If you are unfamiliar with what a chord melody is you can review the previous post about it here.
We have a good song picked out, and we have learned the melody on the top 4 strings of the guitar. You may be wondering what the next step is. The next step is what we call harmonizing the melody. This implies we will add more notes under the melody note of choice. Another word for harmonizing is called “Adding Chord”. This is where specific techniques come in for chord melody playing.
Before we jump right into playing music with lots of thick chords under the melody, I want to mention that the melody is the foundation for chord melody playing. We do not need to add harmony (or chords) to every melody note. Actually the opposite can be true. Sometimes it is better to not play any harmony on a melody note. You can think of chords as embellishments. Let me give you an example of what a chord melody is like. If you go to a burger joint and ask for a hamburger. They bring one out and you can go to the bar where they have all the condiments put out for you to choose which extra flavors you want to eat with your meat. If you decide to leave off the pickles, is it still a hamburger? If you take off the bread is it still a hamburger? Yes! If you take the meat away, but have all the bread, pickles, ketchup and onions on it, is it a hamburger? No, how do you know it’s not a chicken sandwich? A chord melody is very similar. The melody is the meat and everything else just adds flavor.
Suggestions on when to leave the melody plain:
1) Fast melody passages.
2) Whenever you want that particular effect
So let’s take a melody note of choice and put harmony to it. There many ways to do this. In this lesson we will cover the 2 most basic approaches to chord melody. The first approach is to harmonize the melody note by adding a third below the melody note. The second approach is to play the given chord in the tune and add the melody note to that.
This is the easiest approach to learning to play chord melody. This approach makes it easy to sight-read a melody and to add harmony to it. How we do this is take the key center that the melody note is in. In the same scale, add a third lower to the melody note. In other words, skip a note in the scale and there is the note you need to add below the melody note.
It is a good idea to practice playing scales with the third below. These 2 notes together give the sound of a chord, and it will make your harmonizing faster to practice scales like this. When you come across a note in a melody you will already know which harmonized note goes with it.
1) Accidentals should be harmonized with a note in the diatonic key. So find a third below that is in the key. Accidentals don’t mean you can play anything.
2) Jazz tunes often change key centers for part of the song. When this happens the scale you harmonize with will change.
Approach 2 is a little different. This approach is centered around the chords of the original tune rather than the melody. How you go about doing this is you play the chords of the song and figure out how the melody can fit into it. You will need to build a good chord vocabulary for this. For convenience you will need to know how to add all the extensions on to chords, including altered note (Notes not in the scale). You will also want to know these chords in multiple areas of the fret board. When you come across a melody note you will ask yourself what chord tone it is, then play that chord with that note in the highest part of the chord.
Warning: This approach by itself can be limiting and can take a lot of practice. It is a valid approach that many people use, but it will require a lot of chord shapes under your fingers. You may not want to use the same chord shape multiple times, which means you will need variations of the same chord as well.
Eventually you will combine these 2 techniques and have many options to make a great chord melody. There are many ways that one can expand upon these and make them more interesting. There are also other valid approaches to playing chord melodies. Check back for up coming lessons on chord melodies.