How Chord Melody Will Help You Master Important Skills

I think that the most beautiful way to work with Jazz harmony is to work on chord melody, the type of playing you hear from Barney Kessel and Joe Pass where the melody is used as a foundation that you can add amazing chords to,  but you do need to work on it the right way to really get all the benefits, You don’t want to just play something from paper trying to make your way from chord diagram to chord diagram. You want to explore all the amazing colors and embellishments that you can add to the music.

I sort of stumbled my way into chord melody, and weirdly enough the first song I ever made a chord melody arrangement of was actually a song that I don’t really like, and when I made it I had never heard of Barney Kessel and Joe Pass who later became my main inspirations for this.

My First Chord Melody Arrangement

I was finishing a stay at a folk high school, which is really a Danish thing, a type of boarding school for adult education.  I had spent 8 months practicing and trying to learn Jazz after getting my bachelors degree in Mathematics at the university. I wasn’t very far in learning, but having the time to practice and play with others for that long was of course incredibly useful, and it was a part of what I used to prepare for getting into a school to get a degree in Jazz performance, which I did in The Hague a few years later

It was in June and I was sitting outside in the sun practicing, something that I am sure that you can tell that I don’t do often. A few months earlier, I had bought a real book which at the time was an incredible source of information since this was before the internet and online resources, it was all books and cds, and I hardly had any when it came to Jazz, in fact, the only thing I had was the real book and 5 or 6 jazz cds, which were mostly Scofield and a little Charlie Parker.

During my stay, when we played, a friend of mine always wanted to play Misty, because he had a Dexter Gordon version of that song that he really liked. I was bored with the arpeggios and scales, so I started flipping through the real book looking at the songs when I saw Misty in there, so I decided to play that. My favorite maj7 voicing at the time was the basic root position maj7 (Cut in – Incredibly Hip and Advanced, I know….)  and when I played through the chords then I realized that the melody was the top-note of that chord in the first bar. And this really made some things click for me.

At the time, I had heard people play chord melodies, especially Scofield and Wes Montgomery, but I hadn’t thought about doing that myself, then I realized that it could be fun to try and do that with this song which I had already played the chords of many times though I didn’t know it by heart.

Getting Started

I was of course lucky, that there were two things I already had going for me:

I could read music well enough to figure out how to play the melody,

and I was aware that I needed to transpose the melody up an octave which also makes it easier to put a chord under it.

Harmonizing The Song – First Rule

Misty doesn’t really follow one of two the things that I usually tell students to do when making their own chord melody arrangement, which is: Play the melody on the two top strings.

The reason for saying this is of course that if you can play the melody there then it is a lot easier to find chords to put under it.

For the first phrase you have a pick-up and a long note:

It works great with the Ebmaj7 chord, and later in the video, I will show you some nice suspensions you can add here on that long note, because there are a lot of beautiful options. As you can see then already the next phrase has a Bb which is of course not possible to play on the B string and there are quite a few notes in the melody that are lower than B. Luckily there is a fix for that.

Harmonizing The Song – Second Rule

The other advice that I give is to only add chords on beats 1 and 3 in the beginning, just to make it easier to play and also to make the harmony clear when the chords change. This makes Misty a lot easier since the melody moves around really a lot but only adding a chord in the important spots makes it a lot simpler.

That is clear already in the next phrase:


or better

There are two things you want to notice here:

As I said, just playing a chord on the heavy beats sounds great, and Shell-voicings are very useful because most of the time you can easily add a shell-voicing under a melody note or even just use the shell-voicing as I do here on Bbm7 and Abmaj7.

And that is lucky because the next part has an even more busy melody with the arpeggio as a pickup.

You also want to notice that I am using an Eb7 shell-voicing, but adding an extra note on the B string to make it a complete Eb7(9,13).

You don’t have to do that, but in this case, it is an easy way to add an extension to the chord and you’ll see me do that again in the next example.

Know the Song & Understand The Harmony

What is happening in the song is pretty simple. You get a tonic chord, then a II V to IV and then it goes to IVm as a way to get back to the tonic.

