BY MARCY MARXER | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE | VIDEO COURTESY OF TRUEFIRE
Chord melody is a style of playing that turns a melody into a singing series of chords. It’s a fun style for playing solo, making one person sound like a full band, or for working with ensembles. As a technique that players can learn and apply to many kinds of music, chord melody builds a deeper relationship between players and their instruments.
I started playing chord melody by taking jazz ukulele lessons from Roy Smeck in New York City in the 1980s. Smeck played and I watched him closely, trying to burn the chord shapes and sounds into my mind. I also captured him on a little plastic tape recorder. After each lesson, I would rush off to a quiet place to see how much I could remember and make written notes. Then, I would practice the tunes over and over, learning them by rote. Smeck never mentioned a chord name, a key, or any music theory. He just played and it was glorious.
The experience of learning from a master one-on-one is priceless. I needed to break down Smeck’s playing in order to understand his approach and write ukulele arrangements of my own. In teaching Chord Melody for Uke: Modules 1 and 2, available at truefire.com, I created a straightforward process that’s easy to understand and play. It’s based on knowing your scales on the instrument and the melody and chords of a given song. When you put them all together, there’s a chord- melody arrangement right under your fingertips.
The Building Blocks
The drawback of playing chord melody by rote is that there is no music theory involved. But a little basic theory makes everything easier because it’s through theory that players can understand the fingerboard.
Music theory tells us that a D chord is one whole step (two frets) up from a C chord. If C is the root note of a C chord, then D is the root of a D chord. With those concepts, you know exactly why a D chord is two frets higher than a C chord.
This is a good time to talk scales. The first and most important scale you’ll need to play is the major scale. There’s a simple horizontal pattern for any major scale, regardless of the root note, with W representing a whole step and H a half step: W W H W W W H.
Pick up your ukulele right now and put your first finger on the third-fret C on string 1. Now use the formula to play a C major scale (Example 1) going up the fretboard. Don’t worry about your fretting hand; just use one finger to feel the distance between the notes.
Now locate a G on string 2 and plug in the formula to play a G major scale, as shown in Example 2. Then play a different major scale by picking any other note on the uke and playing the pattern. With just a little exploration, you can learn all 12 different major scales.
The next step is to get acquainted with the melody and chords to a given song. Sing or hum the tune several times to remember the details of the melody. Next, sing and play the chords. Note exactly where the chords change and where melody notes fall right inside the chords or nearby.
A Series of Harmonic Choices
For a gentle introduction to the chord-melody style, let’s explore the traditional song “Down in the Valley.” I chose this tune because it has a very basic melody and only two chords, the I and the V (C and G7, respectively). It’s a dreadful, mournful tune, but I guarantee that you’ll have a good time playing it. I’ve written out the melody and basic chords to “Down in the Valley” in Example 3, along with the lyrics—though here we get out of the song just before somebody dies or somebody leaves them.
Let me explain some of my harmonic choices. The tune starts off on the I chord (Example 4), with a melody note of G. I could have just used a basic open-C shape for the chord, but I have opted to play it closed, in third position, as that voicing’s tight sound is more appropriate for chord melody.
The third-position grip also includes the second melody note, C, but the third note, A, is not a member of a C chord. However, I can just add the fifth-fret D on string 1 to the C chord, making a C–add9 chord. The next measure, also based on a C chord, starts off on a high G, so I can play a different C shape, in seventh position, to harmonize that note. I use a similar process to harmonize the G7 measures.
The D melody note in the fifth measure suggests a closed voicing in third position, while starting in the eighth measure, the melody calls for a fifth- position G7 shape, which I can use in harmonizing the melodic line D–E–F#—I just add the E and F# with my fourth finger. Note that the E makes for a jazzy G13 chord (all shown in Example 5).
A couple more fretting-hand concepts to consider: Although this is chord melody we’re talking about, you needn’t necessarily play a chord on every melody note. For example, in the bars with the C–add9 chord, I sometimes play the first melody note, G, simply as an open fourth string. And when switching between chords, I use as little movement as possible, so that everything sounds smoothly connected.
That is essential to chord melody. I like to sound the chords by brushing the strings with downstrokes of my thumb, the notes slightly rolled. You could also use fingerpicking or a pick. Whatever approach you prefer, it’s most important to bring out the melody. This can be tricky on the ukulele in reentrant tuning, as the melody note is not always the highest in terms of string placement or pitch.
Bringing It All Together
With an understanding of the basic ideas, try the full chord-melody version of “Down in the Valley” notated in Example 6. Since the song is slow, you have plenty of time to switch between chords.
As you play the arrangement, keep the vocal melody in mind, and really draw it out of the chords. Strive for an even attack and make those chords ring.
Once you’ve learned “Down in the Valley” using my method, try using what you’ve learned to work out a few other simple songs—folk tunes are great for getting up to speed—and you’ll be on your way to crafting your own chord-melody arrangements.
Marcy Marxer is a multi-Grammy award winning musician based in the Washington D.C. area. She has recorded with Pete Seeger, Eva Cassidy, Tom Paxton, and many more. She teaches ukulele for TrueFire.com and Pegheadnation.com, and performs with her partner Cathy Fink.