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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Chord melody question

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ronatr - Posted - 05/08/2021:  09:12:00

I'm just getting into the wonderful world of plectrum banjo having played 5-string for several years. I'm sure there's no simple (or single) answer to this but I'll ask anyway.

I'm trying to understand chord melody playing and how to derive it from looking at a sequence of melody notes. I've read that you should try to keep the melody notes on the first string.

So say I'm looking at a piece of music in the key of C. And say the melody goes from a C note, to an A, then a D......

If I want to play a chord melody for this sequence of 3 notes, I assume, starting at the C note, I could play a C major chord shape with the C at the 10th fret 1st string. But what chord what do I play for the A note? There are hundreds of chords that have an A on the 1st string. I guess an F-chord with A at the 7th fret would make sense. Similarly for the D, a bar chord G at 12 might work. That would be in keeping with the C, F, G (1,4,5) relationship of the key. Or alternatively Am and Dm also harmonize well in C.

So as a basic approach to chord melody should I be thinking:
a) What key is it in
b) What chords 'belong' in that key. (or the 3rd, 5th notes that harmonize with the melody note)
c) What shapes of those chords have the melody on the 1st string.

Is this how one should think about chord melody?

ocarina-man - Posted - 05/08/2021:  10:43:11

It's really simpler that what you are asking. Regardless of what key you are playing in, you should know the inversions for any given chord in the tune. Then you play the melody (ideally on the top string but you will have to go to lower strings at times) that allows you to play the chord inversion that is closest to that melody note.

An example would be Somebody Stole My Gal. The melody starts on the root note. If the key is in C then the first melody note is C ( (the lyric would be "Some"). So you would play the C Major chord with the note C on the top string (at the 10th fret). Keeping the lower strings in the same chord position move the top string to the next lower fret (lyric - "bod"). Again, keeping the lower strings the same, lift the finger on the top string so it plays the third melody note at the seventh fret (lyric - "y"). That's how you get the "Some-bod-y" notes with the same chord. Please see that the fingering requires a barre - that will remain when you change the top string finger position.
Now to get the melody note for the lyric "stole" you will have to move the fingering hand down to the next major chord inversion position (the one that has the top string at the fifth fret). The melody notes sits just fine in that inversion. So far you haven't changed the chord - it has been a C Major chord.

But the next melody note (lyric -"my") requires a C diminished chord. From the last C Major you used play a C diminished chord that has the top string note one fret lower than the C Major chord. Continue going lower for the next melody note (3rd fret) with the fingering inversion for the G7th chord that allows the top string to play the seventh note (lyric - "gal").

Obviously one must have a working knowledge of chord inversion positions and know what the chords are in a tune as well as the melody. And as I said, there will be melody notes that can't be played on the top string. The easiest way to handle those is to play them on a lower string as a chordless note. This works fine, especially with faster tunes. When you've mastered the above you can start finding fingering positions that allow more difficult solutions.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/08/2021:  14:00:22

Ron, you have a point about the melody sometimes going lower than the D string, and you are correct that this will sometimes force us to play notes like C and B on the second string and sometimes even A or G on the third string.

I agree with the suggestions made by ocarina-man above. You are going to find that your ear will develop automatically as you learn these new sounds, and soon experience will give you confidence about choosing the right chord which supports that A note in the melody...

... could it be C6...? or F... ? or Dm? or Am? or A7? or D9? or E7sus? Or G9?

... trial and error will eventually tell you which ones work and which ones sound wrong...

... and in a year you will look back and be amazed how far you have come in the process of automatically and confidently choosing the right one for the job!

Plus, chords are a bit subjective... if you and I and a couple of other players all sat down to figure out the chords to a particular tune, chances are that while most of our chord choices would agree, there would also be a few places where some or all of us might not agree... and that is normal, too!

Good luck!


PS one of the great things about learning songs from the golden era of songwriters like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Walter Donaldson... and many others!

... you can learn a LOT about music (and especially about unexpected and unusual chord progressions) by studying their tunes... my recommendation is to just pick some of your favourite tunes from the Great American Songbook try and get their chords under your fingers...  because they will teach you quite a bit!



Edited by - guitarbanjoman on 05/08/2021 14:23:35

ocarina-man - Posted - 05/08/2021:  17:35:30

With apologies to Mr. Wilson - his comments are a bit confusing. Unless you are the composer of a tune, you don't get to choose what chords are in any tune. The real composer has already selected which chords sound right. Certainly, an advanced jazz player can use substitute chords to make a tune sound more sophisticated, but that technique is in the future and usually doesn't work when you play with other band members. Generally, most common old jazz, ragtime and swing tunes already come with ready-made chords.

