Chord Melody For Jazz Guitar: How-to on Jazz Standards

chord melody jazz fundamentals Nov 10, 2014

Harmonizing Tunes, Playing Solo Guitar, and More ...

Chord melody means playing the melody and the chords simultaneously. Jazz guitarists perform this on any given song. Typically, we perform this on jazz standards.

And this is the ultimate self-expression for jazz guitarists. Chord melody style playing also means adding chords, fills, walking bass (and more) right under a melody line or theme. Basically, in this context, the player is responsible for both the melody and the harmony on a given tune, at all times. The result is a refreshing performance of the song at hand (when compared to playing just the melody on it's own, or just the chords "dry").

It goes without saying, playing guitar chord melodies and other arrangements like Ed Bickert, Lenny Breau, Ted Greene or Joe Pass requires some level of skills on the instrument. And, by following the three steps on this page, you'll soon be able to play like this on virtually any standard.

You should use the concepts from this lesson and work on applications (all by yourself) on any/all of the standards you wish to chord melodize. So, basically, don't just build arrangements, you should also learn the skill of creating chord melodies on the fly.

Defining Chord Melody Further

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 / harmony AND melody at the same time). Jazz guitarists will say "I'm playing this-or-that song chord-melody style", as opposed to saying "I'm now soloing on this-or-that standard" or even as opposed to saying "I'm now comping on XYZ tune".

So to define this way of playing jazz guitar further, we can think like piano players, where they "play the melody with the right hand, and chords with the left hand".

For guitar, there's a more work involved in playing this "guitar style" (in fact, the term chord melody itself is only used in the guitar jargon, and guitarists circles). We can't have our two hands on the keyboard at the same time, so to speak. :-) Thus, we cannot separate the chords and the melody that easily. We have to work on the melody and on the chords separately, and then combine them in one cool solo arrangement.

Personally, I like to see chord melodies (and such types of playing the guitar) as if I'm arranging for an orchestra that has six strings!

You can take a look and get general advice and guidelines from this page or go directly to the jazz standards page to get the website's own (prefabricated) standards arrangements.

0. Prelude

Essentials to get you started:

  • You must know and love a song from which you'd like to create a arrangement for. 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 its visual nature (and because it contains just the basic info you need)
  • Be motivated to create your very own version of the tune 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: 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.) Here's a quick assessment for you.

1.1 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?

Perfectly? (without hesitation)

In time? (strict tempo)

(Be honest with yourself)

Good! Now you know the melody.

 1.2 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.

 1.3 Thoughts on Melody

If it's an old american standard (broadway) song, you can certainly phrase the melody as you please. This means that you can "bend the rhythms" and the phrasing a little. Listen to your favorite recording(s) of this tune: do the jazz musicians play the melody strictly exactly the same every time? Or do they vary the melody? How is the player phrasing the melody? The head-in (first time the theme is played) might sound different from the head-out, listen to both closely.

For instance, if you're learning Autumn 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 unfortunately!

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. Jazz Chords! 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! So we learn the melody first, and the chords second.

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 voice leading of 3rds and 7ths throughout the tune (see, you're now studying harmony while learning a piece!) See shell voicings to help you get started there, if this is all new to you.
  • After thirds/sevenths (shells) 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 recurring 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. Singing often is the preambule to making a decent chord melody arrangement for a jazz standard.

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

You may also use these great references :

Also: look for some useful chord shapes I use in the website's own jazz standards arrangements. Some might feel awkward 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! Playing chord after chord after chord is really bad for the listener! 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. Putting Chord Melodies Together

It is time to combine the magical ingredients! Watch this:



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, one pretty single note underneath the theme is all you need to support it (that's another interesting texture!)

Can you play two different melodic lines at the same time through a chord progression ? Sure you can! One of the melody is the theme of the song and the other, just the roots of each chord. That's an example to get you started.

In short, as I said in the video above: 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 counterpoint lines (studying harmony in step 2 definitely helps here). There's a ton of good sounding contrapuntal lines and harmonic ideas "hidden" inside of jazz standards chord progressions... they're waiting for you to discover them!



For intermediate guitarists ready to "crack the code" in jazz


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