One of the most popular ways of playing ukulele is in the style of chord melody – sometimes referred to as solo fingerpicking.
Chord melody is a style of playing ukulele where you strum the chords and pick the melody at the same time.
Both Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill come to mind as masters who have brought so much attention to this way of playing ukulele with chord melody songs like Hallelujah and Billie Jean.
A lot of my students will ask:
“How do I arrange a chord melody song for ukulele?”
You too might have a desire to play in this style. Perhaps singing and strumming isn’t your thing but picking the melody is. If that is you, then, here’s what you eventually need to know to arrange and come up with your own chord melody songs.
Please note that reading this article won’t make you an expert in song arranging and composition. However this will make chord melody less of a mystery and give you a direction to focus your learning if you ever wish to arrange your own songs one day in this style.
Four Chord Melody Building Blocks
When it comes to chord melody, there are two types of people:
- Those who just want to play chord melody songs.
- Those who not only want to play chord melody songs but also want to arrange their own chord melody versions of songs they’d normally sing.
If you’re the first type, then for the most part, playing chord melody requires intermediate to advanced-level strumming and picking techniques. Most players can pick up these techniques with a little bit of practice. I teach chord melody in the Fingerpicking Tricks online course.
Because of the challenge of finding chord melody arrangements this leaves a lot of ukulele players wanting to come up with their own chord melody songs.
So, what do you do?
Arranging chord melody songs is a combination of four building blocks:
Let’s look at each of these and how they come together to create a chord melody arrangement.
Note: Being able to read music at a reasonable level is extremely helpful in your pursuit of being able to arrange music. It goes without saying that if you’re wanting to arrange or compose music a working knowledge of music notation is required. Don’t shy away from trying to read music. While challenging at first, it opens up a world of creative options (like arranging chord melody songs).
In a chord melody arrangement, the melody is the collection of notes you would normally sing but instead pick.
The melody is the most recognizable to a listener and makes the song what it is. It’s the most important building block in the chord melody style.
For example, take a listen to a performance of a familiar simple song Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. This is a song that can be sung but in this case the melody is all that is plucked.
By itself, the melody is sparse but you clearly know that the song you’re listening to is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
When it comes to arranging a chord melody song, to discover the melody on your own, the following skillset is required:
- Find the sheet music. Sometimes you can find the sheet music online (or pay a little bit of money) that notates the melody of a song in detail. If you’re able to read music, you can translate this melody to ukulele, but in order to do that you also need to…
- Know major scale positions across the fretboard. Knowledge of the notes of the fretboard and the major scale in multiple keys across the ukulele fretboard is essential to make sense of a song’s melody.
- Develop your listening ear. When I arrange in chord melody, I’ll find a recording of a song and listen to the first note of the song, hum it out loud, and then find that note on the ukulele fretboard. A working knowledge of the major scale normally allows me to find where that note fits within a major scale position thereby discovering other melody notes. Being able to hear a melody note and hum it can give you the ability to find where the melody is played on the fretboard by ear.
Nearly 99 percent of the songs you play on ukulele are based on the major scale. The major scale has just seven notes (eight notes if you include the octave), which means if you know these seven notes then it’s just a matter of “finding” the melody from these notes.
Takeaway: Building a knowledge of the major scale across the ukulele fretboard is a must-know skill to discover the melody of a song in addition to developing your ear and your knowledge of reading music notation.
As you could hear in Twinkle, Twinkle, the melody is sparse and not very full-sounding.
It’s kind of boring.
To make the melody richer, in chord melody, layer the single melody notes with chords. The word harmony just means the chords of the song.
To add richness and fullness to the sound, you play chords in combination with the melody.
In chord melody, the melody note is almost always placed as the highest note in the chord. This means that more often than not the melody note in the chord is played on the bottom two strings of the ukulele (E-string and A-string). For the richest tone, chords are often strummed down with the thumb.