What I suggested is to know those chords (up and down the neck) as though you are playing accompiment (like strumming your banjo chords while humming the melody). Then, to play a melody against those, you play the top string (and sometimes others) to get the melody. That way you don't have to guess what chords to play, just how to make the top string melody fit those chords.

And forget it taking a year. Learn the chord inversions to a tune and how to play a melody on a single string. If you use a fake/lead/chord sheet you can memorize chords to many tunes in two weeks (play along to versions on You Tube). Then it should take no more than another two weeks to learn the melody (most easily done by ear).

ronatr - Posted - 05/09/2021:  06:49:32

Thanks so much Ocarina-man and Will. You're right, my approach was much it more complicated than it needs to be. Thanks for putting me on the right track before I got too far into it.

sethb - Posted - 05/09/2021:  15:19:17

I agree with the above posts, in that you don't need to make up new chords to play chord melody.  Just use the inversions of the chords that are already called for on the lead sheet.  You may also need to transpose the tune into a higher or lower key in order to make the melody fit onto the top D string a little better.  You may also need to "fake" a note here and there --- no big deal.  

It might also be helpful to take a look at a few actual melody chord lead sheets that show the fingerings for each melody chord.  Then you can actually see which inversions are being used, and how those chords are being "stretched" or shrunken to get the melody notes on the top string.  Usually your little finger will be pretty busy doing that.

If you can get ahold of any of Don Van Palta's "Plectrum Banjo Solo" books, they have a ton of lead sheets for the classic pop standards, with the melody line, the lyrics, the chord symbols AND the fingerings for each melody chord.  After you see and play through a few examples, you should be able to work out the melody chords for other tunes on your own.  Good Luck!  SETH

Edited by - sethb on 05/09/2021 15:20:58

Omeboy - Posted - 05/09/2021:  16:14:46


If you're ever going to make real progress on the plectrum, a good method book that explains how ALL chords are formed according to shape and the specific string (with the root note that names the chord) is absolutely essential. The old method that used to be the gold standard was Charles McNeil Chord System for Plectrum (Long Neck) Banjo. It was published back in the early Twenties and is now difficult to find.  The good news is, you can still see a copy of it as a FREE download on the Internet Archive. It is available here:

Just sign in and register to gain access to this great book. Study the section that explains the entire neck with regards to how all the chords are formed and named by the specific string that is responsible for naming that chord form (pages 21 & 22.) Here's the link to those pages:

For example, you'll see forms for major, minor and seventh forms that are all named from the root on the first string, another set for the root on the second string and another set for the root on the third string. There's a set of arrows pointing in opposite directions on the control panel just below the image of the book.  This will let you leaf through the pages.  There's also a magnifying glass icon on the lower right to bring out the details on each page.  More information can be found at

sethb - Posted - 05/12/2021:  06:27:49

One more thing I've found about chord melody, is that once in a while, you will get a melody note that is not in the accompanying chord, or even not in the same key of the song.  However, it is intentional on the part of the composer, usually works well, and has an important place in music.  (There is a musical term for this, which I don't remember at the moment.  Perhaps more knowledgeable music theory folks can chime in here.)

Anyway, this doesn't present a problem with melody chord work, you just need to know how to deal with it.  In most cases, using your little finger to raise the tone of the D string one-half tone will do the trick, even if no such chord fingering actually exists.  Sometimes you may need to throw in a supplemental chord -- I find that a diminished which tops out on the desired note often does the trick; an augmented chord may do the same thing.  You can also try just raising or lowering the entire chord fingering by one fret, which may get you where you need to be.  SETH   

Edited by - sethb on 05/12/2021 06:29:35

sethb - Posted - 05/12/2021:  06:36:00

I think I just answered my own question, with a little help from Google. 

I believe a note which is outside the key of a song is called an "accidental," and apparently they are pretty commonly used.  SETH

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/12/2021:  14:13:10

As just one example of differing chord choices, let's talk about "I Got Rhythm" in the standard key of Bb... also known to most jazz players as "rhythm changes".

Now the standard fakebook version of the chords is:

the first bar is two beats of Bb and two beats of Gm7... right?

