The staple pursuit of almost all jazz guitar players. It's an art form in-and-of-itself that can immediately set the legends apart from the pros apart from the talented hobbyists apart from the early stage players. Can you sit with a guitar and make music? Not simply play a tune... or make it through the form... but can you truly bring a jazz standard to life?
Ultimately, this is a lifelong pursuit. We mature and season over time with our playing much like a great wine or bottle of scotch. But I do believe there are practical steps we can take immediately to start seeing much quicker results. Not that they will get our technique to a place where we're sounding like Martin Taylor or Tuck Andress by next year... but they WILL take us from where we are to a much more refined and musical aesthetic.
Before I give you my list of practical steps, let's consider how most of us are generally taught chord melody. There seems to be two basic ways I continue to see music students learning this craft. First, I see people finding the tab for another guitar player's arrangement and memorizing it.
This is fine. Great even, for a beginner or early intermediate jazz guitarist. It gets the fingers moving, it teaches you quickly how to play something that will sound cool and impress others. It might even be usable on certain types of gigs. However, it skips over a lot of important parts of the learning process. It doesn't guarantee you know the chord changes or the form. It doesn't guarantee that we can improvise over the tune... especially as a solo guitarist! It also doesn't guarantee that you know the melody well enough to play it without the chords.
I learned this the hard way. My first jazz guitar teacher was from the Joe Pass school of jazz guitar. He had me learn to play through chord melody first... to develop my solo guitar chops. Unfortunately I didn't realize that this way of playing didn't translate well into ensemble playing. So when I tried to transition to being a guitar player in a jazz group, it didn't go so well at first. I was so used to playing every melody note with a chord underneath it that it was hard for me to stop and just play good sounding single-note lines. My chords ended up clogging up the sound and getting in the way of the piano and bass player. It just sounded terrible. But if I tried to let go of the chords and only play the melody, I quickly realized that I'd never practiced just the melody and struggled to play it convincingly... or even correctly!
The second way I see guitar players learning chord melody is the way I learned. We take a lead sheet from the real book and we try to find a way to voice whatever chord is written above the melody in a way that puts the melody note on top of the chord. This is a near-impossible task for a beginner or even early intermediate player to accomplish. It takes a lot of theory and chord construction understanding, the ability to read music, and a strong grasp of the fretboard.
There are pros and cons to the first way vs the second way... but I'm not going to dig into those as what I want to do is give you some practical tips to start developing into a different way. Something I find more musical and more influenced from piano players and singers.
As guitar players we see music in a broken, jagged, angular fretboard-style view... a place where we have 6 - 7 different places to play the E note above middle C. And we only get four fingers plus a thumb to work with... so because of the physicality of this we end up lumping melody and harmony into the same concept. We do what my first teacher taught me to do. We see an Amin7 chord and a B note on top and we just jump straight to lumping these two elements of music into one, solid, clunky, block chord voicing.
Instead, I would recommend that if you're already relatively comfortable with the fretboard and basic theory... we start focusing on the two elements separately (melody and harmony), understanding what each one is doing, and putting them together where each compliments the other.
I'm yelling at myself as much as I am at you on this one. I spent WAY too many years arranging chord melodies out of the real book without having first sat and listened to what it's ACTUALLY supposed to sound like. I generally recommend you find the original version when possible. It might be a showtune from a Broadway musical and really not your cup of tea. Listen to it anyway. Get the historical perspective of where this piece of music came from.
Then move on to listening to a few singers performing it... again... when possible. My personal go-to singers for this are Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker. Frank usually gives a really clean execution of the melody with very little ornamentation or artistic liberty. Just killer tone, flawless phrasing and execution, and effortless swinging feel. Chet is the opposite. His phrasing and his interpretations are all over the place. Sometimes he changes pitches around, alters rhythms, leaves things out, adds things in... you never know what to expect when he's singing the melody. Both of these are great singers to check out. But there are so many others worth paying attention to as well... Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday... the list goes on and on. Find the ones that really speak to you and pay attention to how they phrase.
I'm not a huge transcription-enforcer, and I don't think it's the worst thing in the world to use the real book to help you learn tunes... but I DO think that even if you're going to learn tunes from the book, you should "transcribe" the way your favorite singers sing the tune and practice playing along with their phrasing.
This brings me to practical step #2...
Pretend like you don't play guitar. Pretend like you're a sax player or a trumpeter or a singer. Work on playing the melody of the tune with single note ONLY and make it sound as authentic as a horn player or a singer. This is what I mean by NOT lumping melody and harmony in right away. I would much rather listen to a guitar player pull out the most emotional and heart-wrenching execution of the melody with zero chords then listen to a clunky arrangement where every melody note has a chord voicing under it, but there's no sense of lyricism to the melody and the chords feel blocky and overly dense.
Want to really hold yourself accountable here?
PRO-TIP... MEMORIZE THE LYRICS
Learn the lyrics and sing them in your head while you're playing. You should get to the point where you can execute the phrasing of the melody in the way you would want to hear a singer express the tune. It's not just about playing the right pitches. It's about making lyrical, musical phrases based on the lyrics. This is why I included the video at the top of this blog post. If you didn't watch it yet, go back and watch it. Sing the words along with my playing. Can you hear how I'm attempting to breathe a sense of life and human-ness into the melody by phrasing them as though I were singing them? This might be a challenging skill to get the hang of, but once it clicks it will change your single note playing, the way you play the melody on tunes, the way you improvise, and if you continue taking the next few steps I'm going to list, it will also improve your chord melody playing.
