The Basics of Playing a Chord Melody on Guitar - 057
How Do You Play a Chord Melody?
Such a small question for such a big topic.
Today I’m going to take this question an break it down to the six essential areas that you need to know to be successful playing them. They are:
- What is a chord melody?
- In what style of music can you play a chord melody?
- Who are some guitar players who play chord melodies?
- What are the things you need to play a basic chord melody?
- Guitar based issues.
- Taking the next step.
What is a chord melody?
To me, I’ve never thought twice about what a chord melody was. I was taught that it was a way for a Jazz guitar player to play standards as a solo instrument.
You accomplished this by playing the melody and chords of a song in the same way that a pianist would play an instrumental song. You just keep the melody and harmony going as best you can.
Not wanting to assume that I have the whole picture on everything I bring to you, I make sure I do some research on the topic for each show. That way I try not to miss another interpretation, use, or what have you, on the same subject.
This was another one of those time where I was glad I did. I’ve found two different ways people think about chord melodies.
The first was, what I said before: an arrangement of a song in that a single instrument play the melody and the accompanying chords at the same time.
But, I’ve also found that some think of a chord melody as a way to play a melody where you harmonize each melody note with some sort of chord.
Maybe like in a band setting, instead of playing a single melody note at a time, you would play blocked chords for each one, and get creative with it (reminds me of the Dapper Dans, the barbershop quartet that you see walking down main street at the magic kingdom.
Every note is four part harmony). I have always thought of this harmonized technique as a Chord Solo. That title seems more appropriate to me, but hey… what do I know.
So, from here forward, just to be clear, I’m going over the things you need to play the melody and chords of a song at the same time (not necessarily harmonizing every note of the melody) But, if that is a technique that you would like to use, this will also give you the tools you need to make that happen.
The Difference Between Chord Melody and Fingerstyle
Another very similar technique that gets confused with Chord Melody is fingerstyle guitar. Fingerstyle guitar can also have the melody and chords (and other inner movement of melodic lines) playing at the same time, but it doesn’t have to. I could be used to back up singers or other instruments. It is defined by the picking technique using all fingers, or a thumb pick and fingers.
Generally you would hear fingerstyle playing in country, folk, blues and even bluegrass styles.
As with most techniques that cross styles of music, the lines between these two styles get blurred all of the time.
In What Style of Music Can You Play a Chord Melody?
A chord melody is geared for jazz guitar, but the process works for really any song with a structured melody and chords. Some think it is meant to simulate classical guitar pieces and I think that is accurate.
You can hear chord melodies of Standard tunes, Pop songs, country songs, Christmas songs, even blues and rock songs.
You will also hear this style of guitar in a duo setting, like fingerstyle, although in this case it would be called accompaniment instead of a chord melody.
Whether it is backing up a vocalist, another guitarist, or another instrument, The idea of orchestrating for the guitar is similar, even if the melody is played by another instrument.
Who Are Some Guitar Players Who Play Chord Melodies?
In Jazz there are many excellent chord melody players that, if you are interested in that style, are worth your time to investigate.
Try taking a listen to Joe Pass, George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jimmy Bruno, Howard Alden.
Fingerstyle players to listen to are: Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Leo Kotke, Michael Hedges, Jon Gomm and Phil Keaggy and Doc Watson.
Both: Martin taylor, Lenny Breau, Tuck Andress (Tuck and Patti)
What are the things you need to play a basic chord melody?
So you have decided on a song that you want to be able to play as a Chord Melody. Where do you start? Well the obvious big two to learn are chords and melody. We are going to learn both and combine them.
I have started with the chords first, and also started with the melody line first. Both eventually worked out in the end, but I think the easiest way to start would be with the melody.
If you find tablature or can read music and get a chart for the song, this can save you a lot of time, but it’s not completely necessary. Learning by ear is actually better for you in the long run.
But, a lot of Jazz players use something called the real book. It’s a collection of standard Jazz songs written in lead sheet form: that is the melody of the tune is written on one staff, and the chord symbols are just written over top of the melody right at the measure or beat where they change.
So, learning the melody first is good but you need to do it in a way that anticipates the chord changes to come. This boils down to usually using the High E and B strings for the melody. More on this later in the next section.
