Free Jazz Guitar Lessons with Chris Standring

Building Chord Melody Vocabulary

Chord melody seems like quite a daunting concept to many students. The very idea of improvising lines in chords might seem overwhelming, but let me try to put this into a little perspective.

If I asked you to play a simple blues lick over say a G7 chord, or even a G minor7 chord, you could probably do this very easily. How many licks do you think you might be able to pull off? A fair few I'd like to think. Now, if I asked you to play over a 2 - 5 - 1 chord progression in G, how would you do? You could draw from a good deal of harmonic vocabulary that you have studied, and perhaps that I have shown you.

We are building vocabulary to draw our ideas from. The more ideas you play with, the more your internal database grows. And whatever you have to play with can be put into other harmonic situations. Some things you will learn stick with you, some don't. And this is perfectly fine. Very often, technically difficult lines don't stay with you. This is why I always like to develop ideas that sit nicely under the fingers. That way I can work them into my playing naturally and I won't get 'taken out of the moment' during improvisation.

So getting to my point. Chord melody is absolutely no different. We are simply building more data to draw from. If I were to show you a cool melodic line in G minor voiced over say the top four strings, at the 3rd fret, you now have some chord melody to play over G minor. Learning the vocabulary and internalizing it is the first step.

Of course, it's never quite that simple because, stylistically, these lines need to come out naturally and in different settings and tempos. For instance, how one interprets a line playing a ballad, might be very different than playing it at mid tempo, and quite different at fast tempo. And let's not forget different time signatures such as ¾ waltz time.

We need to study a little harmony, so we understand where the notes come from, and then we need to look at lots of different examples so you can start building your chord melody improvising vocabulary.

I remember Joe Pass once saying that there are only three chords to be concerned with. Or more specifically, that he liked to reduce everything to one of three chords for the purpose of practicality. And we are going to look at things from the same perspective, because Joe was on to something.

You should know that the most important chord progression in jazz is the TWO-FIVE-ONE chord progression. In any key this gives us a minor chord, followed by a dominant chord, followed by a major chord. So let's say in the key of F major, a two-five-one chord progression (adding 7ths to each chord) would be G minor7, going to C7, going to Fmajor7.

So how do we reduce everything to one of these three chords? Well, we can assume that minor 6, minor 7 or minor 9 chords for example are simply embellished minor chords. An altered dominant chord is an embellished dominant. The only other two chords that we need to concern ourselves with are diminished and augmented.

A diminished chord can simply be looked at as the top part of a dominant 7th chord. It contains all the notes of a dominant 7th chord with a flattened 9th. It can of course be used as a stand-alone diminished chord in itself, but for our purposes, it may be easier to think of it as a relative to it's parent FIVE chord.

We can interpret augmented chords in a similar way. An augmented chord is essentially a major triad with a raised fifth. Let's say we are in the key of F major. If we add a 7th to a C augmented chord we get the chord of C7(#5). Again, this is simply an embellishment of a dominant 7th chord.

So if we can reduce everything harmonically to just these three chords, building our vocabulary is that much easier and more focused. In my Jazz Guitar Video Masterclass Volume 2 (which is focused 100% on chord melody) I will show you a ton of ideas you can play on each of these three chords. I will also show you how to link each idea together.

To get your feet wet, let's look at three TWO-FIVE-ONE chord melody ideas we can use utilizing some of the information I will show you in my program. In these examples we are going to think of our FIVE chord with a b9 on top. This produces a diminished sound. Here are my examples:

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The Long Awaited Play What You Hear Volume Two Is Now Here!

It has been many years since the first edition of Play What You Hear (originally released in 2000). Now volume two is here with new ideas and concepts, complete with audio, video, traditional notation and TAB throughout. High resolution pdf available for printing the entire program. For intermediate and advanced players.

  • Part One: Melody

    Focuses on single note soloing. Learn how to effortlessly solo through complex chord changes.

  • Part Two: Harmony

    Focuses on chord melody. Learn new harmonic devices and understand chords in a whole new way.

  • Performances

    Study Chris Standring's six recorded solos, transcribed with audio and high def video.