This is very common in Jazz standards so recognizing that, is very useful and will make a lot of songs easier to turn into chord melody arrangements. Knowing what is happening in the chord progression also gives you a lot more options for what will work in terms of changing the chords, so that you can add passing chords, and much more. I’ll show you later in the video.

The first Abm7 is played as a bar chord, and again you could just play the shell-voicing and the melody, but adding the 5th is practical and also sounds great.

If you want to think about this in visual terms then I am seeing the melody and the shell-voicing, and I know that adding the 5th is also an option so I do that.

In general, this is about knowing how chords are constructed, and when you work on harmonizing a melody like this then you are really developing your flexibility and knowledge with Jazz chords.

Just reading an arrangement and trying to play that is nowhere nearly as useful because there you are not really getting better at working with the chords and the melody and choosing how it should sound. You are just trying to read a piece of music and a harmonization that somebody else made which is like reading a transcription vs improvising your own solo. It is really something else.

But before you start interpreting the harmony, it is useful to have a basic arrangement similar to what I made on that summer day.

Don’t Limit Yourself To Chord Systems

The next part of the melody is emphasizing the 3rd of 4 chords in a row:

To return to my original take on this song: I hadn’t learned any systems for jazz chords, I just looked at the note I played on the guitar and tried to find a voicing that would fit. I already knew (Ebmaj7 and Cm7)

so that is what I used, and together with Shell voicings for the Fm7 and Bb7 then you have:

You can see how it is still very useful to only play the Fm7 on beat 1 and then be free to skip down and play the C, without having to add a complete chord there. It would not be impossible, but this is a lot easier.

A Better Turnaround

From here the Real book suggested a Gm7 chord, and I don’t remember what I played exactly but instead you can also use a Db7 in the turnaround which sounds a lot better. (voice over ex 6)


With a bit more color on the other chords that is going to give you:


You probably already noticed that the melody has quite a few long notes and also some places where notes are repeated, and that opens up for some interesting chords, which is of course way beyond my original harmonization. So let’s make it a bit more exciting.

A Cure For Boring Chords

The first chord with the maj7 in the melody can easily be a bit boring because it stands still, but it is a great place to add some surprising sounds:

The original sounds like this:

but a common version is to turn that into a diminished suspension with a #IV dim chord, so A diminished. In this case that actually becomes a D major triad over an Eb bass note because of the melody

You could also use a #5 as a tension that resolves later in the bar to keep things moving.

Or even this Lydian augmented chord with both a #11 and a #5

Another option is the Barry Harris 6th dim suspension and that would be this Ddim over Eb:

But coming from a Bb7, I don’t find that super strong.

You can look for tricks like this using both theory, and scales and even also just experiment with moving notes in the voicing. If you start just changing the chord then it can later be worthwhile to figure out what is actually going on so that you can use it in other songs as well.

More Than One Melody

Another thing that you can start to explore is to decorate the chords with other melodies inside the chords. A very common and beautiful option is to use this line cliche:

Where the II V I almost becomes a stairway to heaven quote.

If you split up the 3rd and 7th of the Abmaj7 and insert a 9th in there then you have this more colorful voicing:

and that means that you can add this nice move on that chord where the 9th and 7th move to the root and maj76th:

And you only find stuff like this if you are really making your own harmonizations and mess around with the chords when there is room for it.

Joe Was Good At Guitar, Be Like Joe

It can be useful to keep in mind is that these arrangements should not be set in stone and never changed. Give yourself the freedom to mess with them when you play because that is also what will help you discover a lot of things and not just play something like reading a classical composition.

And this also brings me back to Barney Kessel and Joe Pass, because they both are pretty open and harmonize things on the fly when they play, and that sometimes means making it simpler to keep it flexible but it also really opens up for making the song more your own.

The Easiest Passing Chords

Another way to add movement is to add extra chords to the progression so that there is more happening. On a II V then walking up the scale in diatonic chords can work very well, and in bar 4 that gives you something like this:

Which is just filling in the chords between Abm7 and Db7.

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