The Complete Guide to Chord Melody
Jazz guitarists love chord melody, and for good reason.
Being able to play guitar chords, bass notes, and licks over a melody lifts any jazz standard from the mundane to exciting.
Though you love to listen to players such as Joe Pass, Ted Greene, and Ed Bickert, it can seem that chord melody is out of your reach.
This isn’t the case.
By studying the arrangements and concepts in this lesson, you expand your repertoire and learn how to build your own chord melodies.
Which is a very cool thing to be able to do.
In this lesson, you study chord melody and solo guitar arrangements of the standard After You’ve gone, which is in the public domain.
More importantly, you can apply the concepts in this lesson to other chord melodies you’re working on in the practice room.
This way, you learn these arrangements and build the skills needed to create your own chord melodies.
Now, enough talking – time to play!
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Contents (Click to Jump to a Section)
- What is a Chord Melody
- Chord Melody – Step by Step
- Chord Melody Arrangement
- Solo Guitar Arrangement
- Chord Melody Substitutions
- Solo Guitar Substitutions
- Joe Pass Chord Melody Style
- Bassline Chord Melody – Ted Greene
What is Chord Melody
To begin, let’s define chord melody so you understand how it’s used in this lesson.
In conversation, the term chord melody refers to both group and solo guitar arrangements.
But, to make things clear, those two approaches have their own definition in this lesson.
You’ll learn about that comparison below.
For now, let’s define a chord melody.
Chord melody harmonizes a melody by adding chords, double stops, octaves, bass lines, or other harmonic devices below that line.
It sounds so simple on paper.
If only it were that simple on the fretboard!
Now, let’s compare four bars of single notes to four bars of chord melody.
Here’s the first four bars to After You’ve Gone written as a single note melody.
Click to hear chord melody 1
Now, here’s that same melody played in a chord melody arrangement.
Click to hear chord melody 2
The difference is easy to hear.
As you progress, you learn how to harmonize melody lines and explore variations that expand your chord melody and solo guitar arrangements.
Besides defining chord melody, it’s important to know the difference between chord melody and solo guitar, which you’ll explore in the next section.
Chord Melody vs. Solo Guitar
As you just learned, it’s important to understand how chord melody and solo guitar compare before studying them in the practice room.
Both approaches share similar outlines, which is why they’re often referred to as the same thing in conversation.
But, there are fundamental differences between chord melody and solo guitar that make learning these two styles easier.
To begin this comparison, here are characteristic elements of chord melody.
- Played with a small group – duo, trio, quartet, etc.
- Uses smaller chord shapes, often without the root.
- Adheres to the form of the tune directly.
- Keeps in time with the band.
- Used to replace the single-note head, then leads into solo sections.
Now, here are elements that characterize solo guitar.
- Played in a solo guitar situation, no band.
- Uses more root-based and larger chord shapes.
- The form becomes flexible.
- Time and tempo are at the discretion of the performer.
- Can be played as a stand alone song, or as the intro to a combo version.
As you can see, though both of these approaches involve harmonizing a melody, they use different approaches and are played in different situations.
Understanding these differences helps you decide on the right approach for your next chord melody or solo guitar arrangement.
Chord Melody – Step by Step
While building a chord melody isn’t as easy as putting together Ikea furniture, if that’s even easy, there are steps to make this process easier.
In this section, you learn 4 steps that organize your chord melody practice routine.
By following these steps, you provide yourself with the direction needed to arrange any jazz standard for chord melody or solo guitar.
Now, it takes time to get this process down in your studies.
So, if you’re new to chord melody, or jazz guitar, and these steps seem out of your reach, not to worry.
Read about these steps and make notes of what you don’t understand.
Then, learn the arrangements below and read about how they’re built.
After that, come back and see if these 4 steps seem clearer.
From there, with a bit of elbow grease, you’re ready to arrange chord melodies on your own.
Step 1 -Choosing a Key
The first preparatory item you need to decide upon is the key for your arrangement.
Changing the key of a standard is more applicable to solo guitar, where you have freedom to move around in your performance.
But, if a melody line is too high or too low to build a chord melody, change the key for that tune to make it easier.
You’ll see an example of this approach in the Joe Pass solo guitar version below.
After you’ve picked a key, you’re ready to set up the melody for your arrangement.
Step 2 – Melody on Top 2 Strings
The next thing you need to do is take the melody to the top two strings, using the third string when necessary.
