Chord Melody - How to Conquer Jazz’s Most Dazzling and Daunting Guitar Style

October 2, 2007
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The well-rounded chord melodist has to have four things going for him or her: a deep jazz-chord vocabulary and fretboard knowledge, single-note soloing sensibilities, plucking-hand thumb-and-fingers independence, and an arranger’s approach toward the guitar. To hear chord melody in its highest, most evolved form, one need look no further than Joe Pass. Other important contributors to the chord-melody canon were George Van Eps (considered the pioneer of the style), Johnny Smith (yes, the one Gibson named an archtop after), Wes Montgomery (revered for his thumbed octaves), Lenny Breau (known for his innovative use of harmonics), Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Jim Hall, Gene Bertoncini, and Martin Taylor.

Picks,  Fingers & “Capos”

If you’re used to playing with a pick, you can go far with chord melody (provided you also pluck strings with your fingers), but you’ll find some techniques (such as adding a walking bass line) much easier to execute sans plectrum. The thumb can pluck the bass notes (or strum octaves, if you’re doing a Wes thing), and the fingers can complete the chords and sound melodies—though, to be fair, there’s no wrong way to play melodies fingerstyle. Some guitarists employ classical method’s free stroke (alternating strokes of index and middle fingers), others use slurs (hammers, pulls, slides) to sound phrases that are hard to execute at zippy tempos, while still others (Montgomery, George Benson, Kevin Eubanks) are astonishingly nimble with alternating up/down strokes of the thumb.

Thanks to the many fingerings it requires, chord melody involves a great deal of fretting-hand switching. The goal is to finesse those switches in such a way that your playing doesn’t sound too truncated. Plotting out key hand movements ahead of time will help immensely. Also know that it often makes sense to barre all the strings at your current position, even if you’re only fretting a simple double-stop or three-note chord, because this sets up your fretting hand for subsequent fills, passing notes, etc., that may lend themselves to your current position. In other words, to maintain that flowing, legato sound while handling shifting chords and integrated melody lines, try thinking of your fretting hand as a capo that doesn’t like to move unless it has to.

Execution

Because one of the primary techniques in chord melody style is plucking-hand thumb-and-finger independence, we’ll start off with Ex. 1, which introduces you to the concept gradually. This example has a thumbed walking bass with long-tone chords above it (watch those syncopations!) and should help get you into the mode of separating the two processes with your plucking hand. In Ex. 2, we have the age-old rivalry of Melody vs. Chords. Here, an unaccompanied single-note “call” is followed by a “response” in block chords (much like standards such as “So What,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and “Jordu”). This is a very effective technique for generating textural contrast. While these first two examples are helpful for teaching the logistics involved in two different techniques, don’t miss the bigger lesson: Like every other example in this seminar, each of these phrases also demonstrates a unique way to approach arranging for the guitar.

Independence Day

A great intro and turnaround lick in the style of Johnny Smith, Ex. 3 has chords moving in half-notes below a melody, demonstrating how to create simultaneous melodic and chordal independence. Ex. 4 shows a more evolved and complex accompaniment part over which the melody moves independently. Note that the bass line (in down-stemmed notes) has a boom-chick feel, with bass notes on beats one and three, and chords (or a chord tone) on two and four. The melody proceeds along in eighth-notes. Dig the parallelism—the same chord moves up and down chromatically (bar 3)—and how idiomatic it sounds to the chord melody style.

Bes’ Wes

Wes Montgomery was an all-around phenomenal guitarist, but people perhaps most associate him with buttery-smooth octave lines such as Ex. 5, which he typically executed with his thumb. Here, octaves are played two ways: on the fifth and third strings, and on the third and first strings. Observe that sometimes the slides are on the beat, sometimes on the offbeat. The trick here is muting the string that falls between the two fretted notes in each octave grip. (The underside of your 1st finger can handle this task.)

