As I’ve mentioned more than enough times on these pages, singing is not my strong point. Playing isn’t either, but you go with what you’ve got in either case. The arrangements I come up with tend to rely a lot of the various techniques of chord melody, if for no other reason than to give my voice some extra support.
And while most people, at the mention of the term “chord melody,” think of jazz standards or perhaps some classical pieces, a lot of other songs adapt to this style very handily.
We’re going to look at an arrangement of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush (from the album of the same name), which can work well either as a chord melody or as a single guitar accompaniment. It’s fairly easy in that almost all the fingerings work around open chords that you (probably) already know. We’ll also discuss a few chord substitutions (got to get some theory into the lesson, you know!) as well as examine a very simple technique for giving your guitar a little more of a piano style.
Since this song is structured in three verses, we’ll take a look at each of the four lines that make up a verse. There are actually five lines, as I’m sure that folks will write and tell me. The fifth line is a repeat of the fourth, so for our purposes we’ll leave it at that.
Okay, then! Here we go:
After The Gold Rush is in the key of D and, as mentioned, uses very simple open chords. If we were to look at a “chord chart” of the song, it would probably look like this:
One of the inherent problems many people have with arranging chord melodies is that we don’t always know what or where the melody is. And then it often changes on you! Take a look at this comparison between the first line as sung in the first verse and the first line as sung in the second:
It’s subtle and most people don’t even think twice about it when arranging a chord melody. That’s a good thing. You don’t have to worry about catching every syllable or slurred note in your melody. Getting the “gist” will often be fine as your listeners will do the work of filling in the slight gaps.
What you do need to decide, though, is how to accompany your melody. Some might opt for the “play a chord with every note” approach, like this one we used back in our first chord melody lesson (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star):
This sounds perfectly fine, but it also sounds very busy. A reason that many pop or rock songs don’t translate well into chord melodies is that some of them are very wordy. That means a lot of syllables, which, in turn, means a lot of notes.
In a case like this, it helps to soften things up a bit. That doesn’t necessarily mean playing fewer notes, but rather coming up with a more stylized arrangement. And “stylized,” as you’ll see, doesn’t mean “harder.” A simple take can create a very elegant version of a song.
Let’s try to combine a little of this “play a chord with every note” with what I think of as the “piano for guitar” style. It’s a simple formula – you know how people talk about the “boom-chuck” or “bass-strum” styles? That’s when you play a bass note and then strum the chord over it and it’s used in all sorts of songs. You’ve seen it, in an alternating bass pattern, in lessons like Margaritaville. Well, instead of a “boom-chuck,” we’re going to go with a “chuck-boom.” We’ll play a melody note (or two) first, with the chord or a few notes of the chord, and then add the bass note under it. Something like this:
Using your fingers, as opposed to a pick, would be the best way to tackle this style. You certainly can use a pick, but you might find it easier to pluck the melody note with your index or middle finger, while pinching the chord with your thumb. Another option, which you hear on the MP3s, is to use your ring, middle and index fingers to pick both the melody note and two notes of the accompanying chord, playing the bass note again with the thumb. It gives a full sound while feeling somewhat spontaneous. Depending on the number of strings in the chord, use your ring finger on the high E (first) string, your middle finger on the B string and your index finger to play the G string.
The really cool thing about this type of accompaniment is that you can add flourishes that are obviously more guitar than piano, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and the like. You can hear this going on in the second version of Example 3.
Besides the hammer-ons and pull-off, you’ll also hear that I added the bass note to the first beat of measures with the D chord. This helps to add a bit of bottom while performing the hammers. It also gives the song a little variety, keeping things interesting for both you and your audience.
Which brings up a very important thing to note here. It’s something that I try to touch on with each lesson, and I’m sure you can recite it by heart by now: These arrangements are simply guidelines. Depending on the abilities you already have and the comfort level you using various techniques, you should make this as simple or complicated as you’d like. In the final MP3, I play through two whole verses and I’ve not tabbed it out simply because I don’t know what I’m going to play. At heart, it will be just like this line we’ve gone through. It might occur to me to use a trill here or there or to totally go by the book. That’s the point. You want to use these ideas as a starting place from which to develop your own arrangement.
One thing I hope you’re noticing is that even though we’re using the basic chords given to us in the original chord sheet, there are times when the melody note, played together with the basic chord, gives us a different chord. For instance, when we use the open high E string on top of the D chord, it becomes a Dsus2 or Dadd9, depending on whatever way you woke up this morning. The open high E over the G chord produces a G6 chord.
