There’s an art to being a good accompanist.
To do your job well you have to be essential but invisible, because your role is to make someone else sound better. Whether you’re backing up a singer in a band or supporting your own singing as a solo player, there are essential things you need to know. These are not only professional qualities that will keep you working, but musicianship and performance skills that will raise your game all around.
1. Keep time.
An acoustic guitar is a rhythm instrument! Like a drum, it’s a resonant box that you strike in time. And just like for a drummer in a band, when you’re accompanying a singer it’s your job to provide the pocket.
The basic strumming movement of almost any groove is a steady swing of the arm, with the downstrokes matching the pulse of the song. You should really be feeling the beat with your entire body, but the strum motion itself can help you keep steady time. In fact, moving to the music in any way will make your groove more solid. Some people find it helps to nod their heads or rock their upper body instead of tapping their foot. And if you don’t move when you’re play, you’re almost certainly not feeling the beat. It’s rhythm, not math, so feel, don’t count!
2. Your guitar is a drum kit.
Also like a drum, striking a guitar in different ways produces different sounds. You should find that there’s a natural difference in sound between a downstroke and an upstroke. A downward strum has momentum and gravity behind it, producing a natural accent. If you swing the arm further, the accent becomes stronger.
You’ll notice the same effect in the difference between strumming with the wrist or the arm. A wrist movement produces a smaller arc, while an arm movement produces a wider one. Experiment with small movements that grow increasingly larger, and listen to how it expands your dynamic range. This is basic mechanics: the larger the movement, the greater the force and the bigger the sound.
Try swinging the arm further on alternating downbeats to bring out a “backbeat” on counts 2 and 4. Think of where you would expect to hear the snare drum, and give those beats a little more energy. You can alternate between the bass or treble strings to imitate the “thump” and “snap” of a kick and snare drum.
3. Follow the vocal.
Along with keeping the beat, your other role is to provide the musical backing for the singer. That means that the vocal is always primary, but your role is not just to be in the background. In a group setting or a pop track, there are musical parts that form the “bed” or basic background, and others that weave around the vocal to add interest. This can be a part of the bed that’s accentuated for a moment, or another instrument or sound.
You should be able to mirror the singer’s dynamics, bringing the energy up and down in response to the vocal. This often means doing less in the verses, more in the chorus, but it’s your job to pay attention and let the singer lead. However, it adds a lot to fill in the spaces between vocal parts with accents or even fills. Again, think of the example of a drummer playing a fill at the end of a cycle to bring the next section in. Playing melodic fills can add a lot to the music as well, but never at the expense of the groove. Above all, pay close attention to the vocal and choose your spots for maximum impact. Never overplay!
4. Know the music.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised. It’s especially relevant in a place like Nashville, where there are so many singers that need accompanists. It’s pretty common to see a singer onstage performing, backup up by a guitarist half-obscured by a music stand or iPad.
There’s nothing wrong with using charts, but they should be there for reference. First of all, everyone listens better when they aren’t reading. You need to be able to take both auditory and visual cues from the singer, which is impossible if you’re overly focused on the chart. (See number 3 above). You do want to develop your reading skills to the point that you can keep track of what you see AND hear, but even so it serves the music better when you’re fully focused on the vocalist. After all, a singer-and-accompanist dynamic is essentially a duet, in which one role supports and adds flavor to the other. To do this well, you need to pay attention to the interaction, not just your part alone.
5. Look alive!
Unless you’re hidden in darkness at the back of the stage or in an orchestra pit, you are often as much in view as the singer. There are few things more distracting to an audience than disinterested-looking musicians. Your presence on the stage is often just as important visually, even if you’re not the center of attention. A good accompanist is a foil for the singer, and adds just as much to the show.
If you do need to use charts or music onstage, be aware of whether you’re obscured by whatever is in front of you. Keep it as unobtrusive as possible, and don’t bury your face in the chart! I’ve seen entire bands onstage squinting at music stands while the person the band is supposed to make shine looks out of place trying to perform. (This is not just a question of inexperience, either, I’ve seen many seasoned pros do the same thing).
Any visual discrepancy onstage distracts from the impact of the performance. It’s like an actor in a play suddenly breaking character and speaking to the audience as themselves. It breaks the spell and takes the audience out of the song! Everything about you, from the way you dress to the way you carry yourself, is a part of the performance and needs to match the tone set by the artist you’re backing up.
If you’re a working musician, you already know that good accompanists get hired: there’s always more need for solid backup players than for flashy lead pickers. Both have their place, but most popular music is vocal-driven and so every good player should know how to make a vocal shine – whether it’s someone else’s or your own.