Chord Solos, Chord Melody and Solo Guitar

What is a chord solo?

Chords + Melody

If you play chords alone on the guitar, the top notes (highest note) of the chords basically imply a melody.  There are exceptions, but it’s very often the top note.  And that’s a good starting point for looking at what it is to play chords and melody at the same time.  To a certain extent, that’s what solo guitar arrangements are.  They’re simply arrangements of chords, or more generally, the harmony of the song or piece being played, with the melody voiced on top.


A Comparison to Piano

Let’s look at another instrument, the piano, for a moment, just for comparison.  On piano, it’s pretty straightforward to play harmony and melody simultaneously, whether you’re playing a full arrangement or simply playing chords under a melody.

First of all, you can play chords with one hand and melody with the other.  This is probably the simplest method on piano and is usually taught first.  Of course, it’s not really possible, in the same sense, on guitar.  Because of range restrictions, limits to hand independence vs. piano, and especially because of the limitations of open chord voicings on the instrument, this method kind of breaks down for use on the guitar.

A slightly more advanced approach on the piano would be to voice fuller chord inversions with the right hand, while playing a sparser bass accompaniment with the left.  This method requires the player to know more chord inversions and to know how to voice chords to fit melody, rather than always subjugating every other musical consideration to fit simpler chord voicings which most players already know.

Top-Down Chords vs. Bottom-Up

This top-down vs. bottom-up approach is something which I’ll be talking about in future blog posts here.  It’s not something I’ve seen represented much in music education, specifically  related to guitar.  Top-down and bottom-up approaches each have advantages and disadvantages, but I certainly think that both are worth looking at.

I also think that the fact that one approach comprises the vast majority of all solo guitar playing and arranging is quite interesting.  It got me thinking: maybe it’s worth asking whether this disparity points to the possible causes of many of our limitations otherwise, in playing solo guitar.  More specifically, what if weaknesses in the traditional approach itself are directly related to the fact that guitarists typically have more difficulty playing chords and melody simultaneously?  What if guitarists could learn to play with something closer to the kind of freedom which pianists take for granted in playing this simple style, simply by adjusting the approach?

Triads as a Starting Point

In my own playing, I’ve been using triads as my starting point for blocking out a basic chord solo when playing from a leadsheet.  There are several advantages to using triads.  First, there are only 3 inversions for each chord.  This means that, on the guitar, each string set has only 3 ways to finger a simple triad of any given type.  Also, the fingerings are very simple and easy on the hands, which helps greatly with legato playing.  The main point though, is that, by limiting to 3 notes, the voicing problems of larger chords are mostly avoided.  You don’t have to decide which notes to delete or double when you’re basically settled on one of each.

I’ll close out this post with an example, using the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, and update in future posts more about the process.  Anyway, you’ll notice that this hymn utilizes only 10 chord forms, and a couple of those repeat.

The first one is a D chord, with F# as the melody note.  Play that voicing every time an F# is indicated along with a D chord.  Do the same for the other chords.  Learn to play it a measure or two at a time.  Once you learn to read some simple combinations, you’ll know that many more for the next tune you learn to read in the same way.

Click the image above to download the pdf or click here: come-thou-fount-of-every-blessing pdf.