Next, let’s talk about the chords. First, we need a chord progression. In fact we need the chord structure of the whole song. This isn’t just a guitar solo where we figure out the key and scale and start wailing. We need the whole song.
This basic chord structure is important. In fact the more basic the better. When learning a song for the first time, getting the original most basic chords can be tough, because a lot of performers like to use something called chord substitutions.
Chord substitutions are liberties that players take to enhance the harmony of the song. There are different ways to replace certain chords that create really cool sounds.
And when you are trying to learn a tune, especially as a beginner, these can become pretty complicated. So it is always better in the beginning to find the easiest most basic chord progressions first (this is also great for lead playing as well). These most basic chord changes are sometimes called the “Vanilla Chord Changes”.
There is a very good resource to find these “vanilla” changes online. It’s called the “vanilla book” at http://www.ralphpatt.com/Song.html
This is a collection of standards with just the most basic chord changes. A good place to start getting your chords figured out. If you are learning a song in another style, just listen to a lot of versions of the song, and find the one with the most basic chord structure to learn from.
Once you have the basic chords down, you can always enhance them with substitutions as you progress as a player.
At this point you would start combining the two together. Not as easy as it sounds. Getting the melody to fit perfectly with the chords can be tough on the guitar because of the way the guitar is laid out. In the next section I’ll go over this and some best practices on how to combine the melody and chords.
But before I tackle that, I want to bring up the glue that is going to tie all of this together: the rhythm.
Getting the rhythm together for a chord melody, to me, is a lot of fun. The sky’s the limit. You’re not limited to a certain rhythm because of other players. You are the other players. Your rhythmic choices can follow the original song, or try something new and different to make the song unique.
At first, try to play these in as easy a rhythm as possible. Usually that is letting the chords ring while the melody is being played over top. Just to get a feel of the changes and letting the melody dictate the overall rhythm.
But another technique that is used a lot is to offset the rhythm of the melody and the chords. You hear this a lot by a quick stab of the chord in the beginning of a measure, then hearing the melody after. Kind of a one after the other thing. This can help separate the two different worlds and give you more focus until you are more familiar with your new song.
As you get more familiar with the song, you can go crazy and create something very fun and very different.
Let’s start with the most basic and move forward from there.
Using the pick is the most basic but may not always be the best choice for a chord melody. The habit of strumming chords can overshadow the melody. With the melody being the most important part of the song, it’s always a good idea to be supportive of it with your rhythm and picking choices. Careful use of the pick can be great though, especially if you are going for a sharp attack.
A great alternative to this, which has a great range of tones, is hybrid style. This is using a pick and the other fingers of your picking hand. Usually the thumb and first finger are occupied with holding the pick, but your middle, ring, and pinky are free to pluck out chord notes or melody notes with a softer tone, leaving the pick for a sharper tone choices. The range of this technique is great, and one I love to play.
The last way you can approach a chord melody is fingerstyle. Using your fingers to independently play melody, chords, inside lines, and bass notes can range from very basic to very complex quickly. So much you can do with this technique. In fact, the more that you use this technique, your song could move from chord melody to a “fingerstyle” style.
Guitar based issues.
Ok, so those are the basics, let’s talk about the real issues that you are going to run into if you try to play something like this.
As you probably know by now, the way that the guitar is setup is great. The way the strings overlap can allow us to play chords with a very wide distance between all of the notes.
If you tried to play a guitar chord note for note on the piano, you would have a very wide voicing. That’s part of what gives the guitar it’s distinct sound.
But, the way that the guitar is setup isn’t the easiest way to visualize all of the notes. In fact, depending on what area of the fretboard you are on, you may or may not be able to fit in all of the notes of a chord.
Working within the limitations of the guitar is needed when playing chord melodies. There may be chord voicings that you can’t get in a certain area where your melody note is.
Less is definitely more for guitar in this instance. Being able to understand the notes in your chords and their function will go far here. Knowing when you can leave out the fifth or even the root of the chord can free up strings to create the perfect chord in complement to the current melody note.
Bass notes can be particularly tricky in chord melodies. And running bass lines while comping chords and playing melody notes is a skill that takes a while to develop.
Finding the best place to play the melody, chords, and bass can lead you into places of the guitar that you may not be familiar or comfortable playing. To me, that is a great thing.
