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Published on May 30th, 2012 | by Sam


Write Better Melodies Using Chord Tones

I’m really excited to feature a guest post by Joel Cornell.  He is going to talk about using chord tones as guideposts in creating a melodies and solos.  Make to check out his YouTube lessons here-great teacher and guitarist.  Please share this post on Facebook and Twitter.  Thanks for reading!

When you’re first learning the neck, it’s hard to imagine that the guitar could’ve been designed worse. You’re supposed to remember notes that have no relation to their fret, all scale patterns are seemingly random puzzles, and you can’t even rely on all strings being the same distance of notes apart. It feels like someone is playing a joke on you, and it’s not very funny.

If you’re struggling with learning the neck, I want to show you a trick that will allow you to see some patterns.

The idea

The idea I’m going to be showing you is to take chords you already know, and use the notes in these chords as guideposts for when you’re writing songs. The goal isn’t to think in terms of scales, but in terms of the overall chords and how the chord tones relate to those notes.

Now, remember that all major and minor chords are created by taking the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in a scale, and playing them together. What’s nice about this is that all of the other scale tones are only one note below or one note above these specific notes. For example:

– 2nd note of the scale = 1 note up from the 1st note, and one note down from the 3rd note
– 4th note of the scale = 1 note up from the 3rd note, and one note down from the 5th note
– 6th note of the scale = 1 note up from the 5th note
– 7th note of the scale = 1 note down from the 1st (also called the 8th) note

So let’s turn this around – you already know a set of major and minor chords, and how to finger them. If we look at these chords as the skeletons of scales, we can take what you already know to give you a foundation for your songwriting.

The major scale

For starters, let’s take an A Major barred chord, starting on the 5th fret. Spreading out the notes, it looks like this:

SS Example 1

Let’s add one note to this pattern – the 3rd scale degree, on the low E string:

SS Example 2

Now you have all of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees of this A Major chord played together. With this pattern alone, you now are only one note away from all of the other notes of the scale. To see this, look at this pattern, with us adding a note below and above each chord tone:

SS Example 3

Now let’s rearrange these notes so they go in order. As you can see, we go stepwise up the scale, hitting each note:

SS Example 4

You just created an entire major scale by taking the chord tones, and only including notes one step above or below the chord tones.

The minor scale

We can take this same idea, and use it to build a minor scale. For starters, let’s take the A minor barred chord, starting on the 5th fret:

SS Example 5

Now, just as we did above, let’s add one note to this set – the 3rd scale degree on the low E string:

SS Example 6

We now have all 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale tones of the minor scale. By playing one note above and below, similar to the above example, we can create a minor scale that looks like this:

SS Example 7

Why is this useful?

This trick is useful because it will allow you to write while you’re still wrapping your head around scales. You now have a few more guide-tones to use while you’re writing.

For example, let’s say you are trying to write a melody. You have a good idea that you are playing for a second or two, but now you’re trying to figure out what’s next. Try starting on one of these chord tones – play the note, and see if any ideas come to you. None coming? Try going one note down, or one note up. Anything now? Try a new chord tone.

Or say you’ve played a few notes, and you need to play something strong. You know you’re only one note below or above a chord tone, at the farthest points.

What’s great about using chord tones as guideposts is that they will always sound strong when playing a melody. Listeners use chords and chord tones to give them some grounding when they hear a melody, so by using these chord tones as markers, you’re going with where the ear already wants the melody to go. In essence, you’re using the listener’s own tendencies to make your songwriting better.

So try approaching your songwriting this way, and see if it opens up any ideas. Enjoy!

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