When I first started playing jazz guitar chord melodies to better my chord chops, I never took the time to actually think about what I was doing. All I knew was that I was in charge of playing the chords and the melody at the same time, and that it was much harder to do both at once than either alone. Add to that the fact that I’m pretty lazy, so juggling both was a larger undertaking than I wanted.

As time went on, I figured out that chord melody could be more than I originally thought, and if I thought out in advance what I was doing, it became easier to play as well as sounding more musical. Both of my hang-ups were solved.

So with that in mind, I wanted to give you some ideas of ways you can make your chord melody sound more interesting while also removing the difficulty. Here are three ideas to take your chord melody to the next level.

You don’t have to play the chord the entire time


When playing chord melody, you’re serving two functions at once: you’re giving the listener a harmonic roadmap, and you’re also in charge of delivering the melody. One mistake I made when I was first starting out was I assumed that you had to always throw the map in front of the listener, but I was wrong. You can be artful with how you handle the “chord” part.

In English, that means that while you’re supposed to be playing both the chord and the melody at the same time, this doesn’t mean you need to be playing the chord all the time. Once you’ve played it or hinted at it once for the listener, you can move on to focusing just on the melody. This will make it much easier on your left hand, while also opening the song up to more creative options.


So how does this apply in practice? Try these out.

• Arpeggios: any time you have long, held notes, you can play arpeggios rather than the full chord at once.
• Keep your momentum: if you’re playing a busy melody, you could ruin the overall flow if you interrupt the song by interspersing large chords. Experiment with using smaller, 2- or 3-note chords, or adding flourishes to keep the listener focused on the melody.
• Base notes can save the day: sometimes, playing the bass note alone will guide the listener most of the way there. If there is a rest or pause in the melody, try seeing if the bass note alone will take the listener with you harmonically.


Use substitutions to your advantage


When playing chord melody, it helps to have a diverse chord library at your disposal, or a strong understanding of how chords are created. Why? Because then you can use this knowledge to your advantage to make more interesting and better sounding substitutions.

The main idea is that if you’re going to be playing several notes at once, you should look for easier or more interesting ways to play your chords. While you do not need to make these substitutions, it will help to at least be aware that they exist, to give you more songwriting options. It also will allow you to substitute for a chord that implies the same sound while is easier on your hands.


Here are some alterations you can make to make it easier on you:

• Replacing Major 7th chords with Major 6th chords
• Tritone substitutions
• Using chords built with 4ths rather than chords built with 3rds
• Removing non-essential notes (5th, root, higher extensions)
• Replacing non-essential notes with altered notes (e.g.: using a raised 4th in the place of a perfect 5th)


Match your intensity to the song as a whole


When preparing to play a song with chord melody, it’s important to mentally map out the intensity of the song along with everything else. Play the melody a few times to get a sense of where the composer wanted to add tension, and where he was releasing it. Can’t figure it out? Try listening to a few different performances to see how different players interpreted the piece.

Because different voicings have different emotional impact, you’re going to want to play different voicings when the piece is at different emotional heights. Here are a few ideas of ways you can raise or lower intensity:

• Full chords with more notes will sound larger than chords with less notes
• Larger intervals and wider spacing within chords are more intense than smaller intervals and closer spacing
• Rhythmically, the more notes played, the higher the intensity
• Playing all notes of a chord at once will sound larger than arpeggiated chords
• Chords in root position will sound more full than inverted chords
• Adding and accenting dissonant intervals (the tritone in a dominant 7 chord, the minor second between the major 7th and root in a Major 7 chord, etc.) will add tension


(it’s important to note that these are stylistic choices I favor, but you should experiment on your own to see what you like best. What I think sounds right for the moment might be very different from what you hear, and you should trust your ear above all else)


These are just three of many different ways that you can approach chord melody to take it to the next level. Try experimenting with these to see what ideas you unlock, and enjoy!


From: Joel’s Guitar Lessons

About the Author 

Thi post is a guest article from Joel Cornell. Like myself, Joel runs a guitar
lesson blog online, focusing on rock and metal playing for advanced guitarists. In his
blog, he talks about new ways to approach rock soloing, non-traditional song forms, and
advanced rock techniques like tapping. You can find more information on him at Joels Guitar Lessons, or follow him on Twitter at @jsguitarlessons

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