Don't worry about harmonizing every single melody note or finding the hippest sounding voicings for each moment. Focus on the basics. Get a strong sense of lyricism in how you express the melody, then get the basic harmonic structure of the tune happening underneath the melody. We want to try and make it sound almost like there are two different things happening... like there are two different instruments playing together... one in charge of the melody and one in charge of the harmony. If you haven't already listened to the Tony Bennett and Bill Evans piano/vocals duo recordings, go listen... or to any great piano/vocals duo. We want pure lyricism on top, and then harmonic accompaniment underneath. Just don't worry about making your accompaniment as advanced as Bill Evans' was yet! :)
Keep your chords simple. Basic 1-3-7 shell voicings for now. You don't have to play them on every beat either. Just focus on filling in empty spaces in the melody at first. Then maybe add in the occasional down beats or important harmonic areas of the tune. Try and prioritize the melody first and foremost though. Never cut the melody short and disrupt your lyrical phrases. Put that at the forefront, and then use your ear to find how to place the basic shell voicings underneath in a way that provides the harmony and the form but without disrupting the melody.
PRO-TIP... PLAY THE SHELL VOICINGS SOFTER THEN THE SINGLE NOTE MELODY
Don't play the melody note louder. Keep the volume of the melody nice and even so you have headroom to get louder if and when you want to. But dial the volume down a little on the shell voicings. This will create a beautifully musical effect of accentuating the melody and letting it shine through the harmony. It will automatically make the entire thing sound more musical and masterful... even though we're just using basic ingredients right now.
Once you can harmonize the melody with basic shell voicings, let go of the melody and focus on getting playful with how you're using those shell voicings. Can you insert passing chords? Can you approach the chord you want to get to in some way? Diatonically? With Barry Harris-style diminished movements? Chromatically? Can you insert a few chord shapes that are more advanced the shell voicings you've been using so far? Maybe in a particular place in the form to accentuate what would be happening in the melody?
Get creative and explore the form. At this point you should be able to hear the melody in your mind while you're practicing the harmony even though you're not playing it. Don't be afraid to get a little whacky sometimes but also don't be afraid to keep things simple and focus on a strong, clean, precise execution of the form.
This practice will help with three things. First... it will help reinforce the form, so that you can get away from the real book and stop playing the same chords for every chorus every time you play the tune. Even without using chord substitutions, there is a ton of harmonic freedom available to us in jazz standards if we learn to use simpler voicings and focus on creating new pathways of moving through the harmony. If you're bored with playing a tune that you've known for decades, it might be time to consider how playful you're being with it... give this a shot before you throw the tune into the garbage and stop playing it forever.
The second skill this will develop for you is it will make you a much better accompanist and a much more fun comping musician to play with. Nobody wants to gig with someone who provides boring comping. It's like playing with a Jamey Aebersold recording. No interaction, no excitement, no drama, no surprises... just the same chord shapes and the same walking bass line/chord stabs chorus after chorus. Mix things up. Practice using basic shell voicings and creating alternate harmonic pathways through the form.
And the last skill it develops for us brings us to my 5th practical tip...
By prioritizing the melody ALONE first, we separated out the two fundamental elements of music - harmony and melody (I'm leaving time and rhythm out for now). Then we brought harmony in but we kept it subservient to the melody. We focused on simple voicings, basic structure, lower volume, and just having the chords there to support the melody without getting in the way.
Then I told you to leave the melody behind and work on making the shell voicings and the movements you're using to work through the form more exciting. As you get to the point where you can create more harmonic options for yourself, you can then bring the melody back in... but now you should focus on having the lyrical nature of the melody while also create exciting and interesting chord movement. It might follow the 'real book changes' at times... but at other times you might get whacky and insert some additional chords, or remove some chords, or completely change up when and where you put certain chords.
This way of playing prevents the harmony and melody from getting lumped into one glob of "chord melody" where we're just stuck with this artificial sensation of our two fundamental building blocks of music.
Instead... work on simplifying things down. Get the "advanced" stuff down to the building blocks. Strong melody phrases. Basic shell voicings. Then make sure you can do them together while keeping the melody at the forefront. Then get rid of the melody and focus on developing a stronger sense of harmonic comfort within the form. There may be some advanced voicings being used at this stage, but we should still focus on shell voicings and interesting movement and passing/approach chords. Then we bring the melody back in and we have harmony and melody being controlled separately, but functioning together to create something bigger and more alive... we have the "left hand / right hand" of a piano player... where they can see their two hands and think about the two essential elements of music at the same time.
My recommendation... try this with a really simple standard that you've played 1000 times already. Do it without the real book in front of you. Pick a tune you know cold so that you can work directly on the fretboard and in your ear. Focus entirely on simplifying things down, learning to control the melody and the harmony separately, and then being able to work with both of the elements at the same time when you put them back together. They will naturally bring you to exciting new places and yield very bizarre chord voicings that you would otherwise never find... and even if you did, you wouldn't know the context of how to use them.
Here's a video of the full chorus of My Ideal that I created the "subtitled" version above from. Give it a listen and see if you can hear what I'm recommending. Can you hear how I'm phrasing the melody on top almost like a singer or a horn player might? How I'm using the chords in and around the melody and never letting the harmony clutter up and break apart the melody? Can you hear how I'm playing the chords a little quieter than the melody? Can you hear how I'm adding a lot of additional chords in, but without it ever feeling like I'm just doing things randomly... they're always leading us through the form to the next moment.
After you've given this a listen, now go grab your guitar, pick your tune, and give this a shot...