As a non-musician, you might be wondering why some bands have two guitarists. Similarly, you might be curious if there’s any drawbacks to having more than one guitarist in a band.
So, why do bands have two guitarists?
Bands have two guitarists in order to thicken up their sound, maintain momentum when switching from rhythm to lead, perform layered parts and add a sense of variety to their sound.
Keep reading for an in-depth guide on the benefits of having two guitarists in a band, as well as a comprehensive list of drawbacks.
To Achieve A ‘Thicker’ Sound
When two guitarists play the same part, their timing and tuning will be ever-so-slightly different from one another.
This creates a ‘chorusing’ effect, which thickens up the signal and adds a great sense of richness to the guitar sound. This effect (commonly known as double tracking) is widely-used in recorded music, with musicians recording the exact same part multiple times.
In order to add an extra layer of depth to their sound, guitarists will also employ one (or both) of the following techniques:
Different chord voicings:
Whilst both guitarists may be playing the same chords, it’s common for each guitarist to play a different voicing. This adds a sense of richness, without ‘muddying’ the sound. Here are a couple of common voicing combinations that guitarists will employ:
- One guitarist playing open chords, with the other playing power chords
- One guitarist playing root position chords, with the other playing inverted chords
- One guitarist playing triads, with the other playing extended chords
Different guitar tones
Tone refers to the sound of the guitar. On an electric guitar, tone is usually controlled by the amplifier.
Here are a few common guitar tones that bands use:
- Overdriven: A distorted tone
- Clean: A non-distorted tone
- Bright: A treble-heavy tone
- Warm: A bass/mid-heavy tone
When two guitarists employ different tones from one another, it both broadens and thickens the guitar sound. Here’s a couple of common tone combinations guitarists will employ:
- One guitarist using a warm tone, with the other using a bright tone
- One guitarist using a clean tone, with the other using an overdriven tone
To Maintain Momentum
A major drawback of only having one guitarist in a band is that there’s a substantial drop in momentum when they switch from rhythm to lead. As guitar chords provide a lot of midrange to the arrangement, they effectively glue a band together and add a sense of power.
When they suddenly disappear, it can make the arrangement feel a little lackluster. This is a problem for genres such as rock and metal, which prominently feature lead guitar work whilst also requiring substantial momentum.
To circumvent this, many bands will have a rhythm guitarist and a lead guitarist. The rhythm guitarist fills out the midrange by playing chords, whilst the lead guitarist plays more melodic material.
In case you were wondering how a band with only one guitarist prevents the momentum from dropping, here are a few go-to tricks:
- Distort the bass guitar
- Tighten the drum heads
- Substitute the rhythm guitar for a synth line or backing vocals
Whilst the above tricks will work to a reasonable standard, none of them are as effective as simply recruiting an additional guitarist.
To Perform Layered Parts
In order to add both variety and depth to a song, bands will write several distinct guitar parts to be played simultaneously.
Whilst a single guitarist can ‘overdub’ different parts in the studio, they’ll be unable to replicate them in a live setting. The easiest way to solve this is to simply employ a second guitarist to perform the layered sections.
Here are some common part divisions that a two-guitar band will use:
- One guitarist playing rhythm, with the other playing lead
- One guitarist playing chords, with the other playing arpeggios
- Both guitarists playing harmonies
To Create A Versatile Sound
Every guitarist has a distinct style of playing. Similarly, they may have a set of go-to styles and techniques they’re particularly known for.
In order to increase the versatility of their sound, many bands will employ guitarists of contrasting styles. This way, each guitarist can play (no pun intended) to their strengths, making up for what the other may lack.
Here are a few examples of well-known bands with contrasting guitar styles:
- Metallica: Rhythm guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield is known for his rapid downpicking technique, whilst lead guitarist Kirk Hammett is known for his virtuosic, wah-heavy lead work.
- AC/DC: Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young was renowned for his low-gain, open chord technique, whilst lead guitarist Angus Young is known for his blues-inspired lead work.
- Rolling Stones: Rhythm guitarist Keith Richards and lead guitarist Brian Jones were known for their layered, contrasting guitar parts on many of their songs.
Drawbacks Of Having Two Guitarists In A Band
Whilst the addition of a second guitarist can offer numerous benefits, there are also several drawbacks for a band to consider. Here are a few common ones:
- It’s more expensive: The additional guitarist will require a wage as well as travel & accommodation costs when touring.
- It can result in lazy arrangements: Without a second guitarist to hide behind, a guitar player is much-more-likely to create a unique and interesting part. In a two-guitar band, it’s all-too-easy to start getting lazy with the guitar arrangements.
- It can ‘muddy’ the sound: In music, ‘muddiness’ refers to a build-up of sound that results from multiple instruments competing for the same frequency range. When two guitarists are occupying the same frequency range, it can kill the clarity of the band’s sound.
- The guitarists may disagree creatively: Layered guitar parts require a great deal of compromise between the two guitarists. It’s not uncommon for disagreements to break out over the creative direction of the guitar arrangement, with one or both guitarists often having to compromise.