The melody note "F" (Lyric: "I") is supported by the Bb chord, and the melody note "G" (as in "got") is supported by the Gm7 chord.

But is Gm7 (5335) the only chord which will support that "G" note?

Definitely not!

You could play it as G7 (5435) and it sounds fine.

You could play it as G diminished (4325) and it sounds great on plectrum banjo

(at least to my ears it does... maybe not to yours, though!)

You could play it as Gm (2335) and it sounds fine.

You could play it as a Gm6 (4335) and it sounds fine.

You could play it as a Cm7 (0345) and its weird but works.

You could play it as an Eb7 (3325) and its weird but works.


So which of these chords are "right" and which are "wrong"...?

Well, that depends!

Is the rule "you always have to play it using Gm7, because that's the way Gershwin wrote it"?

Yes, that is one possible rule...

Is the rule "At our jam session we have always played it using G7, so please, follow our chords."

Yes, that is another possible rule...

Or is the rule that you and your fellow musician/s want to customize it a bit and deliberately change it to make it fit your own crazy style?

Yes, that is another possible rule...

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/12/2021:  15:24:27

Seth- accidentals often happen when the “key of the moment” changes.

Let’s pretend we are playing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in the key of G/ one sharp

...when we get to the “middle eight” or “8 bar bridge”, the key of the moment changes to Eb/three flats... and suddenly—- mucho accidentals!

sethb - Posted - 05/12/2021:  16:14:15

Will --- You are correct about key changes within the same song.  As I have learned, it was fashionable at one time to have the verse in one key and the chorus in another.  'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' 'Beer Barrel Polka,' 'Waiting For the Robert E. Lee,' and 'Pennsylvania Polka' are good examples of this.  That's also when I learned not to assume that the key of the song was always the same as the last chord in the song!  

But that's not what I was thinking of.  I'm talking about a song that's entirely in the same key, but contains one or more melody notes that would ordinarily not be found or played in that key.  I found this out when trying to match a melody note on my D string with the chord that was supposed to go with that note, and found that there was no match, the written note was always at least a half-tone higher or lower than my D string chorded note.  I figured that either the note or the chord symbol was wrong, until somebody told me about "accidentals" and what to do about them.  SETH

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/13/2021:  09:16:02

Yeah, I hear you, Seth! I often use the same idea...

Like when I’m playing a D7 chord I sometimes use my little finger to change the 12th fret D note to an Eb note (“D7b9”)

... or keep the chord planted but move your pinky up to an E note (“D9”)

... and if your hands are large enough, you can even raise your pinky up to an F note (“D7#9”)

...yeah I know this one sounds weird but George Gershwin liked to throw it in every now and then...and George Harrison used it repeatedly his song "Taxman"...

Ron, these are the kind of little tricks I believe you were talking about when you started this thread, right?


Edited by - guitarbanjoman on 05/13/2021 09:23:09

Don Lewers - Posted - 05/13/2021:  12:01:27

Ron, the way a tune's written usually dictates how we can play it on our banjos, In a lot of cases, we can also drop the melody line down an octave, playing the melody below the chords, with good results ...... I tend to do this a lot. Here's an example on a great Louis tune ...... good luck on your banjo journey ....... Don.

Edited by - Don Lewers on 05/13/2021 12:03:34

sethb - Posted - 05/14/2021:  09:00:32

Don --- Great version of "Kiss to Build a Dream On."  In fact, you inspired me to pull out my tenor archtop guitar, which is actually tuned to CGBD plectrum tuning, and record a melody chord version of the same tune (click on attached MP3 file).  I just added a little vibrato and some rhythm backing from my drum machine. 

I play this song in the key of C, which allows me to hit most of the notes on the D string, and either fake or ignore the rest.  The tune was played by Louie Armstrong in a 1951 movie, "The Strip."  The song was nominated in 1951 for Best Original Song, but lost to "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening."  The song was actually written in 1935, but wasn't published until 1951.    

ronatr - Posted - 05/14/2021:  09:01:25

Thank you all for the feedback.

I was thinking (incorrectly) that 'chord melody' meant finding a chord that best accompanies the melody note that I'm reading. I wasn't considering the basic chord structure of the tune. I should be incorporating the melody notes into the given chord structure of the tune. Seth's right, I was making it more complicated than it needs to be.

banjovictor - Posted - 05/16/2021:  09:58:49

It can get trickier. You can get the same note with the chords changing behind it. Good example: "Back in your own back yard", very beginning of the chorus. It goes through 3 chords playing the same melody note. (7th, augmented and major).

