FROM DJANGO REINHARDT AND Wes Montgomery to Jimi Hendrix and the Foo Fighters, the use of octaves in riffs and melodies can be found in just about every guitar style imaginable. Typically, this approach involves grabbing a static octave shape and sliding it around so that every note in the melody is sounded simultaneously in parallel octaves, as Hendrix did so hypnotically on his theme to “Third Stone from the Sun.” While this time-honored approach certainly fattens up the sound, studio ace and GIT instructor Mitch Holder would like to share with you a way of doing this that also fattens up the harmony. The trick? Add a harmony note inside each octave.
“George Benson was the first to use harmonized octaves extensively in both his written melodies and improvised solos,” says Holder. “The sound of it really caught my ears. The idea is to take a standard octave shape and add another note a third below the upper octave,” says Holder. (Tip: You can alternatively see that note as being a sixth above the lower octave.) “Third or sixth, however you look at it, the choice of whether the interval is major or minor is dictated by the chord harmony and general key in which your melody resides.”
Holder, who can be heard on famous recordings by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Lionel Richie, Stevie Nicks, and Patti LaBelle, has used what he calls “dynamic octaves” for years on sessions. “They work very well—not only for melody playing and soloing, but also to thicken up a harmony or background lines,” he says. “Plus, they always seem to blend well with vocals, keyboards, and horns, as well as with samples, loops, and other sound combinations.”
For this lesson, Holder shares examples in the key of G minor, starting with the threenote shape in Ex. 1. “Here, we have a D octave [fifth and second strings] with Bb added in between, on the third string,” says Holder. “In our key of G minor, the D notes represent the 5, and Bb is the minor 3. Staying rootless makes for a nice, open sound, especially when your bassist completes the chord by hitting the root. And before we get rolling with these shapes, realize that there are different ways to sound them, whether you use a pick exclusively, a hybrid pick-and-fingers approach, or play fingerstyle.”
Next, try playing the entire G Dorian scale (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F), starting on D, in harmonized octaves [Ex. 2], then move on to Ex. 3, which presents a simple melody with chord symbols indicating the background harmony. “Now, let’s play the same melody in harmonized octaves,” says Holder, demonstrating with Ex. 4. “As you can see, the octave harmony also works with the Am7 in measure 2, and Bb in last measure, because the notes in the octaves are chord tones.”
Harmonized octaves also work in rhythm guitar comping situations. A twobar G minor funk groove, Ex. 5 alternates between a third-inversion Gm7 shape in the first bar and harmonized octaves in the second bar. (Notice that there’s room for a fill at the end of bar 2.)
Ex. 6 shows a “Charleston” version of the same approach. (Swing those eighths!)
“For jazz comping applications, let’s try a II-V-I in G minor,” says Holder, playing Ex. 7. “Here, up-stemmed quarter-notes represent the chromatic voice-leading I chose for this example. Now, play the example again, applying harmonized octaves to the chromatic line [Ex. 8]. Whatever scenario you find yourself in, remember that musical taste should have an impact on how much of a particular melody or line you choose to play using harmonized octaves. Mixing them with both single-note lines and standard octaves, along with stylistic elements such as bends, slurs, hammers, pulls, and so forth, is all part of keeping things interesting. Use your imagination, and, most importantly, your ears in finding uses for this great musical tool.”