The History of Dual Guitar Harmonies In 14 Songs

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

The screaming vibrato and endless sustain you get from two electric guitars playing a harmonized lead out of a cranked stack of Marshalls — does it get any more rock and roll?

Just imagine what it would be like to hear that in person for the first time. Those howling harmonized leads must have struck fear into the hearts of nonbelievers in the '70s, just like the first massive pipe organs did way back in the 1700s.

The sound is not easily forgotten, and the way it has been deployed over the decades has evolved in lockstep with rock music itself.

Below, we’ll break down the history of dual guitar harmonies (not duel, mind you) through the lens of 14 iconic pieces. Of course, these examples represent a tiny percentage of the countless instances we could have included. If you have a favorite dual guitar harmony songs we left out, let us know in the comments.

The Birth of the Dual Lead Guitarist

Early dual guitarists were equal parts inspired by hillbilly and bluegrass music's dueling fiddles and pedal steel guitars (among other dueling instruments), and modern orchestral sections and their arrangements in modern big band and jazz groups.

Inspired by innovators like Charlie Christian and Bob Wills, The Texas Playboys combined country and folk music with jazz and swing in the early 1940s, drawing heavily from both to create a twangier (and often faster) new sound called Texas Western Swing.

Their guitarist, Eldon Shamblin, and steel guitarist, Leon McAuliffe, laid down what is arguably the first recording of dual electric lead guitars playing in harmony together on Bob Wills's track, "Twin Guitar Special."

The 1950s would be a fertile time for twin guitar harmonies and the dual guitarists who would love them with major improvements being made in electric guitar construction and amplification.

Somewhere in between the Texas Western Swing of Bob Wills, the early bluegrass of The Foggy Mountain Boys, and the lead jazz guitar of Charlie Christian, you'll find two of the greatest dual guitar showmen in twin guitar history: pedal steel guitarist Speedy West and electric guitarist Jimmy Bryant.

Combining high speed country and jazz licks in a multitude of harmonies, the pair would even go so far as to create watery sound effects, birds flying, and other noises with their instruments.

Dual Guitar Harmonies Catch Fire

Legendary rockabilly idol Eddie Cochran experimented with multitrack recordings in the late ‘50s. Using the multi-speed abilities of the new tape machines to re-pitch his singing and playing, Cochran could jam with himself much like Les Paul had done a few years before. A song like "Meet Mr. Tweedy" largely foreshadowed the interplay and arrangement of twin harmony guitar arrangements.

Simultaneously, what would come to be known as "surf rock" was becoming mainstream. Its sound hinged on the interplay between two lead guitarists and the newer Fender guitar and amplifiers.

Bands like The Ventures, The Tornadoes, and The Shadows combined exotic harmonies with advanced guitar heroics in their songs, which often involved some very sick dual guitar work.

While most of their lead playing would be in unison, The Ventures in particular explored some great dual guitar theory. Their flashy playing and unique tones would prove unforgettable to musicians growing up in that era.

Buck Owens and his Buckaroos were at the forefront of country music by the early 1960s, and their blend of honky tonk and guitar virtuosity was blowing minds and lighting up the charts. Don Rich and Buck Owen's singular blend of country and early rock and roll played on their twangy Fender Telecasters would ultimately bring them to explore the potential for dual lead guitar much like their earlier country counterparts had.

Taking the sound of Buck Owens more seriously than your average rock and pop group in the USA, The Beatles were early hardcore fans. They even covered his song, “Act Naturally.” Their guitar tone and playing owes much to The Buckaroos twangy country style, and it's easy to see how they were inspired by the fast, stinging tone and perfect harmonies.

By the mid-‘60s, The Beatles were dominating the guitar-based music scene not just because of their simple presence, but because of their complex and skillful playing. The Beatles dabbled in dual guitar harmonies with George Harrison and Paul McCartney's octave-voiced lead guitar lines in "The Night Before."

In "And Your Bird Can Sing” from their 1966 album Revolver, their dual harmony guitar tour de force was released on an unsuspecting world and has remained a touchstone for dual lead worshippers since.

The Twin Guitar Gods

Taking an even louder and bluesier approach than The Beatles, The Yardbirds had become a heavy duty twin guitar band by 1966 thanks to Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Playing together for just a few brief years, the duo rewrote the book on what it meant to be “heavy.”