Dgbectrum - Posted - 05/18/2021:  16:47:01

First I learn the melody playing it on the first string as possible, then I put the chords (that are written) underneath using inversions

craig wood - Posted - 05/19/2021:  09:36:55

Say we are learning Heartaches in Bb. Bb to a Bb chord with a melody F G A C..
Its the C note with the Bb chord..It is a Bb +9. {major plus the seventh.}
Playing the Bb chord on the 5th fret with a C is quit the stretch. I found the relative minor works well..
That is Gm (7th fret) with pinky on the C..10th fret.. the bass note determines if the chord is Bb or Gm
What say melody makers?

sethb - Posted - 05/20/2021:  05:34:25

For melody chords in Heartaches, I start in the key of Bb, like you do Craig, with a Bb that begins on the second fret, with my pinky on the fifth fret of the D String, which is a G note and the first note of the song.  I believe that this chord fingering is actually a Bb6 (and also a Gm).  The next note is an F, so just lift the pinky and there you are. 

The next note is an A, easily gotten by playing an A7 chord starting at the fifth fret, which gives you the A note on the D string.  The next note is a G, which you get by keeping that chord formation, lifting the pinky, and using your first finger to also fret the D sting at the fifth fret. 

The F G A C sequence you describe uses the Bb chord at the second fret for the F, then the addition of the pinky at the fifth fret (a Bb6) for the G.  I solved the "stretch problem" you noted by using an F chord (3rd inversion) starting at the ninth fret.  You suggested a Gm chord (second inversion) at that same location, which works, too.  My personal opinion is that a major chord sounds better here, but since it's a faked chord, I guess everyone can take their choice or just do something else! 

Then it's back to the Bb chord (second inversion) at the fifth fret for the next Bb note, and for the next A note, I just slide my pinky back one fret, which produces a Dm chord (second inversion).  The following Ab note is produced with an Fm chord (second inversion) at the fifth fret, and the final G note of this phrase comes from a G7 chord starting at the third fret.

Sorry for all the words, but it's tough to describe this sort of thing in writing.  Anyway, that's my take on this, and bear in mind that I know just enough music theory to be dangerous . . . .   SETH

Edited by - sethb on 05/20/2021 05:46:37

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/20/2021:  05:36:54

For that Bb major ninth chord, you can also barre across all four strings at the tenth fret.

But this ridiculously easy chord tends to be awkward to get in and out of...

... if only I could play it with my pinky! But I can’t!

craig wood - Posted - 05/20/2021:  08:07:16

Seth..i like the f chord {9th fret} as you suggested. That could be seen as a Bbmaj7 +9 no?
Getting back requires more effort, but we play plectrum not tenor. Good choice.
Also Will.... Your right about that chord..barring the 10th fret also sounds good..but it is hard to play..
It is also a BbMaj7th +9 with a few notes missing.
That (melody) chord shows up if playing "Me and my Shadow"..In the bridge on the word STAIRS..same chord.

sethb - Posted - 05/20/2021:  16:38:05


Originally posted by craig wood

Seth..i like the f chord {9th fret} as you suggested. That could be seen as a Bbmaj7 +9 no?


Craig --- I wish I could confirm your thought about that Bbmaj7+9 chord, but unfortunately, it's very far above my pay grade! 

I'm glad you liked the F chord I suggested, I thought it was a good choice.  But since it's just a "one-beat wonder," I think several other chords, like your Gm, would also  probably suffice, as long as you also hit the correct melody note.  Sometimes it's a choice between what sounds best and what's easiest to finger.  SETH


Don Lewers - Posted - 05/20/2021:  22:57:02

Craig, Seth and Will, thought I'd show you how I play the C melody note, with a Bb chord, as in Heartaches. . As in the pic, the notes are A D F C , the A no in the mix sounds great, 'cause it a natural harmony, being the major 7th. It's quite a stretch, particularly down towards the nut. but it gets easier with practice. I'll be posting a video shortly where I use it, and I'll point it out for you. to hear how it sounds with the back up. ...... Don.

On the photo, the note on the G string should be D, I played a D# ...... sorry about that, I'd delete the pic and post another, but can't manage it.  Bugger!.

Edited by - Don Lewers on 05/20/2021 23:06:23


sethb - Posted - 05/21/2021:  07:08:19

Hi Don -- Nice chord!  I have seen that fingering before, in Don Van Palta's "Plectrum Solos" books, but I've never been able to finger it successfully, even at higher spots on the fingerboard.  It's not for the faint of heart or short of fingers!

Speaking of chord fingerings, I should probably clarify something in my earlier posts in this thread.  When I make a Bb chord at the second fret, I only use two fingers to do it -- first finger on the 1st string, and then the second finger barres across the remaining three strings behind the third fret.  That leaves my pinky free to fret behind the fifth fret to make a Bb6/Gm, or to fret behind the fourth fret to make a Bb+ chord.  And higher up the neck, when making that same chord figure at the sixth fret, I can get a D (second inversion), a D+, a D6/Bm, and also a D7 by putting the pinky finger at the seventh, eight or ninth frets, respectively. 

This barre fingering lets me get a lot mileage out of the same chord figure, and is very helpful with chord melody as well.  The disadvantage is that it can be a little tough to get in and out of.  It might be easier to do that if I played the basic chord with the fingertips of three or four fingers instead, but the barre arrangement is too deeply embedded in my muscle memory at this point to change things.  As they say, it's tough to teach an old horse new tricks . . . .  SETH

Edited by - sethb on 05/21/2021 07:13:06

Omeboy - Posted - 05/21/2021:  08:46:14

The Handy Double Stop Solution:
If you find yourself in a very demanding spot while playing chord melody or if you need to play a quick passage, you can always use "double stops" to fill that gap. The double stop will preserve the harmony until you get back to the chord melody proper. In fact, a double stop passage played on the B and D strings with a "slip stroke" is a very tasty ornamentation. It sounds great and you can hear its effect used to maximum effectiveness in some of Buddy Wachter's playing.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/22/2021:  04:02:30

Thanks, Don. That’s a new one for me!

craig wood - Posted - 05/22/2021:  10:35:41

Omeboy I'm sure i have played the slip stroke, but I'm not familiar with the term..
Is it a cross picking..? UP DOWN DOWN.?

Omeboy - Posted - 05/22/2021:  10:48:54

Hi Craig,

It has also been called "the Up Down Down Down stroke," which really explains it. Of course, it was used to great effect by Perry Bechtel and Django Reinhardt. John Mumford nicely illustrates it here in "Whispering" at the 1:49 mark in this video clip. Go to 1:49

@craig wood


Edited by - Omeboy on 05/22/2021 10:51:40

craig wood - Posted - 05/22/2021:  12:34:44

Omeboy..Thankyou....Yes as i thought. I like the name..where have i been? Been practicing that for years..
One of the more difficult strokes to keep in time..especially slow..A great picking exercise! i learned from Perry's infamous record. The up stroke can be on the beat or on the off.(&1 234

Omeboy - Posted - 05/22/2021:  14:44:08


Same experience for me too. When I first heard Perry do it, I couldn't imagine what he was doing. Now I find it an indispensable favorite lick. I especially like it with a double stop phrase where it fits perfectly. Here's a better link to that video source in case it gave anyone some trouble:    1:49 on the time code.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 05/23/2021:  08:39:46

Thanks, Don and Paul for the excellent ideas... they were both new ones to me.

You can learn a lot around here!

steve davis - Posted - 05/31/2021:  10:27:25

Bye Bye Blues is a nice approachable study in chord melody.

craig wood - Posted - 05/31/2021:  14:00:22

Steve..That was my beginning. I started the tenor at age 10. lessons every week..Don Santos..all the books. All popular tunes..While on a trip to Oregon, found a plectrum banjo.I was now 16. I had just learned ByeBye Blues on the tenor in C. Three note chords for the most part..I put the melody to plectrum..All four note chords..close harmony..loved it..That was the end of the tenor..No comparison..I still play tenor but not for melody.

sethb - Posted - 05/31/2021:  16:38:49


Originally posted by steve davis

Bye Bye Blues is a nice approachable study in chord melody.

So is "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise," in the key of C.  SETH 

pdinneen1 - Posted - 05/31/2021:  16:55:35

A little reharmonization on the ol’ battle axe of a tune. It starts with the elusive and often unheard verse.

craig wood - Posted - 06/01/2021:  07:40:36

Way to much fun!

Omeboy - Posted - 06/01/2021:  08:34:43

Always compelling. Thanks, Pat.

steve davis - Posted - 06/06/2021:  09:49:37

Alley Cat is fun.Gives one time to get to the next chord.

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