From the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Ruby
You want to learn chord-melody-style playing but aren’t quite sure where to begin.
Invest a little bit of time learning the inversions for a dominant-seventh chord, and the classic jazz standard “Whispering” should fall right under your fingers.
EXPLORE THE ROOTS OF CHORD-MELODY
From roughly the 1920s through the 1940s, guitarists made their bread in rhythm sections. Wrapped around archtops, they strummed steady quarter notes, propelling dancers across the floor and providing percussive harmony for the band. Occasionally, a bandleader would give a guitarist a solo. Single notes on an acoustic guitar, even a large archtop, would sound small and nearly inaudible against a full horn section. So the guitarist would play chords on the higher strings and with varied rhythms. While the result sounded complex, the approach was simple. With the highest note of the chord as the melody—voilà!—one could play accompaniment and lead simultaneously.
This type of chordal soloing made it necessary for guitarists to use the entire length of the fretboard, as the notes on the top strings provided both greater projection and range in big-band settings. So that you can get a sense of these harmonies, Example 1 shows how to voice a three-note G chord with the highest note moving from the root to the third to the fifth, while Example 2 demonstrates a chord-melody snippet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” using two of the shapes.
TRY SOME CHORD INVERSIONS
Knowing inversions is essential to understanding chord-melody, as it assures that you will have an appropriate voicing to place below the melody. An inversion is simply rearranging the order of the notes of the chord to make a new top (melody) note. This will give you a voicing for the root, third, fifth, or seventh as the melody note. Four inversions of a G7 chord are shown in Example 3.
If a melody note is not a member of the chord, you must add it to the voicing. Since G7 is the V chord in the key of C major, you can use the notes from the C major scale (C D E F G A B) to create a G7 chord/scale (Example 4). This allows you to find the other diatonic melody notes for a dominant seventh chord. In a future lesson, I’ll walk you through the process of creating an inversion for any chord.
PLAY A JAZZ STANDARD
“Whispering” (Example 5) has been recorded by everyone from Les Paul to Louis Armstrong. My particular favorite is a solo guitar version by Oscar Alemán. This arrangement can be played either with a pick or fingerstyle. Start with the familiar F chord in the first position (F on string 4, fret 3; A on string 3, fret 2; C on string 2, fret 1; and F on string 1, fret 1). Move this shape to the eighth fret, where it becomes a C triad (C E G). In bar 1, the triad follows the melody to harmonize the melody. However, in the next measure, you need to add a D, which is not part of the C chord. Simply play the D on string 1, fret 10 with your fourth finger to create a Cadd9 chord.
In measures 3 and 4, use the inversions of a B7 chord to harmonize the melody notes B (root note) and A (flatted seventh). If you’re playing with a pick, use a rest stroke to land on the high E string—this gives your B string note greater projection and guarantees you won’t accidentally strike the E string.
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In bars 7 and 8, the A7 voicing is re-fingered, as it omits the high E-string note. Measure 7 adds the note F, thus changing the chord name to A7#5. The melody moves quickly in bars 9 and 10. To accommodate this, let go of a chord completely and just play the melody as single notes in between the chords—a nice change of texture that gives your fretting fingers a little break.
The G7 in measure 11 includes the melody note E, making the chord a G13, which resolves to a similar shape as in bar eight. Measures 14–16 require the fourth finger to lead. Keep that finger lightly touching the first string when moving it between the B on beat 4 of measure 14 and the G9 chord of measure 15. This same idea—using the fourth finger as an anchor—occurs between measures 15 and 16. In general, it is helpful to look for common fingers between chord shapes, for smoother transitions. In measure 17, let go of the Dm shape on beat 4 to play the note G with your first finger. This will prepare you for the A note in the higher Dm voicing of the following measure. Move that shape up three frets to make the Fm before resolving back to C.
Take your time to slowly practice the transition between the chords. Use any two voicings or small sections to create mini etudes. Until we can all safely make music together again, chord-melody is a fulfilling way to play all the parts. I hope this arrangement brings joy to your woodshedding.
Greg Ruby is a guitarist, composer, historian, and educator specializing in jazz from the first half of the 20th century. His latest book is The Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook, Vol. 1. Ruby teaches Zoom lessons and classes. For more information, visit gregrubymusic.com.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.