Save Your Chord Melody Playing With These 3 Tactics!

Chord Melody like you hear it with Joe Pass or  Barney Kessel is a beautiful part of playing Jazz guitar, and it is a lot of fun to play a piece as a complete arrangement of a song. But is also difficult, and when you play then you are busy with the chords, extensions, and keeping the thing going.

There are a few things that can ruin your chord melody and some things that you can add to make it sound better and become easier to play,  so let’s have a look at some of my chord melody secrets (that everybody else also uses)

Getting Started With The Arrangement

The basic way to get started playing a song as a chord melody arrangement is to get the melody on the top strings, mostly the two top strings, B and E,  and occasionally you can go to the G string.

From there you can add chords under the notes and here shell-voicings are a very useful tool since they have a bass note on the low E or A strings and the chord part, 7th and 3rd on the middle strings G and D.

You basically add chords when you can, and mostly on beats 1 & 3 to make the sound of the chords and the time clear.

There is one thing that you ALWAYS need to get right otherwise your chord melody won’t make any sense, and there are a lot of things you can add. Let’s start by avoiding that pitfall!

Melody Is King!

This is something that I say to students very often if I give feedback on Chord melody arrangements: The melody is not clear enough.

It simply doesn’t work if you play the but nobody can hear what song it is…

Luckily, this is not incredibly difficult to fix. The first step is to realize that it is a problem, and there is an app for that! It’s the camera in your phone, so that you can record yourself playing, and then listen while you pay attention to whether you clearly hear the melody, and actually also how it is phrased, but in the beginning, just make sure that it is clear.

You can also practice playing chords where the top note is louder than the rest, something that is also very useful for comping., just to develop that technique.

So like this Dm7, and just try and play it slowly, maybe try to play the melody alone, and then when you play it you want to hear it as a melody note with a bit of chord under it.

Ideally, you want to really let the melody sing, and for some guitarists then that is more important than the chords, which is clear if you listen to more modern guys like Bill Frisell or John Scofield.

They are both only adding chords here and there and really focusing on getting the melody across.

And if you start using your chords like this then that can be a lot easier!

Don’t play the complete chord all the time

We call it chord melody, which almost suggests that the chord is more important than the melody but you just heard how that is not the case.

The way the basic recipe works then you will get chords on the heavy beats and especially when the chords change,

but it can actually be a lot more interesting if you open that up for a few reasons:

#1 Phrasing

Playing the chord and the melody at the same time actually makes it more difficult to really phrase the melody, so if you separate the melody and add the chord later then it is often easier to really get the melody to stand out and have the right dynamics

#2 Variation & Flow

The next situation where this is really useful is if you have a long note on that chord because this is pretty boring: Stella first note (with metronome at tempo 50? drinking coffee)

And I am playing the same chords, but this is still a lot more interesting:


So even without changing the notes in the chord you can still make the melody stand out, avoid long boring sustained chords and keep the time and the groove flowing.

#1 Make The Melody Stand Out

#2 Avoid Long Boring Chords

#3 Keep The Groove Flowing

Let’s look at another way to add movement to your chord melody arrangement, this time using more chords.

More Movement and More chords

The problem you saw in that first example with Stella by Starlight was that there was a long note in the melody and nothing was happening. When you harmonize Jazz Standards, that is actually pretty common:

But very often you can easily add a passing chord or two to make things flow a little easier.

If you have All The Things You Are then a basic version would sound like this, though I did add a tritone II V in there because I really like that sound in this song:

But you can also add some tritone substitutions as passing chords like a B7 to go to Bbm7 and an E7 to take us to the Em7 and A7:

And these are just dominants and tritone subs that resolve into the next part of the progression, that s a great first place to look: chords that resolve as dominants or down a half step, and still fit the melody, but there are more options like this diatonic Eø passing chord (and a dominant on Days of Wine And Roses:

Diminished chords can also be really effective and easy to work with, especially the dominant diminished chords like the C# and F# dim I am adding here on Polkadots and moonbeams:

But there are more ways to keep things moving along besides using passing chords.

More Movement and More Notes

Here’s a fairly basic example with a fill going from Eø to A7 and really ending in the A7 chord, which is always a smooth transition:

But you can also play fills that mix single notes and chords like this example on Body and Soul, and try to notice the B7 that is used as a suspension that delays the Bb7:

It is mostly a matter of really knowing the song and then taking a spot out to come up with some options using arpeggiation, passing chords, and fills.

A Beautiful Different Take On Chord Melody

One of my favorites when it comes to Chord Melody is Bill Frisell, who somehow manages to really mix traditional chord melody that you might hear with Joe Pass with a more modern approach borrowing from Bluegrass and Blues but also more modern harmony like Bill Evans, and it is magical that he can get all of that to melt together and become incredibly beautiful music. Check out this video on how he works with Days Of Wine And Roses

Amazing Chord Melody Without Any Chords? So Beautiful That Nobody Cares

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