Today we have another more advanced topic (jazz nerds rejoice), all about creating chord melodies. This can be done compositionally, or with any pop/folk song, but today it’s going to be focused on taking that from a jazz standard. Then, of course, if you are able to do this in this scenario, it will be very doable in any other case.
There is no “one way” to do this, but there are definitely some helpful tips and so I will walk through my process when arranging a chord melody for a jazz standard.
It’s always important to look at the REGISTER of the melody. In many cases it’s better to take this up the octave as otherwise it could be quite tricky to place the chords underneath.
After this it’s best to learn the melody inside-out on its own. Doing this will allow much more freedom when you are applying the chords.
2. Where do the melody notes fit in the chords?
Firstly, in some cases, they won’t, a great example of this is the Miles Davis tune “Blue in Green”. But in most standards it will, and this is where the 7th chord inversion that we looked at last week are very handy, especially in looking at what the top note is and usually the best point of reference to make that chord work. It’s also important to note whether you can play that note on E, B or G string as this may give you more options to have the root note in the bass (not always essential but often preferable) or to fit more notes in the chord if need be.
3. Notes to omit
For chord-melodies, the reality is that guitar is not as ideal as the piano, so there is very often a question of which notes to omit. Even if you can fit all the notes on, sometimes this is undesirable as it may crowd up the sound too much.
Generally the first note to omit is the 5th, it’s not interesting unless it’s diminished. If it’s a 13th for example, no need for the 9th or 11th (though this is pretty standard for guitar anyhow). The next one is either the 3rd or root. If it is a smaller chord (for example, just a standard 7 chord), I would be more inclined to omit the root as the 3rd gives more interest and also a good amount of clarity to the chord as it is. If the chord, however, has 5 notes or more, or some altered or added notes (for example add6add9, 7#5b9, m13#5) then it is better to omit the 3rd so that the hoed has a solid base, or maybe one of the added/altered notes.
While I’d generally learn the standard note for note at first, to play it exactly as written is quite boring, and almost the opposite of what jazz is all about. We want to hear HOW you play a song, not just that you can play one. So embellish the melody, respect it, but add something that shows us your personal flavour, whether this is a lick, octaves, harmonising the melody, playing with the rhythm, a run in the bass line etc. What makes players such as Joe Pass, Pat Metheny, Chet Atkins the greats is that they are able to play their own distinct style.
5. Where to hold and where to let go.
When to do this is always going to be down to player’s preference but it’s something worth considering. If you play the whole chord melody without giving the melody any space to breathe, it can quickly become very one dimensional. On the other hand, be sure that when you’re actually holding the chord through a run, that you aren’t slipping off, leaving it to sound a bit rough.