Please forgive me in advance if I am using the wrong terms to describe something, I am not a professional musician.

Sometimes I can play a song notes on the guitar (same notes the singer sings) and it fits perfectly to the chord progression as it goes on and I play part of chords and add the singer's notes to make a richer sound.

I am constantly moving to play the next chord or part of it and adding some notes as the singer sings (in that chord pentatonic scale) and it sounds perfect. for example, I got this to work for me for example in a Bob Marley's song "Soul Rebel"

and it works perfectly. part of the time I am strumming part or full chords and in the other part I am "filling in" the notes the singer sings. but it always works only for the specific chord in the chord progression.

What I am trying to understand is why doesn't it work on all songs? it seems to me that sometimes the chord progression is far off from the song notes although it still complements it, since they are all in the same key right?

for example, I can't play the chords or parts of them and the notes (in those chords) the singer sings to make up the song of Bob Marley's: "Redemption song"

the notes might fit at the first chord as it starts with the words: "Old pirates" on a G chord and I can be on the G pentatonic scale. but then it changes to Em which the notes of the song do not fit the Em scale at that time (or they do but they sound bad?), the best sound I get is keep playing the notes on the G scale. and playing the chord progression (on another guitar for example) regardless. This is totally different with what I'm doing in the first song I mentioned I really play it well, and I play the notes of what the singer sings while strumming part of the current chord in the progression and adding more notes as the singer sings (fits the pentatonic scale of each chord while the progression goes).

what is it that I am missing and if there is a specific lesson I should take I would greatly appreciate if you'll tell me what it is.

Many Thanks!


Edit: "Rockin Cowboy" really got what I was asking and offered ways to try to solve the problem (as trying chord alternatives and a capo)

  • I just want to know now what is the theory behind this and if there is something that can be learned that will make it easier to understand and controlled.
  • and if anybody else know any other methods to try to solve the problem?

I am also thinking about uploading some videos demonstrating the ease for the first song and the "impossibility" in the second one. but that will take me time to get it done, uploaded and shared.

Can't thank you all enough!

Second Edit: OK! Please excuse my ignorance but it seems I found the right name for what I am looking for! apparently it's called just plain "Fingerstyle". PLEASE take a look at this YouTube clip, it represents exactly what I am doing (and what is not always working for me- sometimes it works for me flawlessly and in other songs I can't move past the first chord!)

apparently the guy who plays is a master in doing covers in fingerstyle guitar.. his has tons of videos as these in his channel.

I am talking about this kind of playing and even a little more full chords sounds. please tell me what is the theory behind what is going on in this case, and what are the scenarios one could face trying to play different types of songs and if there are known ways to approach them.

let me just also mention that I am playing a classical guitar and I am used to finger-style playing far more then using a pick. I can also add that I've been playing for many years and I don't have any technical difficulty in playing in this style but I don't know the theory behind it.

I found some information at Wikipedia about fingerstyle, I quote:

Music arranged for fingerstyle playing can include chords, arpeggios and other elements such as artificial harmonics, hammering on and pulling off with the fretting hand, using the body of the guitar percussively, and many other techniques. Often, the guitarist will play a chord and melody simultaneously, giving an advanced feeling of depth to the song. Fingerpicking is a standard technique on the classical or nylon string guitar, but is considered more of a specialized technique on steel string guitars and even less usual on electric guitars.

again, I Can't thank you enough! so happy I came here!

  • 1
    Using the MAJOR pentatonic notes of G will work over a Gmaj. bar. The notes for E MINOR pentatonic are the same notes, just centred on E instead of G. So the same notes will fit. Are you getting maj. and min. pents mixed up?
    – Tim
    Apr 13, 2015 at 6:18
  • @Tim Not sure this is my problem, Rockin Cowboy has nailed my question but I'd like to know more about the answer and what is the theory behind it.
    – Ray
    Apr 13, 2015 at 21:27
  • You will notice that arrangements for finger style classical guitar rarely use the most common chord shapes and fingerings. That's because they are intentionally arranged in a way that makes it easier to pick out the melody notes in a manner that is easily derived from whatever chord voicing and fret board position chosen for each chord in the progression. The skill is as much in arranging the chord voicings and choosing the most effective version of each chord than in actually playing the notes. What I mean is that discovering the most effective arrangement is more than half the battle. Apr 14, 2015 at 8:50

5 Answers 5


It sounds like what you want to do is play some of the melody notes (what the singer is singing) by picking them out of the chord you are playing - or while staying close to the chord so you can play the melody over the chord and keep the rhythm going at the same time.

