Writing melodies using melodic shapes

How does one create a melody? It’s an interesting question with a lot of possible answers. For years, I tended to noodle around on guitar until I discovered a riff or chord progression I liked. Then I would basically just hear a melody in my head that would fit the guitar part. I really didn’t put much thought into it.

Other people have a much more hands on approach to melody creation. Jimmy Webb has book entitled “Tunesmith” (well worth a read) and he describes a rather detail oriented process of developing melodies, tweaking things until they are perfect.

Recently I’ve been thinking about a different way to approach melody writing. It’s a very visual approach. Here’s a simplified description.

First, start off with a piece of graph paper. Create and X and Y axis. On your Y axis, label the notes of the C major scale as shown below. On your X axis, think of each square as a beat in a 4/4 meter. Mark off every 4 beats for clarity, as shown below.


What we want to do here is overlay some melody shapes on top of this graph. What to I mean by melody shapes? Take a look at the following.

music shape

Each dot represents a note. In this case, each note is one beat long. The shape describes a melodic flow. You start with a note, then go down one note, then return to the original note and then go up one note.

Now, you can place the shape on your graph (by drawing it in for example) and it implies a melody. But the melody changes depending on where you place it. For example, this shows the melody  C, B, C, D


But this shows melody A, G, A, B


So the same shape can be used to describe different melodic “chunks.”

What’s the point of all this? You’ll find as you examine most melodies in songs that they only use a limited amount of melodic shapes. This enforces a certain recognizability to a tune. As opposed to a melody that wanders about, introducing new elements all the time, the repeated use of a few shapes glues everything together. The shapes are kind of like the DNA of the song.

I’ve found that by playing around with a few shapes I can almost always come up with a decent sounding tune—not necessarily a hit, but something that always sounds like music.

There are a few more considerations when playing with this idea and I’ll get into them in a later post. Obviously this process can be adjusted to handle concepts like chromatic as opposed to diatonic melodies, and beats smaller than quarter notes. But feel free to take this basic premise for a spin and see what you come up with.

Music is like a ceiling fan

A couple days ago I was doing some stretching on the carpet and I was looking upwards at the ceiling fan that cools our apartment. It was on, so all I could really see was a ghostly circle as the arms of the fan rotated too fast for the eye to observe. It struck me that this was exactly what happens when you hear a note of music. A note is really a series of vibrations but they happen so quickly that our ear hears them as one “thing,” one—to use a fancy term—percept. The ghostly, circular image of the ceiling fan is the visual equivalent of that percept. It’s moving so fast that our eye turns it into one object (albeit an ethereal, hazy one.)

The best illustration of how a note is really many vibrations is the sound of a helicopter starting up. It’s starts with a series of Whoop… Whoop…Whoops that get faster and faster—WhoopWhoopWhoop, until they just sound like a single Whirr, usually with a definite pitch. Many Whoops equals one Whirr.

Anyway, just wanted to share my observation.

An Introduction to Fingerpicking

Fingerpicking is nice way to add a different flavor to your playing. This article explores some steps to getting the basics down. We’ll look at three fingerpicking patterns, one for chords with a root note on the 5th string (like C), one for chords with a root note on the 6th string (like G) and one for chords with a root note on the 4th string.

You can use various combinations of fingers on your picking hand to pluck notes. Here, we’re going to focus on using the thumb, index and middle finger to get a basic fingerpicking pattern going. As you go, keep in mind that the rule is to start slowly. It takes a while to get the movements wired into your fingers but you’ll be surprised at what you can eventually do.

Learning the Pattern
First, place your thumb over the 5th string. Then place your index finger over the 3rd string. Then place your middle finger over the 2nd string. With this process we are “assigning” each of these fingers to a particular string.

Now, without fretting a chord, pluck each of these strings using the following fingers, to a count of four. So…

“one” = T (Thumb)
“two” = I (Index)
“three” = M (Middle)
“four”  = I (Index)

Repeat that pattern several times to get a feel for the basic movement. Try to keep your plucking rhythmically even.

Playing a Chord
Next, fret an open C chord with your fretting hand. Again pick the fingerpicking pattern. You should have a nice piano-esque sound.

