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.
One 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.
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.
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.
Here is an example of how this approach could be applied to our “Autumn Leaves” melody line.
Listen & Play
In this example, the voicings used sat right below the last note of each phrase in the melody line. As was the case with the two-hand approach, there are countless possibilities for adding different voicings and chord types over the last note in any phrase. So, feel free to experiment with Drop 2, Drop 3, Drop 2 and 4, 4th Voicings, Closed-Position Chords, and any other shapes you can think of to add below the last note in each phrase.
As well as adding chords to the last note of each phrase in a melody line, you can add voicings underneath the first note of each melodic phrase in order to begin building a chord-melody arrangement of your favorite tune. In the following example, you can see how chord voicings have been added to our previous arrangement, so there are now chords under the first and last note of each melodic phrase.
Listen & Play
Try taking this approach to any tune you are working on, adding chords to the first and last notes of each phrase in the melody, and see how it sounds on it’s own. You might find that not only were you able to technically work out a chord melody in this style with little effort, but that it ends up sounding good on it’s own. No other steps are needed to complete your chord melody arrangement at this point.
If you do feel like you want to add more chords to your arrangement, then you can continue on to the next approach in this lesson, adding chords to every note in the melody line.
This is the toughest approach to building a chord melody arrangement, adding chord shapes below each note in any melody line. But, if you have worked through the previous examples, adding chords to the last and then first note of each phrase in the melody, then taking this final leap to full harmonization won’t be all that bad.
Here is an example of a full harmonization to our “Autumn Leaves” melody line.
Listen & Play
As you can see, this approach is more difficult from a technical standpoint than the previews ideas we’ve looked at in this lesson. Because of this, make sure you take your time and work with a metronome when working out a chord melody in this style.
When choosing chord shapes to add below each note in the melody line, keep in mind how each chord moves to the next in the progression when you decide on what voicings to use under each note. Having a smooth transition between chord shapes can often mean the difference between a successful and frustrating experience in the practice room when building an arrangement in this style.
The last approach to building chord melody arrangements in this lesson is combining the two-hand and full harmonization approaches in order to build a full-sounding chord melody that fills in the harmony below and between each phrase of the tune. Though this approach can sound full and sophisticated when you apply it to your chord-melody playing, it is also the most technically demanding.
Here is an example applied to our “Autumn Leaves” melody line.
Listen & Play
As you can hear, there is little to no space left between or underneath any of he melodic phrases in this arrangement. Because of this, working out a chord melody in this style is often suited for a solo performance, where you are responsible for the melody, harmony and rhythm of every tune you play.
You can use this style of arrangement in a combo situation, just be careful that you don’t step on the other musicians’ toes since you are playing almost non-stop during this type of chord melody arrangement.
By studying the approaches mentioned above, you will not only allow yourself to build different sounding fingerstyle arrangements, but you can learn to play in a chord melody style no matter what point in your development as a player you may find yourself at this point in time.