I play the notes of what the singer sings while strumming part of the current chord in the progression and adding more notes as the singer sings

This is something I like to do often. What I have found is that sometimes my first choice of chord voicing fits nicely with the melody notes and allows me to stay close to the chord shape with the fingering for that chord - while picking out a few melody notes from within (or close to) the chord - as a fill while continuing to strum the chord.

When that does not work, I try alternate chord voicings until I find one that will work. A good chord reference book with alternate ways to play each chord will help you find the most common variations of each chord. Or you can find on-line resources like this site Guitar Chords that will show you alternate voicings for any chord you can think of.

By choosing an alternate voicing, I can usually find one that allows me to pick out some melody notes by simply lifting a finger here or placing another finger down there - while still maintaining the basic chord shape.

When even that does not work, I often find that using a capo and a different chord set will give me chords that allow me to easily play the melody notes while keeping most of my fingers on the chord. I can keep the song in the same key but play it with up to five different chord sets (I don't like to capo past the eight fret) by knowing where to put the capo.

For example, let's say I am playing a song is in the key of A and the chords are A - D - and E but those chords don't contain all the melody notes I need or allow me to get to them easily without moving away from the chord shape. I may find that by putting a capo on the second fret and playing a G (instead of the A) a C (instead of the D) and a D (for the E chord) that the new chord formations will allow me to play all the melody notes I want while holding most of the fretted notes of the chord. With the capo on the 2nd fret - playing a G gives me an A - so I am still in the key of A - only now using completely different chord fingerings.

This chart will help you find all the different chord sets and relevant capo positions for any key.

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For most songs, between alternate voicings of the chords used in the song or changing the chord set with a capo (and trying alternate voicings of those chords) you will be able to find a chord variation or chord set that allows you to play fills consisting of the melody notes while continuing to strum the chord. There might be an occasional exception, but then one of the alternatives suggested will still get you to a chord shape and position that makes it easier to find the melody notes without straying far from the chord you are playing.

Good luck!

  • Thanks so much for you detailed answer! That is exactly what I am trying to accomplish! I am getting to work so nice and so easy on one song but find almost impossible on the other! Thank you for telling me how I can try to solve the problem, I will try these methods and give you an update! Much appreciated!
    – Ray
    Apr 13, 2015 at 21:24
  • I found the name for it which is "Fingerstyle guitar" take a look at my second edit of the question. (a few words from there: Often, the guitarist will play a chord and melody simultaneously, giving an advanced feeling of depth to the song.) I still didn't get an answer from anyone for what is the theory behind this and why sometimes I can't get it to work, but I will continue to look for theory information from here as there are some books and videos about it. Thanks a lot!
    – Ray
    Apr 14, 2015 at 0:37
  • @Ray see my comment under your question. I think it's more to do with creating the most appropriate arrangement of the song to facilitate playing the melody notes while maintaining the harmony and rhythm. That may be more trial and error and knowledge of the fretboard and where the notes are, than any theory. For most of us, it's trial and error - meaning just try all the different chord voicings and chord sets until you find the ones that allow you to accomplish what you want to do. Apr 14, 2015 at 8:56

In summary, and over-simplifying:

  1. The notes on the strongest beats (1st and 3rd beat of the bar in case of 4/4 time) will almost invariably belong to the current chord, not just the current scale. (These can be called "pillar notes".)

  2. Most other notes belong to the parent scale of the chord.

  3. As long as the strongest beats have notes from the chords (point 1), you can get very creative even with out-of-scale notes.

A more academic discussion on the same subject, with a jazz angle, is included in the book "Forward Motion" by Hal Galper.

  • This might also be the correct answer as I think that Pillar notes is indeed what stands behind this issue, I just need to experiment more and learn through it, if you have anything to add after my edits I will appreciate it a lot, Thanks!
    – Ray
    Apr 14, 2015 at 0:55
  • From a musical point of view, the question being about the relation between song notes and chords and the concept of "pillar notes", here's a link where Pat Metheny explains the same point to a guitar student of his: youtube.com/watch?v=UAc1CytLStw -- it's a recording of a guitar class, and starting at 14:00 Pat describes the difference between playing with just the right scales versus playing with full awareness of the chord notes, and demonstrates both.
    – MarcoB
    Apr 14, 2015 at 22:31
  • From a technical point of view, on the other hand, fingerstyle is the main approach for combining chords and melody on guitar, bot it's not the only one. Many other approaches are possible. For example, in the beginning of this video Joe Pass, instead of playing chords and melody (or chords and bass lines!) at the same time, he alternates them (notice how you don't miss the chords at all when he plays the melody!). Or search for videos where Stanley Jordan explains how he thinks when he plays...
    – MarcoB
    Apr 14, 2015 at 22:48

It somehow seems to me you're asking if you can play the same scale over all chords from a given song, which would be : mostly. Usually a song or a song part will be in a given key (so a single scale should fit), but it will slightly change one chord to add color. Off the top of my mind I'd say the change from C to C minor in Radiohead's Creep or the secondary dominant in, well, loads and loads of songs (the first two are the TL;DR of it).

