Are you ready for a challenge? Good! If you answered ‘yes’, then it’s time to learn about chord melody soloing for guitar. This technique, used predominantly by jazz guitarists, incorporates adding the melody line as the top note of each chord in the progression. As you may expect, it’s not easy to do and the complexity (or simplicity) of your arrangement will depend on your basic chord knowledge, understanding scale and chord construction formulas, and your technical proficiency on the guitar. The bottom line is that chord melody soloing is really fun to do, regardless of skill level, so let’s get started.
The objective when chord soloing on the guitar is to select a chord voicing that includes the melody note as the highest note heard – the melody note can’t be disguised or obscured as an interior voice. Obviously, knowing how to play common chord families in, at least, three or four positions will be necessary, as will knowing how to read music on the treble clef. The guitar is a low-pitched instrument, yet all guitar music is written in treble clef. It’s written an octave higher than it sounds – otherwise, there would be so many leger lines, the music would be very difficult to read. The E just above middle C on the piano is written on the first line of the staff, but the same pitch in guitar music is written on the top space of the treble clef.
Presuming that you’re using complete sheet music or a lead/fake sheet (which only includes a melody line and chord symbols) to learn the song you’ve chosen for chord melody soloing, you must first raise the melody line by an octave – unless the music is specifically transcribed for guitar, which it probably isn’t. Now the real fun starts! Although the lead sheet indicates which chords to play, they’re usually basic, stripped-down forms of the chords which you must actually play to include the melody on the top. That’s why understanding chord construction comes into play. And, unfortunately for some, open string chord forms don’t work very well when crafting a chord melody solo for guitar. And, even worse, most of the sheet music arrangements and fake sheets usually show only open string, ‘easier to play’ chord voicings. As the old saying goes, “You just can’t get there from here!” You won’t be able to hit the higher melody notes . . . simple as that. You’ll have to know a lot of moveable chord forms, but that’s a good thing, of course.
Ideally, when chord soloing on the guitar, you want to position the melody note on one of the top three strings, thereby having the chord quality as a solid foundation while the melody is accentuated. Remember that 3rds and 7ths define chord quality, so whichever chord form you choose or construct, they are the important tones. It’s always okay to eliminate 5ths, unless altered, and roots sometimes, too, when necessary or desired. Did you know that piano players rarely play roots when ‘comping’ in an ensemble setting? It’s true – that’s the bass player’s job. Did you also know that many jazz guitarists use seven-string guitars so they can weave intricate bass lines with equally fascinating upper chord voicings? That takes a few extra hours of practice, I’ll bet!
For our chord melody soloing example, I selected the song “More”, which is the theme song from the Italian movie “MONDO CANE”, meaning “a dog’s world”. The Kai Winding Orchestra’s version of the tune hit the U.S. Billboard charts in 1963, and it has since become a ‘standard’, covered by hundreds of artists including Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, The Supremes, and even the Young Rascals (I had that album.) I’ve never seen the movie, but according to Wikipedia and other sites, it’s a documentary of the world’s cultural practices and rituals, and the movie’s intent was to shock the audience by depicting human depravity. That surprised me, since “More” is a love song and seemingly has nothing to do with the movie content – maybe it’s a symbolic or ironic thing.
I picked this song for a few reasons: one, it has a strong, recognizable melody line; two, it’s relatively easy to play so it’s a great introduction to the art of chord melody soloing for guitar; and three, I’ve always really liked the song. So, let’s look at my arrangement of “More” before discussing how it’s put together. And, to further assist you in playing the tune, I’ve also included chord diagrams since, I think, they’re easier to learn rather than trying to memorize the numbers on the tab staff or associate the staff notation with a chord form.
In the following chord diagrams, the roots are light purple and the melody notes are light blue. For the most part, the full barre/moveable chord formations are shown, but the tab shows which notes to actually play – I prefer the root as the lowest note. The chords are pretty much in order of appearance and the same fingerings may be used again, although the diagrams are not duplicated in the chart. And remember, the fret number next to the grid indicates the fret in which your first finger must be placed.
In the score, provided above, I didn’t alter the melody at all and it’s heard as the top note of every chord (except for the ending, which I made up). I did, however change some of the fake sheet’s chord symbols to reflect what the chords become when the melody note is added. For example, in measure 3, adding the melody note B, the 9th, to the indicated Am7 chord makes it an Am9 chord. You can either let the Am7 ring, then pick only the B, or you can strum the entire Am9 chord, whichever sounds best to you.
Here’s another example: In measures 11 and 13, the fake sheet (and the original) calls for an Em(#7) and an Em6, respectively. Can you see the problem with those chord selections if you’re chord melody soloing on the guitar? That’s right . . . there’s no A in either chord! The melody note is A! So, the real chord has to be an Em11 – or, an E7sus4 in 7th position (7th fret), which makes all of the next melody notes easily accessible, and it sounds about the same, given the song’s tempo. I chose the latter for my chord solo arrangement.
Just one more example: In measure 15, rather than playing a simple A7, add a little zest by using an A9 in the 11th fret so you can hit the high E and B without moving hand position. It will sound better, too.
I think you’re getting the idea. Chord melody soloing for guitar is pretty hard to do, but it’s just a matter of learning more chord forms, increasing your music theory knowledge, and practicing technique. Did you notice that the F#m7 to B7 in the second ending is a ii-V leading to the Em7? Did you recognize that the Ab7#5 in measure 17 is a bII7 tritone substitute for the D7? Did you recognize that the D7b9 in the second to the last measure is the same chord shape as a diminished chord built on a different root? If not, that’s my point. As usual, I encourage you to check out my previous lessons for some theory review if you need it.
Should you play a chord for every melody note in the song? No, not necessarily – you could, but a well constructed chord solo for guitar will contain both chords, with melody notes on the top, and single-line melody passages. Fluidity of movement is the most important consideration when chord melody soloing, but the sound of the chord inversions also plays a major role. Trust your ear! What sounds best to you? Sometimes, guitar players overdo it, and the melody gets lost in the complexity of chord changes intertwined with needless, flashy improv runs.
If you know how to play a few common barre chords, you’ll have no trouble playing this arrangement. Try some different chord voicings and adjust the tempo however you wish to ensure that you play the tune smoothly. How you combine chords and individual melody notes is your choice. You can alter the timing a little bit, also, to add expression – just call it ‘artistic license’. I’ve included a bonus mp3 file (below) so you can hear the song. It doesn’t include all of the verses, but you’ll get the idea.
I hope this lesson will help you with chord melody soloing for guitar. Pick a song with an interesting melody line and figure out which chord inversions will optimize your individual arrangement. The old standards like “Misty”, “Satin Doll”, “Cry Me a River”, etc., are great choices, as are movie themes such as “More” and many others. As you may expect, Judas Priest and Megadeth tunes are not good candidates for chord soloing on the guitar! And, listen to the jazz guys! I’m always amazed by the virtuosity exhibited by Joe Pass, Howard Alden, George Van Eps, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Jimmy Bruno, to name a few. Wow . . .
A final thought . . . one of my favorite guitarists, Ronnie Montrose, lost his battle with cancer a few days ago . . . he was only 64 years old. His exquisite, orchestrated, instrumental rendition of Gene Pitney’s “Town without Pity” will always remain one of my favorite songs. Maybe, after many years of only thinking about it, it’s finally time for me to arrange a chord solo version. You could try it, too. Rest in peace, Ronnie . . .