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Jazz Guitar Chord Melody

Harmonizing Tunes

Jazz guitarists use the term "chord melody" to describe the way they play a certain song. It is in fact the harmonization of a melody (aka playing chords AND melody at the same time). Think melody + chords played on a piano with right hand and left hand.

The problem with guitar, is that we cannot separate the chords and the melody *that* easily. Personally, I like to see chord melodies (and chord-melody type of playing the guitar) as if I'm arranging for an orchestra that has six strings!

If you are a complete beginner in terms of chord melodies, I highly recommend you subscribe to this FREE 7-Day Beginning Chord Melody course here ... (and then read the rest of the article below.)

You can take a look and get general advice from this page or go directly to the jazz standards page to get my own chord melody arrangements.


0. Prelude

Essentials to get you started :

  • You must know and love a song from which you'd like to create a chord melody. Have the melody, the lyrics, if any, and the chords in your ears.
  • You must have heard the tune (recorded or live) many times already. Having a "reference" recorded version of the song is the best way to go, always!
  • A lead sheet of the tune is useful because of it's visual nature (and because it contains just the basic info you need)
  • Be motivated to create your very own version of the chord melody you are working on. There's no right (or wrong) way to do it. Often ask yourself : What works for me?
  • Reading complete arrangements of chord melodies from a book doesn't "cut it"... you must create your own chord melodies!
    [Trust me on this... Being a "do-it-yourselfer", I deeply believe in the power(s) of self-discovery. It's much more rewarding and improvement comes faster this way.]
  • Finally, be aware that this aspect of jazz guitar will quickly lead you to expand in different areas of your playing : sound, theory, technique, repertoire, progressions, time feel, improvisations, etc.
    [In other words : Please understand that by working on "this" you're also working on "all the other stuff" at the same time.]

Most of all : Have Fun !!! (-:

1. Melody

The first step is to play and memorize the melody of piece you are working on. Learn it inside out and, of course, by memory. And I really mean it!

Sing it, play it, shake it... (whatever it takes!)
until it becomes part of you.

The theme (aka "head" or melody) is always leading the way. This is often overlooked on guitar. I usually think of it like this : I'm playing in a car and the melody is driving. I go where it wants to go! (and the rest of of the music follows too...)

  • Melody test (for your ears):
  • If I played the first couple of notes of the tune you're currently learning for you, could you sing, whistle or hum the rest of the song?

    Pefectly? (whitout hesitation)

    In time? (strict tempo)

    (Be honest with yourself)

    Good! Now you know the melody.


  • Guitar Advice (for your fingers):
  • Aim to play the melody mostly on the highest strings (1st and 2nd preferably). It will help later on when we harmonize with chords on the lower strings.

    You may have to play the melody an octave higher than it is written on the lead sheet.


  • Thoughts on melody :
  • If it's an old american standard (broadway) song, you can certainly phrase the melody as you please.
    Listen to your favorite recording(s) of this tune. How is the player phrasing the melody? (The head in might sound different from the head out, listen to both closely.)

    For instance, if you're learning Autum Leaves or All the Things You Are, you don't have to play the theme exactly as it is written every time. (This does not apply to jazz/bebop tunes)

    In short, you're allowed to play around with the rhythms a little, as long as the melody is recognizable... This phrasing concept can add some interest and contrast once chords are added in step 3.

2. Harmony

The next step is to learn, play and memorize the chords you wish to use under the theme for your chord melody arrangement.

Yes that's right : melody is on top and chords underneath!

Memorize the chords and the sequence in which they appear in the song. It's best to know and understand what notes are contained in each chord. A little music theory is recommended here :

  • Start by studying the voiceleading of 3rds and 7ths throughout the tune (see, you're now studying harmony while learning a piece!)
  • After thirds/sevenths are in your ears and fingers, add extensions such as 9, 11 and 13 to the chords (in the upper register)
  • Of course, play the above with and without roots played on 5th and 6th strings!
  • You may want to analyze chords in roman numeral, find the key center(s) and common "harmonic patterns":

    • Any/many ii-V-I's in this tune?
    • Other reccuring progressions? (vi-ii-V-I or iii-VI-ii-V)
    • In what key(s)?
    • Chord substitution?
    • What else is their to analyze (chords-wise)?
    • [This step can be done at any time]

Sometimes, I also suggest students to sing the melody out loud while they play the chords. (*his is the preambule to making a decent chord melody arrangement for a jazz standard*)

For all the "raw material", see the "chords" section of JazzGuitarLessons.net (and elsewhere on the WWW) for inspiration :

You may also use these great references :

Also : look for some useful chord shapes I use in my own jazz standards arrangements. Some might feel akward at first, see what works for you.

Finally, jazz guitarists beware!

Chords are important but not as important as the melody. Please do not fall in the trap of simply playing "chord grips" all of the time! Learn the tune you are working on, not just shapes.

To continue on the analogy I made earlier :

The melody is driving the car, the chords are the streets. The car goes wherever it needs to (even off-road sometimes!)

So harmony may suggest or guide the melody, that's all.

Which leads us to...

3. Chord Melody

It is time to combine the magical ingredients! Watch this :
The "Do's and Dont's" of chord melody...

Play the melody and use appropriate chord shapes underneath. The melody will end up being the "top note" of the chord shape. That is the "big picture" of chord melody playing...

...on a smaller scale : make sure you don't sound like a "formula". Play good rhythms and vary your approach to keep things interesting! Music is all about contrast.

For instance, you may use simple 2 or 3 notes "rhythmic splashes" to color around the melody. Or sometimes, a single note underneath the theme is all you need (another interesting texture.)

Can you play two different melodic lines at the same
time through a
chord progression ? Sure you can!

(one of the lines could even happen to
be the melody of the song, who knows...)

In short, as I said in the video : don't simply go "chunk chunk chunk" for each new melody note. Play the melody well, with good time and phrasing and then add interesting chords and couterpoint lines (studying harmony in step 2 definitely helps here). 

There's a ton of good sounding counterpuntal lines and harmonic ideas "hidden" inside of jazz standards chord progressions... they're waiting for you to discover them!


"What if the melody is not an available
"top note" in any chord shape that I know?"

This is one of the most classic question! The simple answer: learn something new and study harmony with diligence and you will create/play better chord melody arrangements.

Once again, if you are a complete beginner in terms of chord melodies, I highly recommend you subscribe to this FREE 7-Day Beginning Chord Melody course here ...

So, in brief, This is a great opportunity for you to learn new material. You can always find a new voicing or another inversion of a well known chord. Check out this chord melody drop 2 reference (PDF) for some ideas. (tip of the iceberg)

This task of finding your way through tunes and inventing new chord melody arrangements is tremendously rewarding. By learning new ways of playing in the context of a tune, you are in fact practicing technique to serve musical needs (and not the other way around). 

Exactly what the music is all about!

There is much more to say on the subject. I will leave it to future articles. Meanwhile, try it : pick a tune and go trough the steps. Play and have fun!