Two to Tango: Tips for String Players Working with Guitarists

By Laurel Thomsen | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine

While it can be difficult for string players to find other violinists, violists, and cellists to collaborate with, walk into any crowd and chances are you’ll meet someone who plays guitar. It takes time to find synergy, but you’re sure to find a dozen guitarists to try out long before you land the members of a satisfying string quartet. Yet, as someone whose performance career has included many guitarists, I’m surprised by how frequently an audience member remarks that he or she never would have imagined a violin-guitar duo. Fiddle music is typically accompanied by guitar, but a classical violin sound with guitar is surprisingly uncommon.

Besides the relatively large pool of potential colleagues, working with a guitarist has other advantages, as illustrated by a wedding I played a few years ago: My violin-guitar duo was booked for seven hours, which included the prelude and ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner, and reception, and while we were paid handsomely for this epic engagement, it was a bargain for the clients who would have had to pay much more for a quartet, band, or DJ. 

We were exhausted by the end, but we’d proven that two musicians could in fact fill the need for all those portions of an event, from the classical and Celtic ceremony music to the Beatles, jazz standards, tangos, and Brazilian choro we performed during the cocktail hour, and finally, after amplifying and adding the guitarist’s vocals (an added benefit of working with some guitarists), to the rock and pop covers that got everyone up and dancing into the night. Several guests commented that they’d heard the sound change throughout the evening and were surprised to look over and see that it was still just the two of us.

With the potential to provide a diverse and complex sound that would otherwise require a larger string ensemble, the ease of scheduling rehearsals and traveling with just one other person versus two or three also makes experimenting with a guitarist worth the time it might take to learn each others’ languages. 

Unlike violins, which range in quality and tone but all look fairly similar, there are seemingly endless styles of guitars and just as many guitarists, many of whom are self-taught. For the purpose of this article I’ll be focusing on guitarists who play classical, fingerstyle, and “Americana”—a broad umbrella that, from my violinist’s perspective, includes those we might label “rhythm” guitarists and those who come from roots-based backgrounds such as folk, blues, rock, and bluegrass. While classical string players might assume they need to work with only classical guitarists, I’ve worked with all three types and have enjoyed their unique contributions.

Working with Classical Guitarists

While sharing our ability to read music and a similar attention to dynamics, tone, phrasing, and articulation, working with a classical guitarist can still take experimentation. Like pianists, classical guitarists are trained to play solo, covering melody, harmony, and bass lines much as we do with unaccompanied Bach. Classical guitarist and instructor Anthony DeMers recalls having to reorient his approach in order to make space for the violinist, simplifying an arrangement to include only the bass lines or chord progression, and brushing up on chords in general. For arrangements outside the classical genre, he also discovered the need to explore strumming patterns, uncommon in classical guitar music.

Classical guitars use nylon strings, plucked with the fingernails or fingertips, and have a round, warm sound, which may need amplification when paired with a string player, particularly in larger spaces and outdoors.

While DeMers stresses that most classical guitarists have more than enough technique to work up compelling arrangements with a string player, he imagines that many will benefit from refreshing their acoustic guitar basics as well as bolstering their improvisatory skills. While lead sheets can be helpful when nothing else exists, he strongly recommends paying a few dollars to download an actual classical guitar arrangement as opposed to using online chord sites, chord charts, tab, or a piano score—all fairly foreign to classical guitarists and not always accurate.


Working with Fingerstyle Guitarists

I’m referring here to artists such as Laurence Juber and Bert Jansch, who create complex solo arrangements featuring melody, harmony, rhythm, and bass lines while using acoustic guitars with steel strings and either fingernails or fingerpicks. Fingerstyle guitarists are often well versed in genres ranging from classical and Celtic music to blues, jazz, and pop. Fingerstyle guitarist Jon Rubin has similarly found the main challenge in working with string players to be “pulling back” a fingerstyle arrangement to make room for the lead instrument. “All those plucked eighth and sixteenth notes are in my muscle memory as the picking pattern, and it’s actually hard not to play them,” he says.

Fingerstyle guitarist Doug Young recommends, when arranging a piece for violin and guitar, simplifying the guitar part, pointing out that “jazz guitarists playing in the Count Basie big bands quickly discovered that playing all six strings produced a mess—clashing with the bass player, the piano player, not to mention the horns—so they developed a style of just playing two- or three-note chords. Similarly, when playing fingerstyle with a violinist or cellist you have to leave space for the other instrument.”

Fingerstyle guitarists may or may not read sheet music, and while Rubin relies mostly on his ear when working out arrangements, he reports that a chord chart or tab can sometimes come in handy. Young suggests that many fingerstyle players may embrace tab because of their frequent use of “alternate tunings that are tough to read in standard notation.”

Working with Americana Guitarists

Typically performing on acoustic guitars with steel strings and either a flatpick, fingerpicks, or bare fingers, Americana-style guitarists play chord progressions that may or may not include melody lines or bass notes. While ability can range considerably with this style of guitarist and experience reading sheet music is rare, they are not to be underestimated, especially with non-classical genres. While they might need to consider dynamics and articulation in new ways to work up a believable accompaniment to a classical piece, they are used to accompanying other instruments or vocals, are often well versed in the rhythms and idioms of various genres, and are lifesavers when there’s a last-minute song request and you just need someone to strum through a chord chart.

Ensemble Considerations

Like a piano, a guitar uses tempered tuning, meaning that bowed strings will need to largely forego their expressive intonation styles (for example, intuitively higher leading tones (note 7) and subdominants (note 4) in a major key). Because guitars rely on frets to create different pitches, guitarists can’t adjust their intonation moment to moment, and guitars can develop intonation problems. If a guitar’s strings are in tune, but one or more notes of a chord sound out of tune, a trip to a luthier is a worthwhile investment.

When it’s time for the guitarist to take a solo, string players must be sensitive with their dynamics and articulation. DeMers and Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Frechette, my primary collaborator in recent years,
concur that the string player must back off considerably to let the quick decay of a guitar melody speak. Used to playing lead, the string player might worry if she’s playing enough, but less is usually more. String players might consider an arpeggiated pizzicato line or soft, sustained chord tones.

Since the guitarist is otherwise usually covering the inner voices and cello roles of a string quartet, the music may also feel like it loses energy once the guitarist switches to a lead role. While a cellist may be effective in delivering a rhythm and bass line for the soloing guitarist, the higher-pitched stringed instruments cover the same range as the guitar and tend to draw attention. Violinists can try back-up techniques like collé, spiccato, or the fiddle chop, but another solution is simply to start an arrangement with solo guitar or place its solo in the middle of a piece with enough time to pick up the energy with the violinist resuming the lead later on. With some of our original compositions, Frechette and I often strike a balance with a solo guitar followed by the introduction of soft sustained violin tones or a steady staccato rhythm, and then finally let the violin soar. 

Working Out Arrangements

While actual violin and guitar sheet music is limited, a violin-guitar duo can play just about anything the violinist normally performs. The work usually involves developing a guitar arrangement. If the violinist is tackling this kind of arrangement, it is helpful to remember that guitars most often have six strings and, in standard tuning, are tuned E, A, D, G, B, and E (2 octaves higher). The lowest pitch is the E below middle C, giving the guitar a treble/alto range similar to the violin and viola. However, guitarists may use alternate tunings, creating endless possibilities for interesting arrangements.


The job will most often fall to the guitarist, however, and regardless of what tools guitarists prefer to use in figuring out what chords to play, when it comes time to put the ensemble together, it’s important to listen to
various recordings and clarify the feeling the duo wishes to convey. 

For example, with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the violin can play the same melody while a guitarist may choose from a variety of strumming and picking patterns. If the song will be played for a bride walking down the aisle, a gentle arpeggiated pattern with bare fingertips may be the perfect accompaniment. However, if performed as a joyous recessional, a strummed rhythm, perhaps including bass notes and lead fills, will be a better choice to meet the energy of the moment.

Photo: Behzad Soleimanian
Photo: Behzad Soleimanian

Learn to Speak Guitar

Capo A device used to transpose a guitar into a key that is more comfortable or to make it easier to create new chord voicings. “Capo 3” means the guitarist has placed the capo at the 3rd fret. This could transpose it from G to B-flat, though the guitarist would be able to play as if he were still in G. 

Flatpick (or pick) A triangular piece of plastic or other material that guitarists use to strum, not typically used by classical or fingerstyle guitarists. While flatpicking is a general guitar technique, it’s often used in reference to a bluegrass style of guitar playing wherein the player uses a flatpack to strum, perform melodies (often at breakneck speed), and cross-pick (an arpeggiated pattern similar to a banjo roll). 

Fingerpick/thumbpick Plastic or metal picks that fit onto the ends of the fingertips (typically used on the thumb, index, and middle fingers) and take the place of the guitarist’s fingernails. Typically used by fingerstyle guitarists and some Americana guitarists. 

Fingerpicking Using fingers or fingerpicks to play an arpeggiated pattern across the strings.


Strumming Using fingers or a pick to strum various rhythms across the strings. 

Lead sheet Sheet music featuring only the melody (usually treble clef) and the chords, plus the lyrics if it was originally a vocal song. 

Chord chart Typically just the chords of a song, though most helpful when it includes bar lines or slash marks to indicate how long to hold each chord. If the violinist already has sheet music, it becomes a matter of finding a chord chart in the same key, transposing the chords, or having the guitarist use a capo.

Lyric sheet Typically just the lyrics of a vocal song with the chords printed above the syllable on which the chord should change. 

Tablature (or “tab”) A form of music notation that indicates the fingerings to play rather than the actual pitches. 

Fretboard Same as the violin fingerboard but featuring raised metal bars (frets) to separate the semi-tones. A guitarist will probably understand if you ask him to play the arrangement “higher up the fingerboard,” but will appreciate your use of the proper term.