So I am becoming more curious about arranging things for solo style (melody and harmony at the same time) playing on guitar or piano.

So to simplify this discussion, lets say we are trying to make an arrangement for an existing song which we know has a I-V-vi-IV progression. We are also going to assume the rule of thumb "the melody stays on top".

So the melody will dictate what the highest note of a chord I choose might be. And in order to keep the original feel of the song's rhythm, I might choose a bass note that matches the root note of the chord from the original progression.

How much freedom do I realistically have for choosing the rest of the chord tones (assuming I want the song to remain recognizable and sound halfway decent)? Do strategies change depending on where I am in the chord progression(dominant, subdominant, etc.)? Would a good default choice be to play a triad a starting diatonic fifth below the melody note over the bass note from the original version?

I realize there is no cookie cutter solution for something like this.

  • If you maintain the original bass notes, you will have very little room to be changing the chords. The only ways to change the chords would be to use inversions and have the original bass note be the 3rd or 5th of the new chord (assuming they are all just triads), or to use slash chords, which could drastically change the feel. Usually creating your own arrangement with the intention of changing the chords would change the bass note as well. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 19:24
  • @Basstickler I am fine with slash chords, inversions or even chromaticism if I can understand some sort of rationale for them, and if they sound fine in context. I guess I would like to know the tradeoffs to be made, for some guidelines for how to approach it short of "try to use scale tones" Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 19:31

3 Answers 3


On piano, there are not the restrictions that emerge with guitar. There's a greater choice of notes, more can be reached comfortably and they can be shared by both hands. On guitar, the bass part is usually played on the E, A or D string. Any higher and it's just not bass.Yes, the melody generally goes on top, as humans tend to catch those notes more easily.So, you're left with the tune dictating where it gets played, and an appropriate bass note not too far away, fretwise, otherwise you won't reach it. Playing in E, A or D will be a bit of help, as the root notes are open strings. More to follow, but I'm off to gig now !!

The 'key' notes in a chord are 3 and 7. Root is a given, otherwise we wouldn't feel which chord was under that part of the melody. The 3 gives the answer to is it major or minor, and the seven (if present) gives more harmonic definition. In other words, use notes from the chord (obviously, unless you want to change the feel of the song), but you can afford to miss the 5 if you have to.Using strings 2,3 and 4 on guitar, assuming the tune is played on the top string, although sometimes it'll need to use string 2, you've a couple of strings for the chord.

If the tune happens to play root and around, you can use a different note in the bass. Sometimes you can use a walking bass line to get from one chord to the next, especially when the tune is static.Often one chord played per bar will suffice, on beat one, but depending where the tune line is going at that moment.

If there's room at the end of a bar, a nice trick is to put a bass note in,leading to the next bar, beat one. This note is either one fret above or one fret below the target note. It shouldn't work with the former, but it does. And it keeps your fingers close to where they need to be.

From the question, I don't think you're asking 'should I change the harmony?',but if you wish, a sus 2 or 4, or a 6th will not go amiss. If it sounds good - it probably is !

However - if that's your desire, this may help.Let's say there's a long note held over a bar in a song. Key doesn't matter for now. Let's say it's an E. Any chord containing an E MAY fit under it. So - Cmaj., Emaj.,Emin., C#min.,Amaj., Amin., Fmaj7., F#7., Ab+., C#o are some that spring to mind.When you consider where the harmony for that part of the song has come from, some of those choices are out of bounds, key wise or ear wise. But, thinking where it goes next may let that 'odd' chord back in. Suck it and see.10 choices is only a starter, really,I'm sure loads of other chords will make themselves known, so things could modulate quite easily, keeping the melody line as is.Folks may say you've wrecked the song, but that's in the eye (ear) of the beholder.


Yeah there is no cookie cutter solution, and I'd like to say you have quite a bit of freedom, but that really depends on how much you want it to sound like an original.

One easy thing that you can do is substitute major chords for their relative minors and substitute minor chords for their relative major. For instance you have a I-V-vi-IV progression, you can try playing a vi-iii-I-ii progression instead.

You could go further and make all of the chords that you use extended. By making the chords extended, I mean making them 7th chords, or 6th chords. For example, I-V7-vi7-IVmaj7 Mix and match between measures. So maybe you do the traditional progression for the first few bars, then do the relative minor/major progression.

There are a lot of things you can do, but again it really depends on how much of the original you want to retain.


It's wide open. As an exercise, you could take any melody note and find a harmony built on any bass note. Look at this example. Does anything in it break any of your "rules"? Get better rules, then!enter image description here

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.