Chord melody style

Posted by on Sep 9, 2013

Chord Melody is such a fantastic way to approach guitar playing. Essentially it means supplementing melodies (or at least some kind of line) with chords. It has a number of uses:

* Jazz style lead guitar solos are often characterised by this approach; if not the main melody or head. So if you want to take a Jazz approach…then think about chord melody style!
* With the above point in mind, it is particularly useful in small combo formats where things might otherwise sound a bit empty and bare.
* And with that point in mind, it is especially good for even smaller formats such as duo and solo; again to banish the otherwise potential emptiness of the arrangement or impro.

It is the solo arrangement (whether composed, arranged or improvised) that I find particularly satisfying; where chord melody can be used as part of the approach taken to ensure that the essentials of melody, harmony and rhythm (and bass lines) are all included to make things sound effective and complete. Now you’re competing with the piano guy who’s always been able to make it sound good on his/her own!

I may be incorrect about this but I think the chord melody style originated in the 50’s when there was a shift away from big bands to small groups or combos. In this context, the guitarist had more scope to stretch out a bit. And indeed he needed to, because there were fewer instruments to fill the air! And more to the point, Jazz guitarists began to indulge in solo style – playing on their own…but in a manner that was different to say Classical Guitar or any acoustic finger style that we often associate with solo style playing. These guys were using plectrums for everything…and the chord melody approach was designed to emulate the sound of a swing band section with its multi-voiced approach to playing lines.

Ok, since then, more and more Jazz solo guys are using their fingers and thumb; realising there is perhaps more potential for independent lines (for example bass and melody moving in different directions) than what can be conjured up by just using a plectrum. But still, I personally love the challenge of playing with just a plectrum (even though I can of course do fingerstyle!). And there have been some great exponents of the plectrum approach; people like Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow (below).

I am inclined to call this approach to guitar playing: plectrum only, solo-style Jazz Guitar; an art form that as I say, has been around since the 50’s. One further point is this: that when arranging or improvising covers (others’ songs) to play in this style, that it is most effective when there are strong melodies and good chord changes.

Finally, I will just say that this is an approach I now want to teach my plectrum-only guitar students; no matter what else we do. I find it is the most satisfying of all guitar playing styles and approaches; because it doesn’t require other musicians, or backing tracks and it doesn’t require you (or someone else) to sing the song whilst providing accompaniment. Of course it is ultimately more challenging than just playing a PART of something (and let’s face it, that’s all that most guitarists can do) but it’s the reward that counts. There is a way into this that’s not mind boggling or technically too difficult – it’s about taking the right steps and this is something I am attending to now in my teachings. It’s always something there you can come back to no matter what other approches, styles and contexts you play in!

And here’s Barney Kessel too: