of cool harmonies to bassist Noel Redding’s “Little Miss Strange” (from 1968’s Electric Ladyland), and Ex. 4 paraphrases Jimi’s V-chord build-up à la “Twist and Shout.” The coolest thing here is how the parts are layered: Gtr. 1 plays the first pass alone, Gtr. 2 adds thirds harmonies on the second round, and then jumps to fifths harmonies on the third repeat. You get the effect of threepart harmony with only two guitars! (Tip: For total authenticity, move the first bend in bar 1 back to beat one.)

When Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed the world’s first supergroup in 1969, the short-lived and aptly named Blind Faith’s repertoire included the pair’s harmonizations during the main riff from the their self-titled album’s opening cut, “Had to Cry Today.” Ex. 5 depicts the G pentatonic-minor-based fifths-and-sixths action in all of its glory.

Around the same time, Led Zeppelin guitarchitect Jimmy Page was building monumental harmonic structures throughout Led Zeppelin II. Ex. 6 decodes his two-part “Bring It on Home” riff, which utilizes both tenths (third + octave) and thirteenths (sixth + octave). That’s why it sounds so freaking huge!

THE ’70S

The Allman Brothers Band, the first U.S. blues-rock group to base their sound on two-guitar harmonies, ruled the early ’70s. There are so many great guitar harmonies spread throughout their catalog, but “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” remains a true standout. Ex. 7 deciphers the combination of thirds, fourths, and fifths that Duane Allman and Dickey Betts weave into the beginning of song’s main theme. With a little practice, you should be able to play both parts at the same time and amaze your friends!

Another standout early-70s track is my pal and current boss Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light,” from his 1971 solo opus, Something/ Anything?. Although Todd originally played portions of the top harmony part with a slide, Ex. 8 shows you how we play it today, with him on the bottom and me on top. (Ouch!)

The following year, the hills and the airwaves were alive with the sound of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In the Years” and its almost jig-like harmonized triplet figures, which brought guitar harmonies to the masses. Ex. 9a shows the G-chord figure, while Ex. 9b covers the A chord. You can use the pickup and the first note in bar 1 to figure out the one-bar lick that precedes each example.

Concurrently, rock’s first neo-classicist, Ritchie Blackmore was blazing new trails with Deep Purple. Played over a Bach-influenced Dm- Gm-C-A7 progression, Ex. 10 is a condensed version of Blackmore’s harmonic riffing in “Highway Star.” (Tip: Play each two-beat motif twice to restore the figure to its full four-bar grandeur.) You can play the A7 riff in unison as written, or add ascending chromatic harmonies either a fourth higher (starting on A) or a third lower (starting on C#).

Every solo we’ve examined thus far has featured parallel or diatonic harmonies in which both parts use the same rhythm— until now. Brian May’s astounding work with Queen frequently utilized counterpoint as well as parallel harmonies, often during the same song, and Ex. 11, excerpted from the eyebrow-raising entrance of May’s solo in “Keep Yourself Alive” (the opening track from 1973’s Queen), illustrates the point to a tee. He begins playing thirds over the tonic F and C (V) chords, and then switches to a counterpoint approach for the F-A7/E-Dm-Bb-C-F progression in the following two measures. The next four bars (not notated) find May adopting the same strategy—two bars of parallel harmonies followed by two bars of counterpoint. Bravo!

Our guided tour concludes with an excerpt from Thin Lizzy’s worldwide smash hit, “The Boys Are Back in Town” (from 1976’s Jailbreak). Ex. 12 shows how guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson coalesce during the songs’ infamous twin-guitar lead. Play through both parts, and you’ll find that the first three bars adhere to a rousing shuffle rhythm before contrasting with the dragged quarter-note triplets in bar 4. Play the whole deal over founder Phil Lynott’s A-B-C#-E bass line.

I hope this journey has provided some insights into the way harmonized guitar solos work, whetted your appetite for more, and perhaps inspired you to do the same with your own melodies. Happy harmonizing!

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