The Art of Reharmonization (With a Twist)

Play a C bass note, and then play, hum, or sing the first two bars of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” over it.
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Play a C bass note, and then play, hum, or sing the first two bars of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” over it. (That’d be E-D-C-D-E-E-E.) Now play, hum, or sing the same melody over descending A, G#, G, and F# half-notes. What’s going on here? It sounds so sad! That, my friends, is reharmonization in action.

Screwing with the harmonic climate behind any melody can have a drastic effect on how it is perceived. This can be achieved by embellishing existing chords in a progression with extensions and/or alterations, by replacing them with completely different chord substitutions, or by employing a combination of both devices. It’s an extremely valuable arranging tool with myriad uses, especially in the jazz and soundtrack worlds, where composers and arrangers typically use reharmonization to create moody variations of a main theme.

It’s also a strategy that came in pretty handy in 1997 during the making of Todd Rundgren’s Witha Twist album, when I coarranged an album’s worth of reharmonized T.R. standards recast in a bossa-nova/exotica style. Having already played my chord-melody arrangement of Todd’s “Lucky Guy” (from Hermit of Mink Hollow) since the mid ’80s, I was inspired during

the sessions to reharmonize and rearrange the song for fingerstyle nylon-string acoustic. The song never made the album, but we’ve performed both versions live on numerous occasions (see video links). The process actually began decades ago when I arranged Todd’s original piano part for guitar in a classical block-chord style.


Before you can reharmonize a song, you’ve gotta be intimately familiar with its original melodic and harmonic structure, so it’s certainly advantageous to pick a song you already know insideout. Our first set of examples documents my adaptation of Todd’s original “Lucky Guy” piano part. We’re in the key of B as Ex. 1a lays out the four-bar intro figure—a lovely series of repeated B and F#(sus4) arpeggios played ostinato-style over a descending diatonic bass line (B-A#-G#- F#-E-D#) that suspends on G#, the 5 of the upcoming C#m7(9) II-chord. Some of these fingerings get tricky, but persistence will pay off. I tend to use hybrid picking for the two-note harmonic intervals and two downstrokes for the pairs of single notes between them, but fingerstyle works equally well.

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Next, we segue directly to Ex. 1b, the first eight bars of the first verse—we’ll call it the A section—which lends itself to strummed downstrokes. Here, Todd’s vocal melody is voiced as the top note of each chord, and you’ll find many characteristic “T-chords” and suspensions front-and-center, particularly in bars 1, 3, and 4.

The same goes for Ex. 1c, the seven-bar “B-section,” where bar 1 commences with a very Bach-like B/A-E/A-B7/5/A, b7-in-thebass Todd staple, followed by a bar of G# minor, VI-chord suspensions. Bar 3 contains another signature harmonic movement— a C#9sus4 (the II-chord) alternating with C#6 and C#, followed by two beats of the same voicings played a fourth higher to produce the F#9sus4 and F#6 V-chords in bar 4. The D#m7 and Dm7 chords in bar 4 provide a double-chromatic approach back to C#m7(9) and G#m7 before we complete the 15-bar progression with the syncopated V-chord suspensions in bar 7. Segue back to Ex. 1a’s four-bar intro, and then play in sequence Ex. 1b’s eight-bar instrumental A-section, all seven bars of Ex. 1c, and the first two bars of Ex. 1a, before tacking on Ex. 1d’s ending to complete the song.

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Bonus: To differentiate the verse and solo sections, I play a high B pedal tone (first string/7th fret) on top of every chord during the second pass of the A and B sections. This can be accomplished by fretting the B with your pick-hand index finger while strumming each chord with your thumb positioned over the fingerboard a few frets higher. Amazingly, this note works with every chord in the song!


A reharmonization doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same key as the original song. For reasons I can’t exactly recall (maybe it sounded “warmer”?), I opted to drop the key a whole-step from B to A before reharmonizing “Lucky Guy.” Ex. 2a shows the transposed intro changes, while Examples 2b and 2c respectively feature the transposed melody and changes to the A- and B-sections. With few exceptions, all of the original chord shapes can easily be moved down two frets, but you don’t have to actually learn the song in A (although I do recommend doing so)--the primary purpose of these examples is to provide a reference to the original harmony for comparison with the upcoming reharmonized version. Ready?

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My goal was to not only reharmonize “Lucky Guy,” but also to rearrange it as a fingerstyle, nylon-string acoustic, medium samba. I was looking for a way to make it work with or without vocals. The first decision was to heavily syncopate the melody and reharmonize the transposed song in its relative minor key of F# minor. With a tip of the hat to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” Ex. 3a illustrates how I refashioned Ex. 1a’s intro into a descending F#m7, F7, and E7sus4 progression played beneath pedal As and added a pair of Todd chords (E/D-D) in bars 1 and 2, and followed up with the initial three chords played a fourth lower (C#m7-C7-B7sus4) with Bb7b5 and C/Bb added on in bar 4. This segues directly to the transposed A-section, where I took a few subtle liberties with the melody in bars 1, 2, and the second ending (to make things more Jobim-esque), but T.R.’s original (transposed) melody still works equally well. Ex. 3b details my samba-fied reharmonization of Ex. 1b’s A-section, with Bm9- E13b9 (with the b9 in the bass) subbing for Bm7-A/D-D5, and G#m11-G7b5-F#m7 filling in for A-E-F#m in bars 1 and 2. Conversely, bars 3 and 4 stick very close to the original harmony. Repeat bars 1 and 2, and then jump to the second ending, which reprises the C#m7-C7-B7sus4- Bb7b5 intro changes appended with an A6/9 “stinger.”

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Chromaticisms abound in the first two bars of Ex. 3c, which depicts the first four bars of the transposed B-section melody two ways: First, with a complete reharmonization based on a descending chromatic bass line, and then with a verbatim reading of the original progression. Here, heavily syncopated G#m11, G#m7b5, G7b5, F#m7(11), F7, and F7#5 chords substitute for the Bach-like A/G- D/G-A7/5/G-F#m7 harmonies in bars 1 and 2, while bars 3 and 4 resort back to the original (transposed) harmony, the only exception being the C#m7b5- F#7#5, minor-II-V in bar 4. (Tip: F#7#5 is a flat-five substitution for the original Cm7.) Bars 5 and 6 repeat the first two measures of the A-section, and bar 7 completes the 15-bar progression with more chromatics (F7-E7sus4) before we jump back to a full repeat of the intro (Ex. 3a).

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This is followed by an instrumental A-section, where I typically reference the original (transposed) harmony for the first six bars, but played fingerstyle, not strummy. (Just lower the chords in Ex. 1b a whole-step and apply syncopations similar to the ones in Ex. 3b.) Bars 7 and 8 again employ the now-familiar C#m7-C7-B7sus4-Bb7b 5 intro changes capped with another A6/9 stinger. Precede the tag-ending figure shown in Ex. 3d with the first bar-and-a-half of Ex. 3b or Ex. 3c, and you’ve got the whole arrangement covered.

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So there you have it—a holiday extravaganza designed to enhance your transposition, rearranging, and reharmonization skills via two versions of a lovely tune. Happy, happy, joy, joy!