Knowing how to arrange music on the guitar is a valuable skill. This will help you create memorable parts for a band, thicken your sound in a solo guitar setting, and sometimes allow you to experience a cool signature section that elevates a song. There are many ways to approach arranging on the fretboard, and in this lesson we’ll look at one of the most powerful: conceptualizing chord melodies. Typically, the term “chord melody” implies a jazz framework, but you can use the same approach in any style. For our purposes, we will apply the concepts to the world of rock. Let’s take a look at some melodies, analyze how they work on chord changes, and discuss the different options for turning those notes into something bigger and better.
Keeping in mind a group, we will favor small, simple chords, just the essentials. This is a good way to leave enough space for other instruments to help fill in the sound. In this lesson, we’ll look at examples with melodies within two octaves, and we’ll use three-note chord shapes on the first three sets of strings (5â4â3, 4â3â2, and 3 – 2-1) to harmonize these melodies.
Let’s start with a very simple short melody with a basic harmony (Ex. 1). The basic concept of harmonizing a melody is to treat each note of the melody as the highest tone of a chord. In other words, the melody will dictate the position of the chord from which to build. The first step is to identify the notes of the melody in degrees relative to the chords against which they are played.
The next step is to choose voicings that have the melody note as the top note of the chord (Ex. 2). The first note of bar 1 is E â the 3 of C. So we need to find some form of triad in C major with E as the highest note. As a rule of thumb, only harmonize notes with longer durations and keep shorter notes alone, unless they occur during a chord change. This means that we will keep F (the 4 of the scale) alone and move on to the next note, playing a C triad with G (the 5) as the top note.
In the next measure, the first note is E (the 7 of F). Although this is a short note, we are going to harmonize it as it hits a chord change. Because the 7 is not part of a major triad, we will have to work with the magic of note substitution. The most obvious option is to fret a first triad form in F major with the root in the melody (ACF), then lower the root a semitone to reach the 7 (ACE). Astute players will recognize this as the first three notes of an Fmaj7 chord, as well as an Am triad in root position.
Finally, we have a 5 (D), so we play a major triad in G major in 3rd position. By systematically following these steps, we now have this simple harmonized melody. It rings full and shows a nice movement.
Let’s repeat the process with a few more melodies supported by a more complex harmony. Here is the analysis of diplomas for Ex. 3.
Ex. 4 shows a solution to harmonize this melody. Let’s take a look at some of the creative challenges in this example. On the first Bb chord, the melody uses a 3 followed by a 5. Here we take a shortcut by fretting a triad with the 5 at the top, but plucking the root and the 3 first, then leaving them ring below 5 for the duration of the chord.
On the Cm chord, when the 2 (or 9) becomes the melody, we keep the same triad fingering and simply substitute the 2 for the b3 that preceded it. This illustrates an important technique: Sometimes when you shift a melody note, you can sustain it by sustaining the lower notes of the previous voicing. We use a similar idea for the Dm7 with a b7 as the melody note. After reaching this voicing, replace the b7 with the 5, while maintaining the two lower notes. This creates a Dm triad.
For the Ab chord with a 2 as the top note: Here we have the possibility to take the chord with the root at the top and replace it with the 2, or to take the chord with the 3 at the top and substitute it for 2. Neither option is correct anymore, they both sound different. I like the suspended quality of this last option, so we’ll go for it.
The phrase repeats, but let’s make a small change to the Eb chord. The note of the melody spans the entire measure and although we cannot change the melody itself, we can change any of the inner voices to create a variation. Taking the middle note of the triad (the 3) and changing it to 2 halfway through makes the game more interesting.
Here is another melody (Ex. 5) with its degree analysis. It’s slower and in a major tone.
In Ex. 6, we harmonize this melody. Here are some highlights: Starting at bar 3, against the Bb chord, we play A twice (its major 7) as a full note. These repeated melodic notes provide the opportunity to add harmonic color below them, so vary an inner voice to create harmonic movement. Check it out: in bar 4, the D drops to C creating a Bbmaj7sus2.
A similar idea occurs in bars 7 and 8. For the C chord, enter a triad with the root (C) on top, but replace the root with the 2 (D). Then in measure 8, increase the suspended sound by raising E (the 3) to F (the 4).
Finally, here’s a quick melody (Ex. 7).
Here we take advantage of a few open strings while replaying the main triad to reinforce the harmony. It is okay to take a few liberties and repeat some of the low voices in the triad as the top tune moves. For example, at the E chord in measure 4, we dance through the notes of the upper melody while reiterating the two lower voices, E and B. Ex. 8 is the end result.
Keep in mind that a musical passage that benefits from chord-melody processing can be very short. You can use this technique for a two-beat passage in a solo or a one-bar guitar part supporting a main melody. Or try an entire song! There is no set system, no magic bullet that will work every time. They are simply tools to help you shed light on the essential concepts. I encourage you to experience them and see where they take you.