Chord Melody for Guitar – Part 1

In this lesson I am trying to give you a few approaches to come up with your own chord melody arrangement for a song. In this first lesson I am not going to go in to a lot of detail with what extra harmony or voice leading you can check out. My focus is more on finding or constructing chords that fit under a melody.

The easiest way to approach this is to use a real song so I decided to make an arrangement of the old Ellington/Strayhorn composition Satin Doll. For those of you who are familiar with jazz forms you will recognize that it is an AABA, which means that we in fact only need to figure out the A part and the B part to play the whole song.

I am not going to try to make a solo guitar arrangement because I find that adding a bassline to the equation makes it techically much more demanding, and limits a lot of other things.

Needed Skills

To make a chord melody arrangement you need to know the melody, and you need to know the notes of the melody and to be able to move it around on the neck. Your choice of chord may make you want to move position once in a while during the song so being very familiar with the melody is a must. In my experience you mostly have the melody placed on the two top strings so on the B and on the E string, because with those strings it is not too complicated to fit a chord under it, because there is plenty of room for a triad or a drop2 voicing under it. You will also in trying to make arrangements very quickly learn the notes of the fretboard if you don’t know them already.

Here’s the melody of the A part of Satin Doll

Chord Melody for Guitar - part 1 ex 1


When you play your arrangement in the end it is important that the melody comes out clearly, since the whole arrangement is in fact playing the melody with some extra (not too important) chord notes. For this you need to be aware that

  1. The melody is always louder than the chords since it is also more important.
  2. That you can still play the phrases of the melody in an interesting way

One way of dealing with the first one is to play with your fingers, that can be handy and later giver you other options in you chord melody arrangements, but it is also possible with a pick. In any case it is good to record yourself playing to check if the melody and arrangement comes across in the way you want it to.

Finding chords for the melody

When harmonizing a melody you need to choose where to put the chords rhythmically. By that I mean that you need to decide how many of the notes (and rests) you want to play a chord on. You can harmonize every note, and you can leave out chords for several bars, that’s all fine. For this example I am going to play every chord, but for the rest I am not going to try to harmonize every note of the melody (this is often referred to as block chord arrangements). In basic terms that means putting a chord on the melody note on the 1 and sometimes the 3 of the bar.

If you have found the note of the melody that needs a chord you need to figure out what the note is in relation to the chord, and then try to fit the rest of the chord under it. This can be done in two ways, if you know a voicing for the chord with this top note you can play that, or you can try to construct a voicing under the melody note. If you have a big enough vocabulary of triads, drop2 and drop3 voicings you should not have any trouble finding a good voicing, so let’s look at how it works if you construct the voicing from scratch.

If the melody note is already a 3rd or a 7th this is quite easy since you probably have enough info from just those two notes. Try to play I Should Care or All The Things You Are. If the melody note is not a 3rd or 7th then you should start by finding those two notes on the strings under the melody. That would be something like this example:

Chord Melody for Guitar - part 1 ex 2

As you maybe can see knowing your shell voicings can be very useful for this.

You might notice that most of the voicings that I end up with are triads. Let’s move the melody to the 1st string so that we have a bit more room for extensions:

Chord Melody for Guitar - part 1 ex 3

This gives us a more practical way to use drop2 voicings in the harmonization and we have a bit more freedom in adding extensions. I am not going to go into what I added where, you can consider that an exercise to figure out, that’s a great exercise for learning what notes are what over a chord.

As you can see in these examples I try to keep the chord voicings close together to let that part of the arrangement ove smoothly. But as you see in bar 5 and 6 I also just jump with the melody when it is moving a lot. This is again a case of the melody being stronger than the chords so it’s fine to move when it moves and try to resolve or choose chords as good as possible.

If we take the first 2 bar motif of the song then we could harmonize that in quite a few ways:

Chord Melody for Guitar - part 1 ex 4

As you can see there are a few different possibilities just for these two bars.

To give you some stuff to figure out and to make the arrangement complete I’ve given you an arrangement of the B part as well. Besides playing it then try to figure out how you see the chords and how the voicings are connected to the chord.

Chord Melody for Guitar - part 1 ex 5

As always you can download the examples as a pdf here: Chord Melody for Guitar – part 1

I hope that you liked the lesson. If you have any questions or comments then feel free to leave them here or on the video. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel and feel free to connect with me via Facebook, Instagram, Google+ or Twitter to keep up to date with new lessons, concerts and releases.