Now try this pattern with a standard Ami chord.  The notes should ring out clearly. If you have any buzzing or muffled notes you’re probably not pressing down hard enough with one or more of your fretting fingers. Or, one of your fretting fingers is “hanging” over a string underneath it and muffling it. For example, the flesh of your finger fretting the note on the third string might hanging low and muting the note on the second string.

Playing Chords Together
Now try going from C to Ami, playing eight fingerpicked notes for each chord. This will result in two counts of four—or two bars—for each chord. You may have some difficulty at the point of chord switching. If so, check out this article for tips on smoothing out those transitions.

Let’s make things a bit more challenging. So far we’ve been plucking a note on every beat. Let’s slow down our beat… way down, and trying playing four notes per beat. So for every instance you count a number you’ll play four notes using the thumb, middle, index, middle pattern. This sort of thing is often counted as…

“ONE, two three, four, TWO, two, three, four, THREE, two, three, four, FOUR, two, three, four,

Groups of Three
Let’s try a different pattern. The first pattern we tried was in groups of four; now we’ll try a group of three. Here’s how the fingers match up with beats.

“one” = T
“two” = M
“three” = I

Try this with a chord of your choosing, playing the sets of three notes over and over.

You can use these three note patterns to get an interesting triplet feel. For example, let’s say you have a song in 4/4 time (as most pop songs are.) You can use this pattern to play three notes for each beat. The count would be…

“ONE, two, three, TWO, two three, THREE, two, three, FOUR, two, three.”

You are playing a note on each number counted.

Pattern for chords with a root on the 6th string
Let’s go back to our four note pattern but we will now move the thumb to a different string. The thumb will be on the 6th string, while the other fingers will stay where they are. Try that pattern on a standard G open chord, Emi open chord, E open chord and F#mi barre chord (If you are familiar with it.) Again the notes should ring nice and clear. (This will be tough on any barre chords.)

After you develop some comfort with the thumb on the 6th string, try the “groups of three” pattern as well. Then try going from a G chord with the thumb on the 6th string to a C chord with the thumb on the 5th string. And, of course, play around with your own ideas here.

Pattern for chords with a root on the 4th string
Let’s now move our thumb so that it’s playing the 4th string while the other two fingers stay where they are. This is a pattern we might use for a open D chord. Try it out.

It’s not bad, but I tend to like a little space between the notes my thumb is plucking and the higher notes. So let’s reassign our index and middle fingers as follows. The index will now pluck the 2nd string and the middle will pluck the first string. Try that D chord again. I think you’ll find it has a little more pizzazz.

Of course, you can use whatever pattern you want for any chord and you may find some pleasant surprises. You can also make up your own patterns as well. What we’ve covered here should get you started.

Different ways to play guitar (with videos)

One interesting thing about the guitar (and similar stringed instruments like the uke) is that there are so many different ways to play it. You can play with a pick, fingers, or some combination of both. There are also all sorts of relatively new ways to play the guitar in a percussive manner. This post is an overview of all these methods; I will update as I discover more.

Folk style
This is the traditional way people thinking of playing the guitar: strumming chords with a pick. Dylan is a great example.

Classical finger picking
Here no pick is used and the fingers (often the fingernails) do all the work. Take a look at Segovia. (The video takes about 40 seconds to hone in on his hands.)

The pick is used to play individual notes, often by picking with both down and upstrokes. Who better to showcase this at top speed than Yngwie Malmsteen?

Thumb as a pick
Wes Montgomery is most associated with the technique of using the human thumb in place of a pick. He got amazingly fluid results from such a bulky seeming technique.

Travis picking
Invented by country guitarist Merle Travis, this is a technique that uses the thumb to pluck the bass notes and the other fingers to hit chords and higher melodies. The result is a kind of ragtime piano feel. In this video Travis is using a thumb pick but many players (myself included) Travis pick with no pick.

Van Halen tapping
Eddie Van Halen popularized the idea of tapping notes on the fret board using a combination of fingers from both hands. This interview/demo breaks down the process.

Earlier tapping
As many have noted, Van Halen was not the first to employ this technique (though I believe him when he says he developed it independently of others.) This guy did some great playing in an earlier era.

