Combining Melody and Chords

A few ideas for people who want to start making their own arrangements of tunes.

For this post I’ll be using Ode to Joy because the melody is very simple and you can play it against one chord (in this case C). Here’s the snippet:


MP3

You’ll have to forgive any sniffles, coughs and hocked loogies you can pick up on these MP3s. I’m down with a nasty cold at the moment.

Melody and Strums

The most common way to combine melody and chords is to strum the chord and add the melody note on top of that.

In this case, we can strum the open g, C and E strings (make up a C chord) while we play the melody on the top string.


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To make the melody note stand out make sure it’s the last note you hit. So when the melody is on the A string use a down strum, when it’s on the g-string use an up strum. Because the melody here is all on the A-string, you use all down strums. I’m using my thumb for the strums and the single notes but for more complicated pieces varying your strumming and picking will make things more interesting.

Check out Mark Occhionero arrangement of Blue in Green for an idea of what you can do with this technique.

Melody and Harmony and Strum

You can spice up the chord soloing idea by harmonizing the melody. Here I’m harmonizing with notes a third below the melody.


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Back-up Picking

Here we’re adding in a simple fingerpicking pattern behind the melody. The picking hand is one finger per string (thumb on g-string, index on C-string, middle on E-string, ring on A string).


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There are all sorts of patterns you can use for this type of accompaniment. Take a listen to Rick Hulett’s arrangement of Falling Slowly for some ideas.

Alternate Picking

Fingerpicking again but this time, rather than having a dedicated finger for each string, the thumb flips between the g and C strings. On the guitar this type of playing is referred to as Travis picking or Cotten picking.

Here’s a typical pattern with the thumb playing the g and C strings, the index on the E and the middle on the A.

And here’s how you could use the pattern to play Ode to Joy.


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Here are a couple of tunes played in this way.

Which is the Best?

The one that sounds best to you.

There isn’t a right answer. Try them all out (and try it campanella style).

I’ve already put up two arrangements of Ode to Joy and neither of them sound anything like any of the arrangements on this post. If I was going to pick one for this tune, I’d go with the alternate picking. Which I never even thought of trying before this post.

There are so many ways of arranging any tune the only way to go is choose the one that suits you best rather than blindly copying the way it works for someone else.

View Comments

16 Comments

  1. Fuke April 14th, 2010 7:38 pm

    Fantastic post, some really good ideas for me to try there. Thank you!

  2. Armelle April 14th, 2010 8:06 pm

    Wow, this is really useful info, Al! Exactly what I have been wondering about lately.
    Thanks a million for the information ! I will try to put it to good use.

  3. Howlin' Hobbit April 14th, 2010 8:21 pm

    Love that last link!

  4. J-Hob April 14th, 2010 8:53 pm

    Fantastic, I’ll give this one a go. I have been trying on and off without much success to learn combining chords and melody with little success recently.

  5. J-Hob April 14th, 2010 9:28 pm

    I’ve just read that through again and you’ve explained it all really well, bravo!

  6. Woodshed April 14th, 2010 10:01 pm

    Fuke: Thanks!

    Armelle: Look forward to hearing what you come up with.

    Hobbit: I couldn’t resist a little dig.

    J-Hob: Thanks, John. I hope it helps get you through the rut.

  7. Rob NY April 15th, 2010 2:23 pm

    Well done! Thank you so much.

  8. Ron and Jeanne April 15th, 2010 3:05 pm

    A few months ago, we wrote a melody line and words for a song contest but, we had no idea how to write chords for it. We guessed! :( Bad idea.

    This is a fantastic post, Al! It’s exactly what we’ve been looking for recently. Thanks.

  9. Little 6ster April 15th, 2010 3:20 pm

    Very, very good! ;°)

  10. mictoboy April 15th, 2010 10:30 pm

    love your work Al. Clear, intelligent tuition.

    Cheers

  11. Markus April 16th, 2010 5:17 am

    Great post, really clear helpful, especially if your trying to make a song sound good by yourself. Thanks.

  12. SweetWaterBlue April 16th, 2010 3:22 pm

    Excellent article. This is just the kind of “Teach a Man to Fish” article that really helps newbies get the idea behind chord solos.

  13. Bruce Baird April 28th, 2010 9:17 pm

    Wonderfully done. Thanks so much for this.

  14. Mangorockfish May 6th, 2010 4:31 am

    Great stuff here. Glad to hear you say more or less, “whatever works best for you”. I’m a rank beginner, but if it doesn’t sound right to me, I try to fix it the best I can. Keep up the good work.

  15. john February 3rd, 2014 5:16 pm

    Just came across this post and it opened for me a lot of ways to try to combine melody notation and strumming patterns of songs to create more complex arrangements. Thanks for these excellent insights.

  16. Woodshed February 4th, 2014 8:33 am

    John: Thanks! Really glad it helped.

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