Listen to a performance of the famous song O Shenandoah where the chords of the song are strummed down and the melody is played on the bottom two strings.
To discover the harmony in combination with the melody, you first have to know the chords in the song.
For the most part, it’s easy to find a song’s chords with a quick Google search.
But from there, you must know how to make major, minor and diminished chords across the ukulele fretboard.
Most people don’t realize that there are multiple ways to play a chord across the fretboard in the form of three note chords called triads. To uncover these triads up and down the fretboard, knowledge of a simple formula based on the major scale is required.
The goal in chord melody is to find chord positions where the notes of the chord are inverted (or organized) in such a way where the melody note is the highest note that rings out in the chord. If you’re able to make triads in root position, first inversion and second inversion, then it’s easy to find a way to harmonize the melody with a chord.
Takeaway: Adding richness to a song’s melody comes from knowing how to make chords across the fretboard so that the melody note is the highest note sounding in the chord.
You might have noticed in the performance of O Shenandoah that there is space or a gap in between each note of the melody.
Sometimes this is desirable to create a dramatic effect.
However, the best chord melody performers will find ways of strumming in between melody notes to add energy to the performance and carry the melody along.
For example, listen to a performance of Red River Valley where a consistent strumming pattern is maintained throughout the entire performance while emphasizing the melody through the use of creative chord positions across the fretboard.
The key with adding strumming throughout is playing a pattern that suits and follows the melody of the song. Everything supports and comes around the melody in the chord melody style.
This sometimes means varying the strumming pattern for certain measures or parts of the song to follow the melody. You’ll notice in a couple spots in the performance of Red River Valley where I vary the strumming to match the melody of the song.
Takeaway: A thorough knowledge of how to play strumming patterns in various rhythms, counts and feels (such as swing time, like in Red River Valley) is essential to playing in this style.
How you create emotion and expression in a piece is quite possibly the most important element to playing in the chord melody style.
To create emotion and expression, dynamics are required.
Dynamics refer to how soft or how loud you are playing and how you emphasize certain notes over other notes.
You can hear dynamics at work in the previous performance of Red River Valley where I strum the chords that contain the melody louder than the other chords. If I didn’t do this, the melody would be lost.
Hear another example of dynamics in action in this performance of the famous Hawaiian song Aloha ‘Oe. Notice how the strumming is more pronounced when the melody is being played.
Dynamics are more often up to you on how you want to express yourself through the piece.
This is the fun part of playing ukulele!
To develop this skill, there are specific dynamic exercises you can practice, such as strumming from soft to loud or from loud to soft without changing the tempo.
Takeaway: Adding emotion and expression to a chord melody arrangement is what brings all the other elements of melody, harmony and rhythm together.
“What Do I Learn Next?”
You might be scratching your head wondering if you’ll ever figure this chord melody thing out.
Remember, it starts with small steps:
- Develop your knowledge of various chords and positions to build muscle memory
- Build your knowledge of strumming patterns in multiple rhythms
- Begin learning how to read music to be able to speak and understand the language of music
- Learn the major scale to discover melodies
- Practice active listening when listening to a recording of music to develop your ear
- Learn music theory
- Learn how to make major, minor and diminished triads to add fullness and harmony with the melody
- Start learning how to pick arpeggio pieces to explore how to play emotively and expressively
Arranging and composing songs in the chord melody style doesn’t happen overnight but you can start taking steps in the right direction today.
Take the pressure off.
You won’t master chord melody all at once, but you can do this.
If you had to take one step today, join me in Fingerpicking Tricks.
Fingerpicking Tricks is a step-by-step, easy-to-follow online video lesson course teaching you how to fingerpick the ukulele in multiple styles including chord melody.
No matter where you’re at you can start improving the skills you need to be able to play chord melody today.
Why don’t you join me?
Learn chord melody and more. Take your fingerpicking skills to the next level on the ukulele, learning fingerpicking pieces in four distinct styles.