Learning to play chord-melody style—that is, expressing melodies in chords rather than single notes—is a formidable and valuable skill. While the approach has been seen most commonly in the works of jazz and jazz-informed musicians such as Earl Klugh and Chet Atkins, it can be used to add new dimensions to virtually any style. This Weekly Workout will show you everything you need to get started harmonizing melodies, through assorted treatments of the classic tunes “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “Billy Boy.”
A prerequisite to playing in the chord-melody style is for you to know a given melody inside out, in both your ears and your fingers—in different positions and, ideally, different keys. Having a firm grasp on the melody will allow you to harmonize it more easily. Start with the melody of “London Bridge,” written in the key of G major in Ex. 1. Play it as notated, and then experiment with some of your own fingerings.
In Ex. 2, you’ll flesh out the melody with some basic open chords, falling under every other note in bars 1–3 and all of the notes in bar 4. It’s helpful to know the function of each melody note. For instance, the first note, D, is the fifth of the G chord; the second note, E, is the sixth, etc. Before you play the example, determine the functions of the rest of the melody notes.
When you work through the example, whether fingerstyle or hybrid picking (pick and fingers), it’s important to play the melody notes louder than the other chord tones by attacking them with greater force—but not too much. Be patient, as it might take some time to get the hang of this.
You’ll place a chord under every melody note in Ex. 3, which uses a different approach to harmony, containing mostly diatonic triads (falling strictly within the key of G) instead of the basic I–V (G–D) progression. Note that the voices (notes) of the chords move entirely in parallel motion. Keep your fretting hand close to the strings when switching between chords. When playing chords up and down the fingerboard, slide your fretting hand fingers into the next chord.
You don’t always need to play the melody on top of the chord. In Ex. 4, it’s placed in the second note from the top voice in each chord. The occasional inversion—a note other than the root in the bass—helps keep the movement between chords smooth. For instance, in bar 1, on beat 3, the G chord’s third, B, appears in the bass and ascends neatly by a half step to connect with the C chord’s root, C, on the “and” of 3.
This example is trickier to play, since the melody is in an inner voice. Try using fingerpicking or hybrid picking for this example, taking care to apply more pressure to the melody notes. To make the chords sound smoothly connected, hold each note for as long as possible. For instance, in bar 2, fret the first-string G with you fourth finger; keep that finger in place as you add your first and second fingers to play the C chord.
In Ex. 5, the melody is moved to the lowest note of each chord. Accent each melody bass note by picking slightly harder against each note while rolling your pick or fingers across the strings. Be sure to mute unused strings.
This week you’ll kick things up a notch with a jazz-approved, chord-melody arrangement of “Billy Boy.” But first, just as you did with “London Bridge,” familiarize yourself with the melody, written in the key of BH major and including only the I and V chords (Bb and F7, respectively) in Ex. 6.
Once you know “Billy Boy” in your sleep, proceed to Ex. 7, in which a chord falls squarely on each beat. As opposed to the previous exercises, you’re now entirely in seventh-chord territory, with lots of interesting harmonic moves. In bar 1, for instance, instead of just the I chord (Bb), you’ve got a I–vi–ii–V progression (Bbmaj7–Gm7–Cm7–F7).
Don’t worry about these labels if you’re not a theory nerd—half of the battle in learning the chord-melody style is to focus on the technical aspects on the guitar. Practice the example one bar at a time until you’ve polished off the whole thing. Also, try to memorize the music, so that you can really focus on making this example sing.
As long as you can clearly hear the melody when you’re playing in the chord-melody style, then you can throw in the kitchen sink when it comes to harmonic choices. You’ll do just that this week with a radically re-harmonized rendition of “Billy Boy” (Ex. 8). A whole method book could be devoted to the harmonic techniques at play here, but again, if you’re not yet up to speed, don’t worry too much about the music theory in learning
But if you are into theory, here are a few highlights: There are the chromatic passing chords—on bar 1, beat 2, Bdim7, which connects the Bbmaj7 and Cm7 chords; in bar 3, beat 3, the Ab13 chord, bridging the A7b13 and G7 chords. In bar 5 is a chromatic cliché—a Cm chord is embellished as the second-highest note descends in half steps to form a quick progression of Cm–Cm(maj7)–Cm7–Cm6. Throughout, there are chords with upper extensions—those notes beyond the seventh, like the #11 and b13—chords that add sophistication to this simple song.
Learning this arrangement might take you more than one week. It’s important to practice it thoroughly until all the chords are under your fingers. And remember to think like a singer when playing this example and in the chord-melody style in general. You might be running through a handful of harmonies, but it’s all about the melody.
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Ron Jackson is a New York City–based master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and many others. Find more of Jackson’s lessons at practicejazzguitar.com.