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Playing open chords, bar chords and bulky block chords can get quite boring after a while. And it also can prevent us from seeing and creating independent lines within the harmonic progression of a song. This is because we tend to think of the overall shape of the chord, not the individual chord tones. And the bulkiness of some chords prevents us from being able to move certain notes up or down to create a melody. It can also prevent our development of voice leading (smooth movement between lines) as we sharply jump from one chord to the next, unless we are aware of inversions perhaps.
If we want to play solo guitar (aka chord melody) in jazz, classical or other styles, outlining the harmony while playing a melody, then using 2 and sometimes 3 voices gives us the best options. It’s small enough to allow the freedom of movement of certain fingers but enough notes to reflect the chord changes.
An approach that I’ve found very useful as of late is to focus on the movement of one ‘voice’, so we’ll focus on the bass line. We start with an ascending bass line. A very important thing to be aware of is that each note of the ascending line can be considered chord tone in some inversion. This type of approach can be useful in creating a baroque-style version of the classic jazz standards and also for classical improvisation.
Let’s take the chord progression to Autumn Leaves: Am7 D7 Gmaj7 Cmaj7 F#m7b5 B7 Em. And we’ll start with the note A on the 7th fret D string. The line will ascend from there. So what we do is play A over Am7 which is the root. Then we look at the next chord and decide if our current note is also a chord tone. If it is we can stay on the same note. Since D7 also has an A in it (the fifth of the chord) we will stay on it. Then we will ascend to B (the third of Gmaj7) and so on. So the line goes A A B C C D# E. Each note is a chord tone of the current chord. We’ll stick to one string to emphasize the ascending movement.
Okay now we’re going to add a melody line. We’ve made the tune 3/4 time to help give it a Baroque feel.
The bass line is a bit faint in this image but it’s the same as the previous line!
Notice the repeating phrase/idea – basically a measure or so of eighth notes followed by a measure of quarter notes. Notice the melody uses chord tones on strong beats (and others). You can develop this idea by doing a similar thing in reverse – for upper voice do an ascending ‘bass line’ and create a melody in the bass. Move this around the fretboard and try doing it for the entire song. You can use this for improvisation as well, as you think of the chord progression and smooth movement of one voice, while adding melodies in the other voice(s).
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