A very wild performance of "Stroll On" by this version of the group appears in the movie "The Blow Up" and features some prototypical punk aggressiveness from a young Jeff Beck.

The popularity of the twin harmony guitar then found its way back to where it originated in the first place – the American South. Southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers further innovated the style, skyrocketing its popularity with their hits.

On the West Coast, bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service continued to experiment with the potential for twin guitar activities. These bands took the dual guitar approach to wild new places, albeit without much in the way of dual harmony guitar playing.

Meanwhile, in England, Wishbone Ash streamlined the Allman's hexatonic approach and took it into new melodic territory. Wishbone Ash would be the band that pioneered the sound of the parallel harmonized guitars that we're familiar with today.

Queen (which only featured one guitarist) was also instrumental in exploring the potential for harmonized lead guitar work. Guitarist Brian May's heavy but seemingly effortless guitar playing would influence many legendary lead guitar duos and directly inspired the leads of the fledgling heavy metal scene.

Similarly, though Alice Cooper is better known for his shock rock stage persona and horror movie aesthetic, his original band – the Alice Cooper Band – were pioneers in dual lead guitar playing. Their two guitarists, Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, incorporated jazzy harmonized guitar riffs and leads into their most famous recordings, adding even more depth and potential to the dual lead setup.

One band that must have been aware of Wishbone Ash and the Alice Cooper Band's approach to dual harmonies was Thin Lizzy who delivered and even more melodic and aggressive sound. With origins as a power trio, their recording of dual guitar harmonies on their famous version of "Whiskey in the Jar" catapulted the twin guitar harmony to the top of the charts. And, after the addition of new guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, their next big hit, "The Boys Are Back in Town," cemented their position as rock radio superstars.

With their song "Roisin Dubh," main man Phil Lynott's Irish heritage served as an inspiration and melodic center for some of the most searing and intricate dual guitar work of their discography.

Twin Harmonies Turn Metallic

By the mid-1970s, heavy metal and hard rock were the main proving grounds for the twin guitar attack with each band trying to outdo the other in terms of speed and prowess. Bands like Judas Priest, Scorpions, Vixen and Iron Maiden took twin lead guitar format, injected it with aggression and speed, and turned it into a new art form.

No doubt, what began in the 1950s as somewhat of a gimmick, dual guitar showmanship became a "must have" sound in any serious rock and roll band by 1980. Dual leads were no longer confined to solos or melodic sections – they could be the main rhythm and driving force of a song. The faster the playing and the more extreme the harmonies, the more the audiences went wild.

American heavy metal bands like Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica, and Phantom Blue continued to utilize dual guitar harmony, making it even more bombastic and brutal as time went on. Dual guitar harmonies became a standard sound in heavy metal around the world with speed metal and virtuosic metal challenging the limits of what individual humans could wring out of their guitars.

By the mid-'80s, however, the sound of the dual lead guitar not only signified heavy music, but was starting to become something of a cliché. Harmonized guitars were seemingly everywhere – even in mainstream pop music masterpieces like "Mr. Fantasy" by Aldo Nova.

The Future of Harmonized Guitar Leads

The sound of the dual lead guitar or twin lead guitarist is not something you hear much about (outside of death metal or metalcore bands) these last 25 years or so.

It's arguable that in the last ten years of the twin lead's popularity it was largely used as a convention and become cartoonish in its execution. Twin guitar leads had jumped the shark, finding a place only in cheesy hair metal and lightweight pop. And while pioneering heavy metal bands expanded their style and continued to use and tweak the dual lead guitarists' approach and sound, its sonic effect changed very little.

So is the dual lead played out? Perhaps not.

Loose Fur – studio project by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glen Kotche with producer, solo artist, and sideman to Wilco and Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke – released an album called Born Again in the USA in 2006 that features dual lead guitar playing. You can also hear some dual lead parts on Wilco songs of that era such as "Impossible Germany" from Sky Blue Sky.

Additionally, on a few tracks from Sound & Color – the album by Alabama Shakes released last year – guitarist Brittany Howard employs a dual lead guitar model.

Both of these non-metal-related dual lead guitar examples are modern, surprising, and exceptional. They demonstrate that, although seemingly dormant after the metal heyday of the ‘80s, dual guitar lead playing still has a solid place in modern music of all genres.

So how do you feel about the dual lead guitar? Can the dual lead guitar find its place in music again? What are your favorite examples? Let us know what you think in the comments.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.