Doing so gives you the space to add chords below the melody in your arrangement.
To see how this works, check out this phrase from After You’ve Gone in the original octave.
Click to hear chord melody 3
Note that there’s not much room to add chords below that melody.
Here’s that same phrase up an octave as a comparison.
Click to hear chord melody 1
Much better right?
Before learning the arrangements in this lesson, play the melody to After You’ve Gone on the top two strings.
This gives you a sense of the melody before exploring the chord melodies.
As well, it shows you how to be flexible with a melody in your chord melodies.
When working through the arrangements, notice that notes get moved around to fit different chords and bass notes.
So, when working out the melody on the top two strings, don’t think of the fingering as dogma.
Be flexible, and don’t be afraid to take a note you played on the second string and move it to the first string if needed.
After You’ve Gone Backing Track After You’ve Gone Backing Track
Click to hear chord melody 4
Step 3 – Picking Hand Choices
The next choice in preparation for a chord melody is deciding on a picking technique.
Here are the three choices for picking when it comes to chord melody and solo guitar.
- Pick Only
- Fingerpicking Only
- Hybrid Picking (Fingers and Pick
If you choose pick only, you nail the single notes, but might have trouble with certain chords or basslines.
Fingerpicking is great for chords and basslines, but lags behind on single-notes with most players.
Lastly, hybrid picking is the best of both worlds, but takes time getting used to in your playing.
No matter which option you choose, there are pros and cons.
Try each of these variations and see which one suits your playing style the best.
From there, stick with that picking approach or use it most of the time with others coming into play when the situations calls for it.
Step 4 – Adding Chords to the Melody
Now comes the tough part, adding chords over the melody.
As you see in the arrangements below, you can choose to harmonize some or all of the notes in a chord melody.
When doing so, the best way to find the right chord is to identify the interval of the melody note.
Then, find a chord shape that has that interval as the top note and that’s the chord you use over that melody note.
For example, if the melody is A, and the chord is F7, you play F7 with the 3rd on top, such as a root position drop 2 chord.
If you need a refresher on voicings and inversions, check out these lessons.
These lessons have the notes written out as intervals on the fretboard, which is very helpful for your chord melody study.
- Jazz Guitar Chords – The Ultimate Guide
- Extended Chords for Guitar (9th, 11th, 13, 7alt)
- Drop 2 Chords for Guitar
- Drop 3 Chords for Guitar
- Drop 2 & 4 Chords for Guitar
After you’ve put the chords under each melody note, or as many melody notes as you feel is needed, you’re ready to play your chord melody.
With these steps in mind, you can now take a standard and come up with your own arrangement, or move on to learn the sample arrangements below.
Chord Melody Arrangement
Now that you’ve studied chord melody and solo arrangements on paper, it’s time to take that knowledge to the fretboard.
Here’s a chord melody version of After You’ve Gone to learn, both with a metronome and backing track.
As you work on this arrangement, make notes of any elements that stand out to you.
It might be a chord voicing you like or a right-hand technique that grabs your ears.
Make a note of them for further study.
Lastly, as is the case with any arrangement, the music on the page is a starting point, not an ending point.
Because of this, you hear slight variations in the audio examples throughout this lesson.
These could be slides, picking-hand variation, and other guitar techniques applied to the written chord melody.
Take this approach in your own chord melody and solo playing.
Treat these arrangements like lead sheets.
Learn the notes on the page and then add your own interpretation of those notes.
This helps you learn chord melody concepts and brings a personal touch to any arrangement you learn.
After You’ve Gone Backing Track After You’ve Gone Backing Track
Click to hear chord melody 5
Solo Guitar Arrangement
After learning the chord melody for After You’ve Gone, explore a solo guitar version of this tune.
As you learned earlier, you put more focus on lower bass notes in this version.
And you have more freedom to explore phrasing and pauses in this arrangement.
In the audio, you hear one approach to the phrasing of this solo guitar standard.
But, don’t let that be the only approach that you work on.
Instead, learn the version below.
Then, come up with your own way of phrasing – slowing down, speeding up, and adding pauses to the arrangement.
With the freedom that solo guitar allows, it’s these musical choices that make any chord melody personalized in your playing.
Click to hear chord melody 6
Chord Melody With Substitutions
Now that you’ve worked out two versions of After You’ve gone, you can apply a chord substitutions to this standard.