The Magic Touch
Stanley Jordan took the two hand tapping idea into pianoesque territory. Here he plays two guitars (one being a vibe toned guitar synthesizer.)

More magic touch
Ukrainian guitarist, Enver İzmaylov, combines the magic touch style playing with several other techniques.

Percussive guitar
As well as being an excellent finger picker, Kaki King uses a interesting percussive approach to the guitar.

Slap/percussive guitar
Japanese guitarist Miyavi has a percussive take on guitar reminiscent of funk slap bass.

More percussive guitar
The late guitarist Bob Brozman combined percussive guitar with finger picking and various other flavors.

I’m no expert in Flamenco guitar which is more of a genre of music than a playing technique but I think it’s worth mentioning. Flamenco employs a lot of interesting rhythmic feels and sweeping arpeggios. Paco De Lucia was a master.

Transitioning between chords on a guitar

In a previous post, “Learning chord shapes on the guitar” we talked about learning some basic chord shapes. As noted in that post, learning these shapes only takes you part of the way towards playing a song. Once you’ve learn various chord shapes you then need to learn to transition from one chord to another. Each transition will involve a unique collection of movements but you’ll find  that a lot of what you learn in one transition will apply to others.

Let’s take a look at a transition. We’ll go from a C major chord to an A minor chord. First, let’s look at the chord forms.

C  Chord

A minor chord


So, starting from the C maj, we lift our ring finger from the 5th string/3rd fret and move it to the 3rd string/2nd fret. Easy Peasy.

What does our middle finger do? Pretty much nothing as it stays on the 4th string, 2 fret. You might find it moves a bit closer towards the middle of the fret but that’s it. Our index finger also stays in place.The index and middle fingers would be what are called pivot fingers in this transition. These are fingers that don’t change location during a chord transition.

Let’s look at another transition, going from an F chord (everyone’s favorite) to a C chord. Let’s go to the diagrams.

F Chord


C Chord

We have been mainly discussing what are called open chords—chords with open strings in them. That F is not an open chord, all strings are fretted, some by barring the index finger across the first fret.

Do we have a pivot finger in this transition? We do: the ring finger stays in place. But we have a major movement as the index finger lifts up from barre across the first fret and goes to the 2nd string/1st fret. Also, the middle finger goes from 3rd string/2nd fret to 4th string/2nd fret.

In the earlier post we talked about the idea of chunking. This is breaking complex movements down into individual parts and and practicing those parts on their own. Once we master them we can glue the movements together. In this transition, it’s best to think of each finger’s movement as a chunk. Practice them individually (say, practice each finger movement ten times in a row) and then try and group them together. Depending on your skill level, it may take a few practice sessions to get this complex chord transition into your muscle memory.

Let’s look at one more transition, C major to D major. Here are the chord forms.

C Chord


D Chord

As you may have noticed, there are no pivot fingers here. This transition is more complex as each finger used in the C chord has to lift up and go to a different location to form the D chord. The ring finger goes from the 5th string/3rd fret to the 2nd string/3rd fret. The middle finger goes from the 4th string/2nd fret to the 1st string/2nd fret. The index finger goes from the 5th string/1st fret to the 3rd string/2nd fret. That’s a pretty complex movement.

One tip I’ve have found useful for these kinds of transitions: find the finger has to travel the greatest distance and perform that movement first*. You’ll find the other fingers sort of fall into place. In this case of C to D, it would be the ring finger moving from the 5th string to the 2nd string.

* Ultimately, you’ll be performing all the finger movements simultaneously but at the beginning this is a good way to go.

Also, you’ll get the most out of your practice time if you focus on doing the transitions. So, don’t play a C chord for two bars, then transition to the D, then play that chord for two bars, then go back to the C and repeat the whole thing. Just practice the movement of the transitions for a bit. (This can get boring but it’s time well spent.)

These processes—pivot fingers, chunking etc.—can be applied to many chord transitions. Once you use them to figure out the best way to transition, it’s simply a matter of practice.

Of course, once you’ve got some chords down you’ll want to strum them with the right hand (if you’re a righty that is; reverse for lefties.) I have an article on that as well.

Links for further study: