How to Hold Down the Harmony on Guitar in Tricky Chord-Melody Arrangements

When playing chord-melody style guitar, sometimes you're not sure which chord to use when the melody isn’t a chord tone or moves too quickly. Here's the solution.

When playing chord-melody style guitar, sometimes you’re not sure which chord to use when the melody isn’t a chord tone or moves too quickly. The solution? Hold down a triad while playing a chromatic or diatonic melody. Here you’ll learn how to play tricky chord-melody guitar arrangements, using the classic song “My Melancholy Baby” for context. 

Hold Down the Harmony 

Chromatic melodies typically connect two chord tones by playing the note or notes in between. In Example 1, the notes E (the third of a C major chord) and G (the fifth) are bridged by way of F and F#. When this occurs, choose a chord that requires as few fingers as possible. For instance, to play Example 2, hold down the C chord with a first-finger barre at fret 5, freeing up your other fingers to play the additional notes.

Example 3 demonstrates the same idea, but with a diatonic melody, rather than chromatic. Keeping the shape shown in the chord frame held throughout, use your fourth finger to play the tenth-fret notes. In Example 4, play the Dm9 chord as shown and then, with your second and third fingers held in place, move your first finger to grab the D on string 2, fret 3. [Alternatively, try barring the strings at the third fret, simply releasing your fourth finger to play the third-fret D. —Ed.] This technique requires careful repetition in order to develop the digital independence required for a smooth transition. 


Follow the Changes and Use Inversions

When the melody comes to a rest but the chords continue, simply play the changes. If possible, use the same chord shape, but only sound the lower strings. Example 5 demonstrates a four-note D9 chord with the second-string E as a melody note, followed by strumming strings 3–5 during the rest of the measure, providing a four-to-the-bar rhythm feel. When possible, continue to hold the melody note while strumming the chord. 

As I have discussed in previous lessons, inversions are a keystone of chord-melody playing. In Example 6, move from a G9 (with the melody note A on string 1) up to the first-string C and then down to G7, the B melody note followed by another A. Using only your fourth finger on the first string will make an easier transition between each of the notes and inversions. 

Let It Go

Sometimes it works best to take the chord out of chord-melody playing. It’s always an option to let go of a chord after strumming it and briefly let the melody carry the load. In Example 7, place the C6/9 chord on beat 1 to support the D melody note, then immediately let go of the chord and play only the notes C, D, and E. Not only does this make things easier on your fretting fingers, it gives the ear a welcome change of texture. 

Play “My Melancholy Baby”

Now tie the above concepts together in a chord-melody arrangement of “My Melancholy Baby” (Example 8), a well-loved standard that has been recorded by many jazz greats—guitarist Django Reinhardt and pianists Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk to name just a few. The arrangement opens with the ideas introduced in the first two examples, and the technique of strumming the lower part of a chord is used first in measures 3–4 and then in 6–8. 


Be sure to isolate any tricky areas throughout, and really focus on your fretting fingers. In measure 17, for instance, release the F chord when you move your first finger down to play the fourth-fret G#. Try keeping the shape of the chord to allow a quick landing back to it on beat 3.

When working through the arrangement, repeat each phrase slowly, being mindful of the melody notes and chord tones. Once you get the hang of the rhythm guitar strumming as part of the arrangement, try making your strums a little quieter in dynamics than the melody. Happy practicing!

guitar chord melody lesson music notation sheet 1
guitar chord melody lesson music notation sheet 2

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

acoustic guitar fingerstyle lessons
Greg Ruby
Greg Ruby

Greg Ruby is the director of Guitar Week for the Swannanoa Gathering and has taught extensively. He is the author of the Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook.

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