Lots of folks like to quibble about this sort of thing. Do you think of the chord in terms of all its notes or do you regard it as a basic chord whose melody is, for the moment at least, bringing something new to the table? Thinking in terms of the basic chord helps most people when it comes to deciding how to finger the chord while playing the melody. But if you’re someone who knows seventeen thousand and twenty-six chords without breaking a sweat, then you don’t even wonder what all the trouble’s about.
Ultimately, though, you need to look at it in the best way that helps you to play it. So when we add a G note (third string on the high E string) to our D chord toward the start of Line 2, you should feel free to think, “Okay, this is a Dsus4 chord.” Or, “Gee, that’s the cool thing I do with my pinky when I play a D chord” will work, too!
Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the second line of After The Gold Rush:
We’ve got a slight change of rhythm in the first two measures – instead of all eighth notes, as has mostly been the case, there are two sets of three eighth notes broken up by a quarter note in the middle. There’s a quick change in the second measure from a D to an A chord, but you should be able to handle that as well.
The whole naming the chord thing comes into play in the third measure, when we’ve got a G chord with an F# holding center stage in the melody line. Many of you will think of this as a Gmaj7. Those of you who might stare for a while at that, wondering where to put your fingers, relax! Because of the way we’re playing the accompaniment, you don’t have to worry about fretting the B note on the second fret of the A string. This means you only have to deal with placing two fingers. Try using your middle finger on the bass note, your index finger for the F# (second fret of the high E) and your ring finger when you get to the D (third fret of the A). That should be effective even for folks with small hands like mine.
In the last measure of Line 2, we come back to the A chord and the open A string in the bass. This open string is important because it will allow us time to make a shift up the neck to start the next phrase in:
If you remember our discussion on chord shapes in the (very old) Guitar Column called Moving On Up, you know that we can play A chords all over the neck. Here we use an “E shaped” A chord (or “F shape” if you prefer) at the fifth fret. The easiest way to do this is to make a “mini-barre” at the fifth fret, covering the first two strings with your index finger. Then use your middle finger to get the C# note at the sixth fret of the G string. Your pinky or ring finger will do the honor of playing the B note (located at the seventh fret of the high E string) in the melody line:
After these three melody notes, hit the open A string in the bass again to give you time to change over to a Bm7 chord (X20202). Even though the chord sheet shows reads Bm, this open position shape allows your fingers more freedom to reach the other melody notes while still using the B (second fret of the A string) as your bass note.
From the Bm we go to C major, using the pinky to play the D note (third fret of the B string) when it appears in the melody line. Then it’s back to Bm for a measure not unlike the measure of G in Line 2. Again, I like to use this voicing of Bm7 as a substitute for the G listed in the chord sheet. If that bothers you, then think of it as “Gmaj9/B” or simply use the G chord, with G in the bass, as we did in Line 2. Your ears should be the final judge as to which chord makes it in your arrangement.
Finally you end on C. Here you actually have two measures to have some fun in. Play some arpeggios with the C major chord to fill in the space or just let the chord ring for a while before starting the fourth line.
If you’d prefer to hang around in open position, you can begin Line 3 with a simple ascent from the C# (second fret of the B string) to D to E, as shown in the “Alternate Start of Third Line” above.
Line Four (and Five):
Line 4 begins the same way that Line 2 did. Here I’m throwing in a hammer-on to mimic the vocal, but you can just start with the F# note if you’d like:
In the third measure, we have one more go ’round with the descending melody line we encountered in the third measure of the last two lines. But here the accompanying chord is C. I’ve found that using Cmaj7 as a “basic chord” here works best with my fingers. And I also like the spooky sound the F# in the melody gives to the underlying chord.
You probably want to finger this the same way you did the measure of G in Line 2, using your middle finger on the bass and your index finger on the F#. This also allows you to shift the index finger over to the E note at the second fret of the D string with no trouble at all.
You end this line with a measure of G. I’ve notated a simple sample arpeggio, but you should feel free to try out some of your own or to just let the chord ring out. While the end of Line 4 gives you another chance to mess around with arpeggios, you might want to tame things down a little at the end of Line 5 just to create a space between the verses. You can also use this as a way to end the song at the close of the third verse:
I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing, and playing around with, After The Gold Rush. This is a wonderful song for getting comfortable with chord melodies and chord melody-styled arrangements.
And, as always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until our next lesson…
On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.