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Guitar Chord Melody - Open Chord Embellishment

Chords don't always have to be played as static blocks of harmony. You can add movement - melody - through the chord to give it more intricacy and colour.

The most logical place to begin is with the open position chords we learn as beginners, as they can accomodate a lot of movement due to their economical fingering and use of open strings. In this lesson I'll show you how to economize your fingering further to incorporate melodic (vocal) lines through your chords.

Watch the presentation below for an introduction to this chord melody technique and then scroll down for exercises to help you practice and get the most out of it...

Economize Your Fingering

As mentioned in the video, the more economical your fingering, the more freedom you'll have to work a melody around the chord shape. Using a barre can help with this, such as with A major...

open A major barre

And D major...

open D major barre

So in both chords, your index finger becomes the "base" of the chord structure and you are free to build a melody on proceeding frets using your 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers.

For chords with a 6th string bass, some players find using their thumb to fret the bass is an effective way of freeing up an extra finger. However, depending on how you're built, you may find this even more restrictive as the leverage in your fingers can be compromised from curling your thumb over the neck. The thumb should really be positioned around the back of the neck for maximum fret-hand leverage.

You should also be aware of how each chord you play can be reduced to its most important notes/strings. For example, E minor can be played without fretting any strings. Just leave out the 4th and 5th strings.

open E minor without fretting

E major can be played with two fingers instead of the standard three - leave out the 5th string...

open E major two finger variation

C major can also be played using just two fingers by leaving out the 4th string...

open C major two finger variation

A lot of the experimentation around this technique will involve economizing your chord fingering to accomodate these melodic movements. In short, don't be afraid to change your fingering, even switch fingerings as you play, to allow you to reach new places on the fretboard.

Tips for Building Chord Melodies

Every chord has the potential to be melodically embellished. The key thing to listen out for when trying out your ideas is how the melody flows into the proceeding chord.

For example, take this simple movement between G major and A minor. As you play it, can you hear how the melody falls naturally into one of A minor's notes when it changes?

Melody between G major and A minor

You could even start by playing a melody on its own and then, looking at where one of the notes lands, use that to link up a chord change that uses the same note.

For example, here I've picked out a simple melody around the open position...

Melody without chords

Looking at where the notes fall on the fretboard, I can try superimposing some chords over the melody as follows...

Melody through Dmaj and Amaj

You can always find alternative positions for the melody notes to economize the fingering. Let's try some different chords with the same melody...

Melody through E7 and Gmaj

So, same melody, wrapped around different chords. But it still works because of how these notes harmonize with the chords. And of course you can tweak the melody to accomodate any new chords you add.

Not only is this great exercise for your fingers, it gets you thinking about bringing harmony and melody together into a unified musical statement.

Developing the skill of wrapping a melody around chord changes also helps you figure out vocal lines and soloing ideas.

Chord Melody Exercises

Use these exercises as warm ups and/or for ideas to get you started writing your own songs. I personally like to use them to work on my finger picking.

Note that you can strum or pick these exercises however you wish - the melody notes are tabbed in red. Start by strumming the sequences from the lowest note to the melody note on each chord and then start to introduce your own picking or strumming patterns.

Tip: play the melody line first so you internalize it for when you add in the chords. This will train your ear to hear the melody through chord changes.

Melody through Cmaj Em Am D7

Melody through Em A7 Dmaj

Melody through Cmaj Gmaj Dmaj Am

Finger Picking Melody

If you're particularly interested in developing your finger picking skills, take a look at the video below for some tips on co-ordinating bass and melody changes through your chords...

finger picking chord melody video

Melodic Chord Phrasing

Of course, just like with lead playing, you can add in phrasing techniques such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and bends. For more on this, see my lesson on chord phrasing.

The process is exactly the same as I recommend with lead playing. Start with the basic melodic line and then add in your embellishments in layers. But keep in mind you don't always have to use these techniques - sometimes a straight melody, or even just a casually strummed chord is all that's needed to say what you want to say.

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