Crazy Comping

Inspired by Joe Pass, Ex. 6 could be entitled “Comping on Steroids.” Chord melodies, of course, often require independent bass and chords (even when no discernible melody is present), and Pass could swing and ’bop harder than anyone with this one-man-band approach. Thanks to the truly athletic heroism he showed with bass/chord interplay, Pass often erupted with gnarly harmonies and colorful, unorthodox voicings seemingly created on the fly. The tricky thing in this example is keeping the bass notes legato, as a great acoustic bassist would, while maintaining rhythmic independence in the harmonic fireworks above. (The closing riff is a classic rhythmic Joe Pass-ism.)

Now for the works! Combining double-stop melodies (à la Count Basie’s bluesy, sparse piano), block-chord movement (bars 2 and 4), single-note melody in stop time (bar 5), and the independent long-chord/walking-bass treatment (bars 6-7), Ex. 7 is a mini-arrangement in the style of the Duke Ellington classic “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

Practice Tips

Enter “chord melody” into your Internet search engine and tons of related links will fill your browser window. Don’t be surprised if some are courtesy of Kevan Tolley (also known by his online handle “namaste”). When it comes to guitar arrangements, forum advice, and YouTube videos, Tolley has probably made more Web contributions to the chord melody cause than any other single poster. (Test-drive some of his practice arrangements at acousticfingerstyle.com/midifil8.htm.) To make steady and efficient progress with this potentially overwhelming guitar style, take Tolley’s advice and …
• Acquire a chord dictionary that presents four-note voicings in three different string groupings: highest four strings, lowest four strings, and innermost four strings. (This will make convenient fingerings for whatever harmony you need easily accessible.) You’ll also find that a vocabulary of open-string jazz chords is quite useful.
• Start with ballads, because their slow tempos (and, in some cases, rubato feel) allow for flexibility in the rhythmic phrasing, often giving you ample time to land your next grip, no matter how difficult its fingering.
• When considering a melody for arrangement, ensure that the lowest and highest notes fall on the first and/or second strings, which will allow for adequate harmonization of each melody note on the three (or more) strings beneath it.
• Start a harmonization using standard changes (i.e., the chord progression above the melody, as presented in The Real Book or other widely used sheet music sources). Keep the voicings in close proximity to each other to minimize the need to jump up and down the fretboard.

Arranging Tips

Good fingerstyle technique certainly is required to successfully play chord melody arrangements. But the mechanics are only half the battle—if that. What separates the merely good “repertoire executors” from the truly great interpreters of this style is excellence in a place a little north of the hands: the brain. Specifically, you’ll need a solid command of these three things:

Harmony:  Most guitarists learn each chord based on its lowest note or string, but in chord melody, it’s imperative you know the top (highest) note in each chord, so you can cast it as a melody note in your harmonizations. Similarly, when you see a lead sheet (which provides the melody and the chords), you should know what degree each melody note is in the accompanying chord. For example, in “Over the Rainbow,” the first melody note is the root of the background chord; in “The Way You Look Tonight,” it’s the 5; in “All the Things You Are,” it’s the 3.

Texture:  This describes the activity or “fabric” of a section of music. Learning when and how to play block chords vs. arpeggios, melodies unaccompanied vs. melodies harmonized with block chords, homophony (a melody over slower-moving chords) vs. polyphony (two or more melodies in counterpoint), or even call and response (a melodic gesture followed by a chordal blast) will help you gain control over the texture—and, by extension, emotional impact—of your arrangement.

Notation: You can work out initial ideas, treatments, and grooves solely on the fretboard, but once you get a basic arrangement going, it’s helpful to write out your work in complete notation. This often exposes the inconsistencies in a given piece (“oops, it went from three voices to two for no apparent reason”), and may reveal arranging and harmonization options your fingers wouldn’t necessarily arrive at on their own. (Bonus: Once the music is written out, it becomes easily transferable to the piano, where you’ll find a world of new arrangement options at your fingertips—many of which you’ll be able to import back to the fretbard.)

Jon Chappell has written several guitar method books, including Essential Fingerstyle Guitar (Cherry Lane Music). He once took a master class with Joe Pass, and after Joe played, Jon’s jaw has never closed properly since.

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