How to Play Chord Melody Style on the Guitar
When a guitarist arranges a song’s main melody and chords together to form one part, it’s called playing — big surprise — chord melody. For this example, you play a version of the popular Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?,” which is an adaptation of an earlier folksong, “Greensleeves.”
Before you try to play the arrangement below as written, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the melody. The melody is voice 1 in the score and features note stems that go up. Watch the demonstration of this chord melody style, pay attention to the 3/4 waltz time, and then work out the melody on your own, ignoring for now voice 2 in the score, which features note stems going down. When you’re familiar with the main melody, you’re ready to add in the other elements of the arrangement.
The example has two sections, A and B, and each one is played in two different manners. Here’s a list of what each section includes:
In section A1, you begin to build a chord melody arrangement by adding the root note from each chord using your thumb as you play through the melody with your fingers.
In section A2, you fill the space between the bass note and melody by using your fingers to pluck parts of each chord piano‐style.
In the first half of the song’s B section, you continue to pluck piano‐style but with a twist. Instead of plucking the strings all at once, use a forward roll that begins with the bass note and ends with the melody note.
Finally in B2, you fill the space between the bass and melody notes with arpeggiation.
Work on only one approach from this list at a time. When you get a technique down, apply it through the entire tune. In other words, the whole piece can be played using root notes from each chord as they change, as described in the first step.
Likewise the whole piece can be played piano‐style, or with forward rolls, or with arpeggiation. When you’re really good, you use a mixture of all four styles and pick and choose how to approach each chord as you play.
You can adapt a tune for chord melody by putting the lead line in the upper voicing
of the chords.
Chord‐melody‐style guitar is more common in jazz than in pop/rock. Here’s a jazzy example in played somewhat in the style of Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “O Tannenbaum” from the soundtrack, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Notice that the melody is voice 1 in the score with the stems going up, and played mostly on the first string. You can use whatever fingering feels right and works. If you have trouble getting to the Bm7 in measure four, try omitting one of the strings to make it easier.