As for the pentatonic, there some sort of halfway between an arpeggio (only chord tones) and the scale. Sometimes it's best to stick to one pentatonic for most of one song, sometimes it makes sense to adjust every chord change or so.

The thing is, the theory behind can be tedious and overwhelming, but if you want to understand every nook and cranny you'll have to digest it in some way. Functional harmony, modes, chord progressions, you need to know the basic of all of it. It's not that bad, but some ways of absorbing this are more engaging than others - I know I find the pure academical way of presenting harmony absolutely soul crushing.

Anyway, if you're using the melody and chord tones to choose what to play, you're already doing fine. In case it doesn't make sense but sounds fine, it means you're right.

  • Thanks a lot for your answer! I've really ran into these two scenarios where either one scales will fit the whole song but will not be a part of the the chords in the chord progression and sometimes if I play the scale of each chord in the chord progression it fits perfectly.. Thanks for the other info as well!
    – Ray
    Apr 13, 2015 at 21:36

To complement all the answers here, some chord progressions adhere to the primary scale, some don't. There is another way to frame perception of your concern, which is to see the melody as the primary song component, and then fill out chords around that, as additionally suits the chord progression.

Moreover, this is more inclined to work if you see your own role as providing a counterpoint vine of melody, or holding down a meta-melody comprised of both root melody and components of the chord progression within that scope. If there are chords with components outside the song scale, that implicitly declares the song as having a parallel scale(s) as well (or subscale). If you can get a feel for that overarching subscale or metascale, you can operate consistently within it, you can actually hold the song together more than originally composed. It can validly be perceived as either subscale or metascale, but the choice of which will determine the color of the song. If you have a skilled partner, you should zero in on a subscale consistently vining through the song, and them the other, combining to create the metascale as defined by the union of the original melody and chord progression.

  • Playing in such a manner, while uniformly fitting, will bring the piece a sitar raga coloring. Ragas are relatively transcendent, requiring holding the entire scope of the piece within your mind at once, and seeing each notes not only for it's melodic interval skip role, bus as having infinite duration as a component of infinite permutations of interval color. The goal becomes to choose the immediate passing set of harmonic color which yields current emotional meaning. Apr 14, 2015 at 5:34
  • Some ragas are played with a dozen simultaneous scales, yielding infinite permutations of interval color. Playing in this style, akin to shoegazing or dream-pop, becomes a transcendent mode of minding the evolution of the harmonics cloud more so than the melody or chords themselves which merely serve to steer the meta-narrative. You may find difficulty even finding partners who comprehend what you are doing. I so often get the comment that they see it gel like some phantasm before it dissolves again from their conscious grasp. Apr 14, 2015 at 5:34

A basic comprehensive reading on classical theory would greatly benefit your improv and understanding of how melody relates to harmony.

Specifically regarding your question, this link will greatly help you: Wikipedia nonharmonic tones. Check out Suspension.

The benefits are immense from a basic fundamental knowledge of classical theory. I can't stress it enough.

  • Thanks for your recommendation, I do wish to understand the basics of music theory.. as for your link, I've read and learned and found it interesting but I'm not sure it shows the theory behind my problem. please look at my second Edit above. Thanks again!
    – Ray
    Apr 13, 2015 at 23:17
  • Ray, I think I understand what you mean by "what is the theory behind this". Based off your second edit, I think what you need is an understanding of voicing. In that video, the player is using his guitar (which is a multi-voiced instrument) to create different voices. Specifically, there is one voice that plays the melody, and then there is at least one other voice that pays the "bass" (more realistically, he is probably playing two to three voices underneath the melody voice, which will complete the triad). Again, you really should learn the fundamentals of music to fully understand.
    – lobi
    Apr 14, 2015 at 16:45
  • also: voices are sometimes called parts. Soprano/alto/tenor/bass does not always refer to a singer, but rather (in the context of music theory) refers to the melodic line of any given passage. Within any given passage, you can have multiple parts (voices) play "melodic lines", however the soprano melody is emphasized and the other voices are used to construct harmony/rhythm <- this is a VERY simple explanation. See homophonic music: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homophony. Specifically, see the sentence that describes what the wiki author calls "melody-dominated homophony". Please upvote.
    – lobi
    Apr 14, 2015 at 16:55

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