5 Tips to Make Your Guitar Ensemble Sound Great
#1 Tune it up!
Nothing hurts an ensemble’s performance more than out-of-tune guitars. Your players may work months to prepare, but with out-of-tune guitars, a performance is instantly jeopardized, no matter how well the piece is executed.
The simplest solution is to have guitarists tune quietly on stage using an inexpensive clip-on tuner (preferably attached on the headstock). In addition, and if possible, do a group tuning check, listening to each string. A suggested string order is: (3), (4), (2) listening to the G-major triad, then (1)–(5) to hear the P5, and (5)–(6) to hear the P4. Finally check the low D (6) for scordatura guitars. Since this string tends to go sharp, remind low-D players to tune below the note, wait a minute, then tune it up. Lastly, give special attention to the intonation of the B (2) and E (1) strings. These strings tend to carry most of the melody and will produce an audible, unpleasant “beating” if out of tune.
#2 Rest Stroke it!
An ensemble that’s able to perform with volume and full-bodied tone has a great deal of expressive potential. Many ensemble parts consist of single lines as in melodies, counter-melodies, and bass lines. Some guitarists may be inclined to play these with free stroke, especially if they’re more accustomed to solo playing. While free stroke is definitely needed for passages with arpeggios or 2-, 3-, or 4-note chords, it’s not so effective on single-lines. The best technique for this is Rest stroke, where the finger firmly strokes in a somewhat downward and weighted manner.
#3 Warm it up!
Establishing a warm-up routine in your rehearsals that includes scales, right- and left-hand exercises, dynamic expression, coloristic techniques is helpful in preparing the player for expressive challenges encountered in the music. For example, scales may be practiced with dynamic crescendo, then again with color variation such as ponticello, tasto, or pizzicato. Try to begin each practice with warm-ups that include some of these expressive qualities.
#4 Just add bass!
Including a contrabass or some type of a bass guitar into your ensemble makes a world of difference in your sound. Contrabasses are either 4-or 6-string and are basically a large classical guitar with each string sounding an octave lower. They are available from Esteve or Aria and are absolutely beautiful, but expensive (anywhere from $2,600- $3,000). The Aaron Shearer Foundation currently has contrabasses available at academic pricing (click for more information). If it’s not in your budget to purchase one, try an electric or an acoustic bass. If you use electric, be sure to adjust the amplifier so not to overpower your guitars! Lastly, if you can’t add a bass instrument, then consider thickening up the low-register with more doubling on the bass part.
#5 Set it up!
An ensemble’s seating arrangement directly affects how well guitarists hear one another in rehearsal and on stage. If ensemble parts have been arranged in registers, then situating the bass in the middle can be ideal. As the foundation of harmony, it’s your ensemble’s “acoustic pillar,” so it should placed in a central location. Also, depending on the stage size and acoustics, an overall horseshoe configuration may be preferred to the traditional crescent. The horseshoe allows folks to face one another, and thus hear better. If you go this route, try using a matched pair of pencil condenser mics (such as the Rode NT5’s or Shure KSM 137’s on a stereo bar) to amplify your ensemble to the audience.
#5 Setup cont.
All music at GuitarEnsembleMusic.com is arranged top down by register, with Guitar I (and Requinto) the highest and Guitar V with (6) = D, the lowest. A large ensemble of 15 + might use the following seating diagram:
A smaller ensemble might use this config: