Marshall Tucker Band's Guitar Harmonies: How to Play Two-Part Leads and Solos

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The Marshall Tucker band has long been known for its originality. Formed in 1973 in Spartanburg, NC, the band's music is a fusion of country, rock, the blues, jazz, and a little of just about everything else playing on the radio. This mixture catapulted them to stardom and laid the foundation of what is now known as Southern rock. As you might expect from such a pedigree, Marshall Tucker Band guitar chords are steeped in traditional styles to showcase expressive harmonies.

The Sound of Southern Rock

In the early 1970s rock music was becoming compartmentalized. Punk rock, glam rock, and disco had all carved their niches while musicians such as Bruce Springsteen were attempting to return rock to its roots. The scene was ripe for the growth and development of Southern rock.

From the beginning of early rock and roll, there was an interest in combining the blues with boogie bass riffs. By the time the late 1960s arrived these boogie and blues explorations had added a heavy backbeat and jazzy jam sessions. Lyrics that showcased a strong pride in the Southern United States cemented the Southern rock style.

The Capricorn Records label gave the genre an official stamp of approval by signing the Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding, and eventually, the Marshall Tucker Band. Other groups such as the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd would also make their way to the label. While all these artists have quite unique, diverse sounds, they would influence each other and inspire new sonic experiments.

The Sound of MTB

The members of MTB preferred to describe their music as progressive country, a style gaining popularity in Nashville in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some characteristics of this style include:

  • The songwriting aspect moves to the fore and individual expression becomes more important than embracing current fads. 
  • Musical elements from genres such as gospel, psychedelic, and folk are incorporated.
  • Guitar solos take on the flashy quality of jazz and blues improvisatory licks.
  • Individual songs on an album may be eclectic and defy easy categorization although the album itself may be deemed Southern rock.

In addition, MTB never forgot the humble harmonies of its South Carolina roots. The band uses simple chords in interesting ways to create emotional soundscapes for their lyrics. For example, take a look at their hit song "Can't You See," written by band member Toy Caldwell. It uses just three chords, I, IV, and bVII. What's interesting is the opening move from the I to the bVII which is almost modal in feel. When that is followed by the IV, it hints at a tonic-dominant root movement without ever using the dominant chord in the entire song.

Another MTB hit, "Heard It in a Love Song," by Toy Caldwell, uses the I, iii, IV, and V chords. Even though the V is included here, it is marginalized. The verses only use the dominant briefly in the last line. The chorus employs a retrograde I, V, IV on the last two words of each line, which means that the subdominant chord occupies the place of prominence as the last chord heard.

Heavy reliance on the IV chord is more common in folk, bluegrass, and other roots music. MTB's propensity for these types of harmonic progressions is part of their unique sound. It contributes to the difficulty music critics have had over the years in attaching a label to the band.

The Sound of Two-Part Leads and Solos

Two-part leads have been a part of Southern rock ever since the Allman Brothers Band put two lead guitars out front. Learning double-lead solos is a fun and rewarding challenge. Before you play a solo with another guitarist, learn to play one by yourself. Here are some steps to help you get started:

  • Choose some high-quality sheet music you want to play. You can try Marshall Tucker band guitar tabs or any other band whose music you enjoy.
  • Listen to the solo you want to play until you have a good feel for its rhythm and pacing. 
  • Listen to the solo while following along with your guitar tabs sheet music. This will help you understand how what you hear relates to what you see.
  • Separate the solo into chunks. Learn each chunk separately and slowly.
  • Put the chunks together, adding just one at a time, still playing slowly.
  • When you can play the entire solo slowly, gradually increase the tempo. A metronome is helpful with this.

When you can play the solo securely at a good tempo, it's time to invite a friend to join you. The key to playing together is to listen to each other. A good two-part lead gives each player an opportunity to solo and an opportunity to harmonize.

The above steps refer to playing a two-lead solo that already exists. It's also rewarding to create your own solos through improvisation. First, you and your soloing partner need to know what key the song is in and what scale you will use for the improv. Typically the first and last chord of the song you are playing is the key of the song. If that doesn't work, you can always ask a knowledgeable friend.

Excellent improv scales for any key include the major scale, the blues scale, and the pentatonic scale. As always, experimentation will let you know which scale works best. Once you choose a scale, the rest is all listening and intuition. Remember these key concepts:

  • Listen to what is happening before and after the solo.
  • Think about what you want your solo to sound like before you play.
  • Don't play all the notes in the scale and leave spaces for rests.
  • Fewer ideas are better. Save some of your riffs for the next solo.

Discuss the above points with your solo partner and agree on what is most important for your double-lead solo and what the overall shape and sound should be.

Making music with a friend is one of the most satisfying activities you can do. May you enjoy digging into Southern rock and guitar solos as you progress toward your guitar-playing goals.