Learning how to harmonize a melody isn’t just for jazzers—even rock-minded guitarists can get into the action.
• Discover the “top note” concept.
• Develop your chord-melody arranging skills.
• Learn how to move inner voices to create harmonic variation within a chord.
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Knowing how to arrange music on guitar is a valuable skill. It will help you craft memorable parts for a band, thicken up your sound in a solo guitar setting, and sometimes let you discover a cool signature section that elevates a song. There are several ways to approach arranging on the fretboard, and in this lesson we’ll examine one of the most potent: conceptualizing chord melodies. Typically, the term “chord melody” implies a jazz setting, but you can use the same approach in any style. For our purposes, we’ll apply the concepts to the rock world. Let’s look at a few melodies, analyze how they function over chord changes, and discuss different options for turning those notes into something bigger and better.
Keeping a band setting in mind, we’ll favor small, simple chords—just the essentials. This is a good way to allow plenty of space for other instruments to help fill out the sound. In this lesson, we’ll look at examples with melodies that lie within two octaves, and we’ll use three-note chord shapes on the top three string sets (5–4–3, 4–3–2, and 3–2–1) to harmonize these melodies.
Let’s start with a really simple, short melody with a basic harmony (Ex. 1). The basic concept in harmonizing a melody is to treat each melody note as the highest tone in a chord. In other words, the melody will dictate the chord position to build down from. The first step is to identify the notes of the melody as degrees relative to the chords they’re played against.
The next step is to choose voicings that have the melody note as the top note of the chord (Ex. 2). The first note in measure 1 is E—the 3 of C. So we need to find a C major triad shape with E as the highest note. As a rule of thumb, harmonize only notes with longer durations and keep the shorter notes stand alone, unless they occur on a chord change. That means we will keep F (the 4 of the scale) by itself and move to the next note, playing a C triad with G (the 5) as the top note.
In the next measure, the first note is E (the 7 of F). Although it’s a short note, we’ll harmonize it because falls on a chord change. Because the 7 isn’t part of a major triad, we’ll need to work some note-substitution magic. The most obvious option is to fret a first-inversion F major triad shape with the root in the melody (A–C–F), and then lower the root by a half-step to reach the 7 (A–C–E). Astute players will recognize this as the top three notes of an Fmaj7 chord, as well as a root-position Am triad.
Last, we have a 5 (D), so we play a root position G major triad in 3rd position. By systematically following those steps, we now have this simple melody harmonized. It sounds full and shows nice movement.
Let’s repeat the process with a few more melodies supported by more intricate harmony. Here is the degree analysis for Ex. 3.
Ex. 4 shows one solution for harmonizing this melody. Let’s take a look at some of the creative challenges in this example. Over the first Bb chord, the melody uses a 3 followed by a 5. Here we take a shortcut by fretting a triad with the 5 on top, but first plucking the root and 3, and then letting them ring below the 5 for the duration of the chord.
Over the Cm chord, when the 2 (or 9) becomes the melody, we keep the same triad fingering and simply substitute the 2 for the b3 that preceded it. This illustrates an important technique: Sometimes when you shift a melody note, you can support it by sustaining lower notes from the previous voicing. We use a similar idea for the Dm7 with a b7 as the melody note. After hitting that voicing, replace the b7 with the 5, while holding the two lower notes. This creates a Dm triad.
For the Ab chord with a 2 as the top note: Here we have the option of taking the triad with the root on top and replacing it with the 2, or taking the triad with the 3 on top and substituting the 2 for it. Neither option is more correct—they both sound different. I like the suspended quality of the latter option, so we’ll go with that.
The phrase repeats, but let’s make a small change on the Eb chord. The melody note spans the entire measure and while we can’t change the melody itself, we can change one of the inner voices to create a variation. Taking the middle note of the triad (the 3) and changing it to a 2 halfway through the measure makes the part more interesting.
Here is another melody (Ex. 5) with its degree analysis. It’s slower and in a major key.
In Ex. 6, we harmonize this melody. Here are a few highlights: Starting in measure 3, against the Bb chord we twice play A (its major 7) as a whole note. These repeated melody notes provide an opportunity to add harmonic color below them, so let’s vary an inner voice to create some harmonic movement. Check it out: In measure 4 the D drops to C creating a Bbmaj7sus2.
A similar idea occurs in measures 7 and 8. For the C chord, grip a triad with the root (C) on top, but replace the root with the 2 (D). Then in bar 8, heighten the suspended sound by raising E (the 3) to F (the 4).
Finally, here is a fast-paced melody (Ex. 7).
Here we take advantage of some open strings while replaying the main triad to reinforce the harmony. It’s okay to take some liberties and repeat a few of the triad’s lower voices while the top melody is moving around. For example, at the E chord in measure 4, we dance through the top melody notes while reiterating the lower two voices, E and B. Ex. 8 is the end result.
Keep in mind, a musical passage that benefits from the chord-melody treatment can be really short. You might use this technique for a two-beat stint in a solo, or a measure-long guitar part supporting a lead melody. Or try a whole song! There’s no set system, no miracle recipe that will work every time. These are simply tools to help you shed some light on the essential concepts. I encourage you to experiment with them and see where they lead you.