When playing chord melodies, you can use many of the same chord subs that you would when comping or soloing.
In this arrangement, you study three chord substitutions that you can take out of this context and add to your own chord melody arrangements.
Notice that none of these subs steps too far outside the given key, but they add interest compared to only using diatonic chords.
Chord subs don’t have to be highly chromatic to be effective, they just need to be musical and applied at the right moment for that sub to work.
Secondary Dominant Chords
With these chord subs, you replace a diatonic chord with the V7 of the next chord in the tune.
An example of this is a Cm7 to F7 progression and you replace Cm7 with C7.
This creates a V7/V7 to V7 progression, called a secondary dominant, as it’s the dominant 7th of another chord besides the tonic.
As well, this can also mean seeing C7 for a bar, and moving between C7 and G7 over that measure.
This creates the same secondary dominant sound, but this time over a static chord rather than a chord progression.
Adding secondary dominants to your playing is an effective way to spice up a chord melody arrangement.
It can be overdone, so be careful.
But, it can also create interest in tunes with repetitive progressions as you alter those in each chorus of chord melody.
Secondary ii V Chords
You won’t see this approach in this chord melody, but it shows up in the Joe Pass version of After You’ve Gone.
This is an extension of the secondary dominant substitution, only now you insert a ii V instead of only the V7.
To do so, when playing Cm7 to F7, you play, Gm7 C7 to F7.
This replaces Cm7 with a secondary dominant, C7, and it’s related iim7 chord, Gm7.
As well, you can use this approach over a static chord.
As you added C7-G7-C7 over a static C7, you can play C7-Dm7 G7-C7, to create a secondary ii V progression.
Because the iim7 and V7 are closely related, you can use them as a combo, or one at a time, in a chord sub situation.
Dim7 as 7b9 Chords
The final substitution plays a dim7 chord over a 7th chord, implying a 7b9 sound.
This was a favorite Wes Montgomery chord technique, especially when paired with secondary dominants.
Whenever you see a 7th chord, play a dim7 from the b9.
This turns that 7th chord in a rootless 7b9.
Not only does this create a new harmonic color, it gives you tension to play with over that chord change.
The important part is resolving that tension so it sounds musical and not like a mistake.
Now that you know the theory behind these concepts, it’s time to play them.
As you go through the following chord melody, notice how the chord subs alter the sound of the tune as compared to the version you learned earlier.
It’s not a drastic change, but one that brings new interest into the arrangement.
After You’ve Gone Backing Track After You’ve Gone Backing Track
Click to hear chord melody 7
Solo Guitar With Substitutions
You now add chord subs to a solo guitar version of After You’ve gone.
When doing so, you use the same concepts you explored in the chord melody version.
But, you now have more focus on the bass movement and freedom to play with time and phrasing.
As you playing more bass notes in a solo version, the bassline becomes more important when choosing chord subs.
Not only can you choose subs based on their sound quality and harmonic effect, but on their bass movement as well.
Adding diatonic and chromatic chords creates harmonic interest in your chord melodies and brings a bigger sense of melody to the bassline.
After you learn this arrangement, apply subs to any standard you’re working on in the practice room.
Click to hear chord melody 8
Joe Pass Chord Melody Style
Any study of chord melody wouldn’t be complete without looking at the most recognized solo jazz guitarist, Joe Pass.
Joe turned the jazz world upside down with his Virtuoso recordings, and many fans consider them to be the pinnacle of solo jazz guitar.
To bring the Joe Pass solo guitar style to your chord melody repertoire, here’s a Joe Pass style arrangement.
The first Joe Pass concept is an often-overlooked one, and that’s Joe’s use of textures.
In the example, you see many of these textural variations applied to After You’ve Gone.
As you go through the study, don’t just make note of chord choice and single-note runs.
Keep an eye out for the different textures to get your ears in tune with recognizing this side of chord melody.
From there, go back to your favorite Joe Pass recording and make note of the various textures that you can hear in Joe’s arrangements.
Moving from a 2 to 3 note voicing seems like a small choice, for example.
But, it’s these small textural details that make Joe’s playing stand out from the rest.
The next element of Joe’s playing that you can add to your own vocabulary is his focus on phrasing.
Joe was a master at jazz guitar phrasing.
By working phrases, lines with a beginning, middle, and end, you lead the listener through your arrangement as opposed to constantly throwing notes at them.
As well, a big part of Joe’s phrasing was his ability to put in pauses, slow down phrases, and speed up lines.
One of the best parts of playing solo guitar is that you don’t have to worry about a band following you, and vice-versa.
If you feel the phrase needs to slow down, slow it down.
If you want to hold a pause longer than normal, go for it.
These are the types of small musical choices that make solo jazz guitar so effective, and so much fun to play.
And Joe was a master of making those choices in just the right moments.
Deciding on the Right Key
When learning the arrangement below, notice that it’s in a new key, D compared to Bb in the other arrangements.
One of the coolest things about playing solo guitar, and something Joe Pass took advantage of, is you can change keys without worrying about other instruments.
To make a melody easier to harmonize, use certain areas of the fretboard for bass notes, or even bring open strings into your arrangement, change the key.
This is something you see in many of Joe’s arrangements, including his famous version of Round Midnight played in E compared to the original Eb.
Joe also loved to spice up his chord progressions when playing jazz guitar using all, and more, of the substitutions you learned about earlier in this lesson.
In the study below, you apply ii-V, secondary dominant, dim7 as 7b9, and more substitutions to After You’re Gone.
One of the things that made Joe such a genius, is that he rarely used advanced substitutions.
At least not on a regular basis.
Instead, he went for what was easy, and most importantly, what sounded best for that musical situation.
Studying Joe Pass arrangements is a lesson in subtlety and how to effectively use a few substitutions for maximum results.
As you already studied these subs earlier, see if you can spot them in this Joe Pass chord melody.
Odd Meter Bars
Here’s where Joe really puts his stamp on chord melody and solo guitar.
For Joe, the line he’s playing always trumps the form.
Not to say that he ignored form, he didn’t.
When he played a phrase, he let the phrase play out rather than shorten it to fit the bar.
This meant adding bars of 5/4, 2/4, 3/4, etc. when playing solo guitar.
You can see this approach in the study below, where a bar of 5/4 is used to extend a long, single-note run.
Again, when playing solo guitar you have the freedom to extend your lines.
Give it a try, but don’t overdo it.
When used properly, as Joe did, odd-meter bars can be highly effective.
But, if overused, these moments become predictable and long-winded.
Finding the right moments for these lines, and using them sparingly, is key to finding success with changing time signatures in your chord melodies.
Riffs vs. Melody
The last Joe Pass concept is the use of riffs vs. the melody .
This isn’t the same as putting lines between the melody, which Joe was fond of doing.
It’s replacing the melody with a chord or single-note run.
When doing so, Joe played a run and left that section of the melody out of his arrangement, at least in that chorus.
As always, this is a highly effective concept to use in your chord melody playing.
But, if overdone you lose the sense of melody all together, causing the arrangement to sound like a solo and not a tune.
Notice where these moments occur in the arrangement.
Then, go back and listen to your favorite Joe Pass album and notice when Joe replaces the melody with a riff of his own.
Doing so gives you the confidence to properly use this concept in your chord melodies.
Now that you studied the Joe Pass chord melody concepts, it’s time to take this study to the fretboard.
It’ll take time and practice to get this chord melody under your fingers.
But, it opens new doors in your playing, and prepares you to learn a Joe Pass solo guitar arrangement.
Click to hear chord melody 9
Bassline Chord Melody
The final approach to chord melody, is to use a walking bassline underneath the melody.
Adding a bassline gives you a new texture to play with, and it can provides a technical challenge to overcome in the woodshed.
This approach was used to great effect by Ted Greene on his Solo Guitar album.
In the example below, you add a walking bassline underneath the melody, keeping the melody mostly on the upper 2 strings and the bass notes on the lower 2 strings.
By doing so, you leave room to add in chords, 3rds and 7ths mostly, between those lines.
As is the case with any chord melody, you need to be flexible with your melody fingering.
Here, there are times when the melody needs to be adjusted from the original fingering to fit the bassline.
As well, the melody uses the 3rd string when needed to make the bassline work more smoothly underneath that line.
If you decide to put chords in between the bass and melody, reconsider those fingering choices to make the chords easier to squeeze in between.
For now, begin by learning this chord melody.
Then, when ready, take a melody you know, pop it up on the top strings, and add bass notes below.
It may seem like a difficult technique, and it can be, especially from a fingering perspective.
But, with time, and experience, you can add this chord melody approach to your combo and solo-guitar repertoire.
Click to hear chord melody 10
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