Having a reason to get out of your comfort zone, and associate it with a song, may just be the thing that helps you grow and gain progress on the fretboard.
Taking the next step.
Now that you have got the basic melody, the vanilla chords, a simple rhythm, and maybe even a simple bass line going, it’s a song. But it may not be the way you would like it to sound. Let’s take this firm foundation and make something out of it.
There are a lot of things you can do to dress up a chord melody.
The one that most guitarists run to first is some sort of fills or embellishment to get our scale patterns involved. Playing between the chords and melody to create interest usually sounds very nice.
It adds a whole other layer to the song, but it also adds a whole lot to your plate. Mapping out the chord progressions and key changes, and then practicing your improv over these progressions can get you started with this.
It’s not just tough to play over these chords, but when you are trying to think of the basics of the song and add fills, you have to be prepared. There is only so much that the mind can do on the spot. Having these lines second nature ahead of time will give wonderful results when you are playing your chord melody.
Adding a solo section can give a great break from the melody and the added benefit of lengthening your songs. The most common way of dealing with this is similar to the offset melody I talked about before.
Hitting the chord on the strong beat and single line improv until the next chord. This can be varied a lot by going for a while without playing the chord changes but outlining the arpeggios in your lines.
This is a great way to start and very easy to practice, no background track needed. It’s also great for developing your ear.
Harmonizing melody notes. Taking the idea of a chord solo, sometimes a nice harmonized line is just what a melody needs to keep the interest.
Whether you stay with the inside chord notes at the time, or choose to use some tension with outside sounds, this technique works very well, especially over longer sustained chords.
Substitute chords can really add life to the harmony of a chord progression. I spoke a bit earlier about players replacing the cords.
One of the most popular ways of substituting chords is called a tritone substitution. This works over dominant 7th chords. You can replace a dominant 7th chord with another dominant 7th chord that’s root is a tritone (interval of a b5) away. This works superbly over the jazz major 2-5-1 chord progression. For example:
In the key of C major the
- ii chord is Dmin,
- V chord is G7
- I chord is C maj 7.
Buy replacing the V chord with its tritone sub. – Db7, you get a new progression: ii bII7 I or dmin – Db7 – C major
Very cool sound and it creates a very nice downward halfstep bass line. The melody works perfectly over the new chord progressions with a nice new complex harmony.
Intro and outros are fun and open to interpretation. You can do anything from a short improv over the common chords of the song, start with the turnaround of the chord progressions, a free time cadenza at the end of the song (or why not a free time solo at the beginning),, end with a slowed down tempo.
Counterpoint in chord melodies. This is to me the place where Chord melodies make the transition to Fingerstyle guitar. Where you have other melodies going on around or at the same time as the main melody.
This is something that starts to get a little more advanced for this chord melody basics post, but I have a wonderful video of Martin Taylor linked in the show notes that demonstrates how chord melodies transition into counterpoint fingerstyle guitar.
That is my basic overview of what to expect and some best practices when starting to learn chord melodies. I also showed how closely related chord melodies and fingerstyle are and where they could slip back and forth between each other. I’d like to spend a minute to talk about fingerstyle as well.
Fingerstyle guitar is generally started by beginners a bit differently. It mainly focuses on getting your picking fingers together, specifically your thumb (p). You would gain independence with exercises for all of your fingers, thumb, index(i) middle (m), ring (a).
Next, you would have exercises to use these fingers to pluck individual notes from the arpeggios of chords. Then to thumb boom-chic patterns, rolls, and travis picking over chords.
And then on to single notes. Getting this technique down first gives makes life a whole lot easier when you are ready to use it with your favorite songs.
I hope you enjoyed this basic primer on Chord Melodies and their difference from fingerstyle guitar. I love playing this style, and I don’t do it enough. I’m pretty excited to start to add more of this to my practice routine.
Today I presented:
- What a chord melody is.
- The difference between Chord Melody and Fingerstyle
- What styles of music you can play a chord melody.
- Some players to listen to who play chord melodies.
- The things you need to play a basic chord melody.
- Guitar based issues.
- Taking the next step.
- Quick fingerstyle basics.
Have you ever played chord melodies, fingerstyle, or both? Were you able to pull it off or were there certain things about them that tripped you up? We would all love to know about your experience. Let us know below in the comments
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