Learning how to play chord melody arrangements is something that many jazz guitarists strive for in their practice room.
While many of us want to play arrangements in the style of our favorite players, we often don’t know where to start or how to work out a chord melody to fit our current technical abilities on the instrument.
In this article, you will learn how to make fingerstyle jazz guitar arrangements from a variety of angles and harmonic approaches, allowing players of all abilities and experience levels to learn and build authentic-sounding chord melody arrangements on the guitar.
By learning to adapt a melody into the upper register of the guitar, add chords between and below each phrase of the tune, and combine both of these techniques, you will be able to find a chord melody approach that suits both your tastes and current technical ability on the instrument.
So grab your axe, pull out your favorite tune, and get ready to build your own cool-sounding jazz-guitar chord melody arrangement that you can bring to your next jazz gig.
Melody LinesOne of the most important items when working out a chord melody is the placement of the melody line on the fretboard.
Many leadsheets will write out a tune’s melody in the lower octave of the guitar, placing it on the 4th, 5th and 6th strings of the instrument. While this may be a desired range for a single-note melody, it is very tricky to add chords around a melody line that is in the low register of the guitar.
Therefore, the first step is to learn to play the melody on the top two strings, bringing it to a higher range in order to add chords below the melody line. By placing the melody on the top-two strings as much as possible, you will free up 4 strings below the line to add chord shapes to your arrangement.
Here is an example of a melody line written out over the first four-bars to the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.” For copyright purposes the melody is different from the original tune, but you can use the same technique with this, or any jazz tune you are working on in the practice room.
Now that you’ve checked out the melody line in the lower octave of the guitar, you can learn it one-octave higher on the top-two strings in order to free up space on the neck and add chords below some or all of these melody notes.
Here is an example of a fingering for this melody line on the top two-strings. When learning a melody in this fashion, you might find that several plausible fingerings present themselves on the top-two strings. Therefore, feel free to experiment with different fingerings until you find one that is comfortable and sits well under your fingers for any melody you learn with this approach.
Once you have learned this melody line in this higher position, you’re ready to start adding chords in between phrases, as well as under some or all of the melody notes, in order to create your very own chord melody arrangement of the tune.
Two-Hand Chord Melodies
I refer to this first harmonization technique as the “two-hand” technique, because it tends to mimic the sound and approach of two hands on the piano, with one hand playing the melody line and the other playing the chords between each phrase of the melody.
The crux of this approach to building chord melodies is that you play the single-note line as written. Then, when you have space between phrases, you fill it in with a chord or two in order to bring in a harmonic texture to your melody line. You can choose any chord shape or type that you want when adding voicings between the melody line, as long as they fit the written chords or a logical substitution for those chords.One thing to keep in mind is that it is much easier to place the chords close to the melody notes you just played or are about to play. If you have to jump more than 3-4 frets to play any chord voicing, it might pull you out of position for the melody line, or cause you to miss the chord you were reaching for as the jump pulled you out of position.
Here is an example of chord voicings being added in between our melody line to “Autumn Leaves, ” where the chords have been placed in close proximity to the melody line at all times in order to allow for a smooth transition between chords and melody.
Listen & Play
As you can see and hear, this approach is fairly simple, you are just adding chords in between phrases in order to comp for yourself in a similar fashion to a pianist playing chords between melodic lines. But, the result is a full-sounding arrangement that is easy to play and sounds good at the same time. The two-hand approach to arranging chord melodies can act as a nice introduction to this style of playing, or add a new texture and variation to your chord melody playing as a whole.
After you have checked out this example arrangement, try applying this technique to a tune like “Autumn Leaves, ” “Summertime” or “Stella by Starlight” to begin building your own chord melody arrangements in a similar style.
Harmonizing Ends of Phrases
Once you have checked out the two-hand approach to building chord melodies, you can move on to exploring full and partial harmonizations of the melody line by adding chords below any given melody.
This is a popular approach to building chord melody arrangements, adding chords below melody notes and playing both at the same time. But, one mistake many guitarists make when first learning this approach is that they dive right in, add chords below every note in the melody, get frustrated when it’s difficult to get under their fingers and end up walking away from what might have been a very cool arrangement.
In order to avoid this type of scenario, and come up with a cool-sounding chord melody arrangement at the same time, you can begin by adding just one chord to the last note of each phrase in the melody. This approach allows you to bring an element of harmony to your chord melody lines, while not being too technically demanding and causing practice-room frustration at the same time.