Playing In A Duo

The idea of a guitar-plus-drums duo isn’t a new one. A lot of us even started out this way by pure necessity. I know I did: I’d been playing electric guitar for about two years before I met a bass player, so my earliest jams were all with a drummer. One time a buddy and I even played Poison’s “Unskinny Bop” as a duo, sans vocals (and probably sans awesomeness, if I’m to be honest about our seventh-grade skills). But even back then I took steps to compensate for the lack of bass, mainly by trying to throw in as many notes from the bassline as I could in between C.C. DeVille licks. Now there are all sorts of ways you can fill out the sound if you’re playing in a guitar/drums duo, and there are lots of great examples of duos doing some pretty amazing things. 

If you’re playing in a guitar/drums duo you need to find a way to fill out the low end, because a standard-tuned guitar can lack a little of the fullness of a bass-driven band. There are all sorts of methods to achieve this. One I like is to drop the low E string down quite low – often to C or A. For me this was inspired by the Van Halen instrumental track ‘Baluchitherium,’ where Eddie drops his low string way, way down. This lets you play the stuff you normally would on the other four or five strings (depending on how you choose to tune) while also giving you access to a lower range for bass notes. Of course there’s no reason you can’t use a baritone guitar to get right down there for those lower notes.

Another useful method is to use an octave pedal or pitch shifter to generate a lower-octave tone to fill out the guitar sound. This can restrict what you play though, since many octave units don’t sound so great when you play a full chord through them. There are other options out there for generating a bass sound: the A Little Thunder pickup (which I’ve been messing around with in my Les Paul) generates a bass sound from the lowest three strings and sends it to a separate amp, and is even clever enough to only use the E string if you’re playing a six-note barre chord.

Or you could use a guitar synth, which also gives you the option of routing only particular strings to another signal chain, and letting you do things like muting the guitar notes on the bottom two strings so they’re not doubling the bass. Whichever method you use in a setup like this, it’s usually beneficial to send your faux-bass signal to a separate amplifier or direct into the mixing desk so you can achieve maximum sonic spread. Also, guitar amps typically aren’t designed to handle the frequency range of a bass amp, so you’ll get a more authentic sound if you send your bass-type signal to a bass amp.

Here in Australia there are two bands in particular who are doing some very innovative things in two-guitar bands: King of the North and DZ Deathrays. Both are guitar/drum duos. DZ is described as ‘dance-punk’ or ‘thrash-pop,’ and their guitarist/vocalist, Shane Parsons, uses a multi-amp/multi-effect setup to generate a dense, psychedelic, often alien-sounding guitar army. Although more recently Parsons has experimented with layering each element separately in the studio, if you catch them live the sound is all happening in real-time from the one instrument. King Of The North take a more direct approach. Guitarist/vocalist Andrew Higgs uses a three-amp setup which seems complicated on the surface, but he likes to explain it as “Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Cliff Williams” – that is, one amp cranks out his rhythm guitar riffs, one handles the simulated basslines and one kicks in for lead guitar. It’s interesting to compare King of the North and DZ Deathrays: if you closed your eyes at a King of the North gig you wouldn’t even realise you weren’t listening to a traditional ‘two guitars, bass and drums’ band, while there are times when DZ can often sound as much like analog synths as guitars. 

Here’s King Of The North’s video for ”Wanted”

And here they are covering Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song”