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Simple Guitar Accompaniment for Native American Flute
Standard Guitar Tuning

Mark McGourley leading a flute/guitar workshop

Mark McGourley (on flute) leading a flute/guitar workshop
with his brother Michael McGourley on guitar at the
Green Frog Moon Festival 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Photo: Wildflowre Photography, Tammy Adams. Larger image

Guitar and Native American flute make a great combination. However, being a flute player, I've never thought of using that guitar that's been knocking around in the back of my closet.

In November 2011, Mark McGourley (www.MarkMcGourley.com) led a workshop at the Native Rhythms Festival that demonstrated just how easy it is to play guitar accompaniment to flute. In a few minutes, he taught us how to use one-finger chords on the guitar and had us jamming with flutes in any key … and it sounded great!

This page is based on Mark's approach and was developed with his assistance and feedback. The approach lays out a way to strum simple guitar chords to accompany flute players. It begins with some “one-finger chords” and progresses to some more interesting chord combinations using two and then three fingers. Mark mentioned to me that in the future he hopes to develop a full program for playing guitar accompaniments to the Native American flute.

Some things to remember:

  • The first time you play guitar, you'll probably experience tenderness in your finger tips. It's best to play guitar for a (very) few minutes each day for a few days to see how your finger tips react.

The Guitar

Kyser 6 String Trigger Style Capo

Kyser 6 String Capo Larger image

You can use almost any guitar to accompany flutes. Maybe it's been sitting in your closet or garage, or maybe it's a tag sale cheepie. Regardless, you certainly don't need anything special to get started with this approach.

If you've never played guitar, it can be easier to start with a nylon-string guitar (typically with three nylon strings and three "wound steel" strings). A steel-string guitar works great, but it will be tougher on your finger tips for the first few days.

To play with many key flutes, you will need a capo if you use this approach. Mark McGourley suggested one of the “quick-release” style of capos such as the design shown on the right, a Kyser 6 String Capo (typically available for under $20). This design is also called a “trigger-style” capo.

You will also need a pick. When you begin learning to strum the strings of the guitar, it might be easier to use a very soft pick, and then progress to harder picks as you gain experience.


Tuning

Korg CA-1 Chromatic Tuner

Korg CA-1 Chromatic Tuner Larger image

Your first job is to tune the strings of the guitar. Of course, the easiest way is to ask an experienced guitar player to tune it. But eventually, you'll need to learn to tune it yourself.

You can purchase a specific electronic guitar tuner that makes the tuning process easy. They give you a display that lets you tune visually and can also be used for other instruments (even for checking flute tunings). Mark uses the Korg CA-1 chromatic tuner shown at the right … typically available for under $20.

Alternately, you can use one of the web sites that help with guitar tuning. This might be a bit more challanging, but has the benefit of improving your ear training and pitch matching.

There are a lot of web sites that can help in this area … here are some recommended ones:

For reference, here are the notes that you will be tuning each of the string:

Standard tuning for the guitar

Finger Charts

This description uses finger charts that demonstrate where to place your fingers on the strings to get certain chords. The diagrams correspond to the fingerboard on the neck of the guitar:

Parts of the guitar fingerboard

Here are the parts:

  • The Nut. Near the top of the neck, the "nut" is the place where the strings are braced before they go up to the tuning pegs. This is shown on the finger charts as a thicker line at the top of the chord.
  • The Strings. You might need to replace your strings.
  • The Frets. Even though the finger charts show placing your fingers between the frets on the neck of the guitar, it's usually best to place your finger just *behind* the fret - you don't have to press your finger down as hard to get a clean note.

Here is a finger chart that shows all the elements. It shows a D chord that uses three fingers. Note that we will be starting with chords that are *much* simpler and easier to play. This diagram is only for demo purposes:

Demonstration of a finger chart

  • The finger chart finger indication, finger chart finger indication, and finger chart finger indication blue dots show where to place your fingers.
  • The open string indication at the top of some of the six strings indicate that the string is played “open” — you strum the string with your pick, but no finger is needed on the string.
  • The silent string indication indicate strings that are not played (“muted”). Try to avoid these strings when strumming the chord.

