Tuesday, August 28, 2007



Chord melody is not only a great way for a guitarist to present a melody in a solo or guitar trio (guitar with bass and drums) setting, it's also a great way for the guitarist to learn a tune. essentially, you're playing much as a pianist might present the melody-- with a melody line and chords underneath. this helps the guitarist to see the relationship between the chords and the melody line.
Learning chord melody can be very confusing and challenging. here are the basic steps-- much like taking an advanced college class, there are prerequisites. you must know the melody and chord changes before you start. TIP-- if you are reading the melody from a fakebook, it's probably written in standard notation. for guitarists, this means you probably need to put the melody up an octave, because guitar music is actually written an octave higher than it sounds. for the purposes of chord melody, there's a practical reason for this--- you usually can't fit the chords under the melody line unless you're playing it in the higher register. this usually means the melody should mostly be on the higher strings. (if your melody has a wide range from its lowest to highest note, you may have to transpose to a higher key, but i'll give some suggestions later for other ways to deal with this. )

once you can play your melody in the high register, you have to start finding chord voicings that have the melody notes in their top voice. when i first started learning to do this, i would literally sit with a chord book and a fakebook in front of me and struggle through the process. chord melody, like a lot of other artistic methods, walks a fine line between creativity and problem solving. i recommend beginning in problem solving mode, and letting the creativity happen on its own. the trick is to know when to put a chord under a melody note, and when to play part of the melody as a single note line. the difficulty of playing every note with a chord under it, especially if the melody moves fast, will usually encourage you to avoid harmonizing every note. it's unwise to think of rules for this, but here are a few guidelines I use.


if you have a lot of notes over one chord, and the notes are moving stepwise (one or two frets at a time) , try to alternate single notes and chords, or even just voice the chord once and have the rest be single notes. if you play the same chord over and over with a melody, it can sound cluttered. (the listener will keep hearing the chord-- you don't have to keep hitting it every time the melody note changes.)

basically, if you bring in a chord every time the chords change, then you can have some single notes by themselves. if the melody is moving vertically (typically this means it's a series of chord tones and extensions), it can sound good to have a chord on each note.


it helps to know a little theory, so you can look at music and figure out how the melody note relates to the chord. with no theory knowledge at all, i'd suggest learning arrangements like the one below for a while, and see what you can learn that way. theory really does make it a lot easier, though! (in general, if you are interested in learning jazz and you're looking for ways to avoid working hard, you're probably on the wrong track. while it is true that you can waste a lot of time on the wrong stuff while trying to learn about jazz, no matter what you do it's going to be a lot of work. learning some basic chord theory is work in the short term, but makes your life easier later. ) essentially, what you're trying to do is find a chord voicing that includes the melody note on top. the melody note may be a basic chord tone (root, third, fifth, or seventh) , in which case a plain seventh chord can work fine. the melody note may be an extension (ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth), meaning your chord will be a bit more complicated. in some cases, the melody note may be an altered tone (flat or sharp five, flat or sharp nine). in these situations, especially if you're playing an old jazz standard from the fifties or earlier, this point in the arrangement will probably have a dramatic and/or poignant quality that stands out from the rest of the song.
if you want to learn more about jazz chord voicings, extensions, etc. i recommend the book "Chord Chemistry" by the great Ted Greene. this book is very daunting when you first dip into it, but i've never seen a book that explains jazz harmony better. it is different from many "chord encyclopedia" type books. those books often list a whole bunch of chords with a C root, then a whole bunch of chords with a Db root, and so on. these books are thick, usually because under each root they are listing the same chords again, on a different fret. in the short term, it may be easier to use this kind of book than Ted Greene's-- Greene gives you all the chords with one or two different roots, and shows you how to transpose them to the other roots. this is more work for you up front, but again it makes your life easier later. another great resource for chord knowledge is Don Mock, who has books and videos talking about chord voicings and substitutions.

(Ted Greene has a website with some downloadable lessons-- http://www.tedgreene.com )


making this arrangement, i ran into the usual problems. for the first part of the melody, i have a few eighth notes alone, then a chord. the second phrase is similar, so i did it the same way. for the first eight bars, you have variations on the first phrase, and it sounds good to harmonize it all like this-- a few notes, then a chord. the Ebm9 is held for a bar, because the melody doesn't move. in bar 7, your melody note is a Bb on the D string. this is pretty low, and there isn't room for much of a chord under it, so i just put a fifth there (double stop). i follow this with a larger voicing which brings my melody up to the B string. i then added a little motion in the top voice to spice up a bland chord progression that otherwise had no melody in it.

if you've made it this far, you've probably noticed that chord melody can involve awkward jumps around the neck. this is just the nature of the guitar. TIP-- to make all of this slightly less difficult, i use this general rule-- when i'm moving from single note melody into a chord, and the top voice of the chord is on the same string as the last melody note, i use the same finger to play the melody note as i'm going to use on that string for the chord. this sometimes feels awkward at first, but ultimately makes the transitions from melody to chord smoother.

the next eight bars is mostly either melody moving vertically, where you just move from one chord voicing to another without single notes, or the occasional single note leading you back into a chord.

the third eight bars is more or less like the first, although i made a slight change to the motion in the top voice where the Gm goes to Fm and then Eb--- this was just to keep it fresh. from here, it's more examples of the same principles i've discussed above.


  1. Thank you for this arrangement. Love the tune and the arrangement has really helped me learn a lot.

    I am returning to guitar after decades, playing jazz and chord melody, which I never did before. This arrangement seemed really difficult and didn't make sense at first, but I have persisted with it. I had no idea how to form some of the chords with my left hand.

    Now I understand it better, the fingerings do make sense and it will help me with other pieces.

    Thanks again. Howard

  2. You're very welcome, Howard, and I'm glad it's helping you.

    chord melody seems pretty daunting at first, but it does get easier if you keep at it. I'm still learning about it myself, that's for sure.

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