Extract from the January / February 2021 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Greg Ruby


You want to learn to play in the style of a chord melody, but you’re not sure where to start.


Invest some time to learn the inversions of a dominant seventh chord, and the classical jazz standard “Whispering” should fall right under your fingertips.


From the 1920s to the 1940s, guitarists made their bread in the rhythm sections. Wrapped around the archtops, they strummed regular quarter notes, propelling the dancers to the ground and offering percussive harmony to the group. Sometimes a conductor would give a solo to a guitarist. Single notes on an acoustic guitar, even a large archtop, would sound small and almost inaudible against a full brass section. Thus, the guitarist played chords on the highest strings and with various rhythms. While the result seemed complex, the approach was straightforward. With the highest note of the chord as the melody—There! —You could play the accompaniment and conduct simultaneously.

This type of chord solo required guitarists to use the full length of the neck, as the notes on the upper strings offered both greater projection and reach in the big band settings. To get an idea of ​​these harmonies, Example 1 shows how to express a three-note G chord with the highest note moving from root to third to fifth, while Example 2 shows a chord melody excerpt from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” using two of the forms.


Knowing the inversions is essential to understanding the melody of chords, as it ensures that you will have an appropriate voice to place under the melody. An inversion is simply to rearrange the order of the notes in the chord to create a new upper note (melody). This will give you a voice for the root, third, fifth, or seventh as a melody note. Four inversions of a G7 chord are shown in Example 3.

If a melody note is not part of the chord, you need to add it to the voicing. Since G7 is the V chord in the key of C major, you can use the notes of the C major scale (CDEFGAB) to create a G7 chord / scale (Example 4). This allows you to find the other diatonic melodic notes for a dominant seventh chord. In a future lesson, I’ll walk you through the process of creating an inversion for any chord.


“Whisper” (Example 5) has been recorded by everyone from Les Paul to Louis Armstrong. My favorite is a version for solo guitar by Oscar Alemán. This arrangement can be played with a pick or finger. Start with the familiar F chord in first position (F on string 4, fret 3; A on string 3, fret 2; C on string 2, fret 1; and F on string 1, fret 1). Move this shape to the eighth fret, where it becomes a C triad (CEG). In bar 1, the triad follows the melody to harmonize the melody. However, in the next measure you have to add a D, which is not part of the C chord. Simply play the D on string 1, fret 10 with your fourth finger to create a Cadd9 chord.

In bars 3 and 4, use inversions of a B7 chord to harmonize the melodic notes B (root note) and A (seventh flat). If you’re playing with an opening pick, use a rest stroke to land on the high E string – this gives your si string greater projection and ensures that you don’t accidentally hit the E string.

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In bars 7 and 8, the A7 voicing is touched up, as it omits the high note of the E string. Measure 7 adds the note F, thus changing the name of the chord to A7 # 5. The melody moves quickly in bars 9 and 10. To accommodate this, release a chord completely and simply play the melody as single notes between chords – a nice change in texture that gives your fingers a little break. of fretting.

The G7 in bar 11 includes the melodic note E, making the chord a G13, which resolves to a shape similar to that of bar eight. Measures 14-16 require the fourth finger to lead. Keep that finger lightly in contact with the first string as you move it between the B of beat 4 of bar 14 and the G9 chord of bar 15. This same idea – using the fourth finger as an anchor – occurs between the bells. bars 15 and 16. In general, it is useful to look for common fingers between chord shapes, for smoother transitions. In measure 17, release the Dm shape on beat 4 to play the G note with your index finger. This will prepare you for the A note in the upper Dm voicing of the next measure. Move this shape up three frets to make the Fm before returning to C.

Take your time to slowly practice the transition between chords. Use two voices or small sections to create mini-studies. Until we can all safely make music together again, chord melody is a fulfilling way to play all parts. Hope this arrangement brings joy to your lumberjack.

Greg Ruby is a guitarist, composer, historian and jazz educator of the first half of the 20th century. His latest book is Oscar Alemán’s Songbook, Vol. 1. Ruby teaches classes on Zoom. For more information, visit gregrubymusic.com.

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