How to maintain harmony on the guitar in delicate arrangements of chords and melodies

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Extract from the January / February 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Greg Ruby

When playing chord-melody style guitar, sometimes you don’t know which chord to use when the melody isn’t a chord or is moving too fast. The solution? Hold down a triad while playing a chromatic or diatonic melody. Here you will learn to play difficult chord melody guitar arrangements, using the classical song “My melancholy baby” for the context.

Maintain harmony

Chromatic melodies usually connect two chords by playing the middle note (s). In Example 1, the notes E (the third of a C major chord) and G (the fifth) are bridged by F and F #. When this happens, choose a chord that requires as few fingers as possible. For example, to play Example 2, hold the C chord with a barre on the first finger in fret 5, freeing your other fingers to play the additional notes.

Example 3 demonstrates the same idea, but with a diatonic, rather than chromatic, melody. Keeping the shape shown in the chord frame, use your fourth finger to play the notes in the tenth fret. In Example 4, play the Dm9 chord as shown, then, with your index and index fingers held in place, move your index finger to grab the D on string 2, fret 3. [Alternatively, try barring the strings at the third fret, simply releasing your fourth finger to play the third-fret D. —Ed.] This technique requires careful rehearsal in order to develop the digital independence required for a smooth transition.

Track changes and use inversions

When the melody stops but the chords continue, just play the changes. If possible, use the same chord shape, but only sound the lowest strings. Example 5 demonstrates a four-note D9 chord with the second E string as the melody note, followed by strumming of strings 3 through 5 for the remainder of the measure, providing a feeling of four-way rhythm in measure. When possible, continue to hold the note of the melody while strumming the chord.

As I explained in previous lessons, inversions are the keystone of playing chords and melodies. In Example 6, go from a G9 (with the melody note A on string 1) to the first string C, then up to G7, the melody note B followed by another A. Use only your fourth finger on the first string will facilitate the transition between each of the notes and inversions.

Let it go

Sometimes it is better to remove the chord from the chord melody. It is always an option to let go of a chord after strumming it and briefly let the melody carry the load. In Example 7, place the C6 / 9 chord on beat 1 to sustain the melody note D, then immediately release the chord and play only the notes C, D and E. Ear a welcome change in texture.

Play “My Melancholy Baby”

Now connect the above concepts in an arrangement of chords and melodies from “My Melancholy Baby” (Example 8), a beloved standard that has been recorded by many jazz greats – guitarist Django Reinhardt and pianists Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk to name a few. The arrangement opens with the ideas introduced in the first two examples, and the technique of strumming the lower part of a chord is used first in bars 3-4, then in bars 6-8.


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Make sure to isolate all the delicate areas and really focus on your fretting fingers. In measure 17, for example, release the F chord when you move your index finger down to play the fourth G # fret. Try to keep the shape of the chord to allow a quick landing on beat 3.

As you work on the arrangement, repeat each phrase slowly, taking into account the melody notes and chords. Once you have mastered the rhythm guitar strumming as part of the arrangement, try making your strummings a little quieter in dynamics than melody. Good practice !

Greg Rubis is a guitarist, composer, historian and teacher specializing in jazz from the first half of the 20th century. His latest book is Oscar Alemán’s Songbook Vol. 1. Ruby teaches and Zoom classes.

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