One-Finger Chords

The easiest way to get started is to play guitar with an E minor Native American flute. You can play two simple one-finger chords, alternating back and forth between them. This style of guitar chord strumming is called a “two-chord vamp”. Here are the two chords:

E star finger chart   A star finger chart

You're using your index finger to hold down the second lowest string and the third lowest string, just behind the second fret. It should sound something like this (and please remember, I'm a novice guitar player …):

Guitar &mdash E* and A*

Clint Goss.

You can try playing along with the recording above on an E minor flute, or listen to my improvisation over the same guitar part:

Duet — E* and A*

Clint Goss. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins

Another good one-finger combination is these two chords:

E star finger chart   D star finger chart

Here are two recordings of this second two-chord vamp, without and then with an E minor flute:

Guitar — E* and D*

Clint Goss.

Duet — E* and D*

Clint Goss. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins

Changing Key

Mark McGourley leading a flute/guitar workshop

Mark McGourley with brother Michael.
Note the use of the capo.
Photo: Wildflowre Photography. Tammy Adams. Larger image

Changing keys on a guitar is a breeze. Just place the capo on any of the fret positions of the neck of the guitar and you've moved to a new key. Use the same finger positions that you used with no capo (think of the capo as the new position of the nut), and you're playing the same chord vamp in a new key.

For example, if you're accompanying an F# minor flute, place the capo between the first and second fret. Physically, it looks like this on the neck of the guitar:

Capo behind the Second fret    F# star finger chart

This is called “Capo 2” (i.e. the capo is placed behind the second fret), and is sometimes shown on finger charts like this:

F# star finger chart

So now we have the same chords from above, shifted up for an F# minor Native American flute:

F# star finger chart   B star finger chart

Here are two recordings (solo guitar and duet) in F# minor:

Guitar — F#* and B*

Clint Goss.

Duet — F#* and B*

Clint Goss. F# minor flute of Alaskan Yellow Cedar by Colyn Petersen. F# minor flute of Alaskan Yellow Cedar by Colyn Petersen

You can use this approach for any key. You might find that the keys at the bottom of this table (i.e. the higher keys) make the guitar sound quite a bit higher than it's normal range, but they should work musically:

Key of Flute Capo Position
E minorNo capo
F minorCapo 1
F# minor
Gb minor
Capo 2
G minor Capo 3
G# minor
Ab minor
Capo 4
A minor Capo 5
A# minor
Bb minor
Capo 6
B minor Capo 7
C minor Capo 8
C# minor
Db minor
Capo 9
D minor Capo 10
D# minor
Eb minor
Capo 11

Two-Finger Chords

Using two fingers improves the sound of the chords we've been using. Try these chords, using the same capo strategy described above to transpose the guitar to the key of the flute.

E minor finger chart   A9 finger chart   D9 finger chart

Notice that these chords are shown with finger chart finger indication and finger chart finger indication, the middle and ring fingers. These fingerings can make it easier later on with the more complex chords, but if you're just starting out on the guitar, you might prefer to use finger chart finger indication and finger chart finger indication and switch to the fingerings shown above when you get more experience. 

Here's some recordings using these chords:

Guitar — Two Finger Chords in E minor

Clint Goss.

Duet — Two Finger Chords in E minor

Clint Goss. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins

For reference, I'm using the chord progression [Em Em A9 D9], but you can use any progression that you like.

Remember that the same trick (described above) of using the capo can be used with these chords to accompany flutes in any key.

Three-Finger Chords

Using three fingers opens up a lot more chord possibilities. Try these chords, using the same capo strategy described above to transpose the guitar to the key of the flute.

E minor finger chart   Am finger chart   D finger chart   G finger chart   C finger chart

Here are some nice combinations of those chords:

Guitar — Three Finger Chords in E minor

Clint Goss.

Duet — Three Finger Chords in E minor

Clint Goss. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins. E minor flute of Spalted Maple by Barry Higgins

For reference, I'm using the chord progression [G Em Am D], but you can use any progression that you like. (And again, don't forget that you can use a capo with these chords.)

 
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