Sometimes when I play a slower song, a single-note melody can seem pretty sparse. Chord melodies are a great way to fill out a tune. Sometimes we bluegrassers might think of chord melody as a complex jazz guitar technique, but once you’ve learned the process, you’ll find that it’s not difficult to create rich-sounding chord melodies on bluegrass, country, and folk songs.
The concept of chord melody is simple: you add a chord, or sometimes just a part of the chord, to the melody of the song. In the jazz tradition, the melody is always the highest-pitched note, and I find that this practice works well for bluegrass too.
We’ll create a chord melody to the song, “The House of the Rising Sun.” This song is familiar to most, and has an interesting chord progression. You need two things: the melody under your fingertips, and knowledge of the chords. For this example, I wrote a lead sheet with both melody and chords, available here.
Making a chord melody with basic chords
We are going to add notes from the chord that are lower in pitch than the melody. Instead of adding a chord to every single note, we will focus on the melody notes that happen right when the chord changes.
Looking at the lead sheet, we see the melody written with the chords indicated above.
On the word “is,” we add part of the Am chord underneath the melody note.
Moving on to the second measure, the chord changes to C. We can add part of the C chord to the word “house.” Remember to always keep the melody as the highest note.
Adding the chord below the melody gives us this.
As we go on repeating the same process, the first line becomes this:
Using alternate chord forms
You can make a chord melody out of just the basic chords. However, you will find that some notes are outside the reach of the open position chords. For example, in measure 5, adding the traditional Am chord to the melody note on the 5th fret would be impractical. We need a different Am chord to support this note.
This is where knowing alternate ways to play chords comes in handy. We can use part of the Am bar chord to embellish this note.
Sometimes there is more than one option
In measure 6, this note at the 3rd fret needs a C chord.
We could use a traditional C chord, adding a pinky to get the melody note.
Or, we could use another nearby C chord to support the melody note.
Writing it down
If you’re just starting, I really find it helpful to write down your chord melody in tablature. Once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll get used to creating them, and it will become easier.
Taking this process step-by-step, you will end up with a great-sounding arrangement that you created yourself.
Check out the lead sheet and chord melody arrangement below.