As a guitar player, has anyone ever asked you to play a song for them, and all you can do is either play a riff of a song, play some scales or strum some chords. Even if you are playing the correct chords, the song might sound a bit empty because you are missing the melody.
Playing the chords is fine, and that may be exactly what you should do if you or someone else is singing, or you are playing with other people. Learning the exact guitar part is also important for playing with others or with a band, and some guitar parts are an integral part of the song and must be learned to make the song sound correct.
Wouldn’t it be nice to play an entire song including the melody, chords and maybe an improvised section.
I love learning songs, and using them as a templet to study melody, harmony, chord progressions, rhythm, note reading etc. An easy way to start is using simple songs from a method book or song book that has songs written in lead sheet form. That means chord names written above the staff and the melody written on the staff.
The first thing I like to do is learn the melody. The melody should be played in different positions as well as different octaves. Use open position first and make sure you really understand the rhythm of the melody and that you are playing everything correctly. Next, play the melody in three or more positions following scale forms that you are familiar with. Saying the letter names of the notes as you play will really train you to know all the notes on the neck.
The next way to play the melody is to analyze it and figure out what is actually being played. For instance, song melodies are almost always, scales, intervals, arpeggios and chords. If you work on your academic studies, you will be able to quickly see melody in this way. You will notice things like, oh, that’s just a G major scale, and then next is just an A minor chord, then next is just some notes from the A minor pentatonic scale etc. Push yourself to move around the neck and lay things out logically. You might take a three-note melody you were playing on two strings and notice it is just a triad that can played as a chord shape you already know; this will also make it easier to memorize. Make decisions as to what strings and position you play on based on what sounds the best. You can also play melodies on just one or two strings.
Play the chords of the song. If it’s a simple song, you can use open string chords first. Then move onto bar chords, triads and other chord voicing you are familiar with around the neck.
Now comes the real challenge. Let’s play a chord melody. This means we are going to play the chords with the melody note as the top or highest sounding note. You want the melody note to be the last note the listener hears. You can even try to make the melody note pop out just a little louder than the rest.
You can start by attaching a chord to some of the melody notes. For example, if there are four notes in the melody, attach a chord to the first and third notes of the measure.
For each melody note, see if the note is a chord tone. (a note already contained in the chord) If so, you should be able to find a chord voicing you already know that has the melody as the highest note. For example: If the chord is G and the melody is D, you will see that D is the fifth of the G chord and you can just find a G chord voicing that has the letter D as the highest note. If the melody is a non-chord tone, you may have to create a voicing that contains the chord and melody note.
Again, whether using a pick or fingers, play the chord and make the melody pop out louder than the chord but make it the last note the listener, including you, hears.
When you learn a guitar part, melody or chord progression, always understand what you are playing.
Build a collection of songs and save the lead sheets in whatever format you like, write in any directions you may want to remember, voicings, positions, etc. Practice your songs regularly. These will become you own arrangements.
The way you play a song has a lot to do with the job at hand. If you are playing in a band with a singer, you probably are not going to play the melody. You might just be playing the chords or learning the actual guitar part. In the band context your job is to serve the song and help the band sound the best it can.
Enjoy the challenge of learning songs.