We want our music to be memorable, right?And as guitarists, the primary way we give notoriety to our music, is by contributing (or accommodating) melody.
Yes, it's a music theory-term, but one that we should know and focus on.
That's not to say we've no responsibility to rhythm. We're obligated to be rhythmically sound and accurate; perhaps the most difficult aspect of the guitar to teach. But primarily, our job (especially those of us who would classify ourselves as "lead" guitarists) is characterized by melody.
So what makes a good melody?
How do people remember it?
I hesitate to tell you there's a formula, because creativity isn't formulaic. But I'll call what I'm about to show you a blueprint.
It's a template that you can use to build catchy melodies that don't sound like annoying garbage. What's even better news, is that these blueprints are incredibly simple and clean. So you don't need to fill up a notebook in order to learn how to be creative.
We'll use five points to build addictive melodies.
1. Less than 10 NotesAn addictive melody is simple and easy to remember.
Thus, an ideal melody line for the listener will be short. Think 10 notes or even less.
More importantly than counting notes, is understanding that it doesn't take a blinding guitar solo or a complex mode to come up with something entertaining and memorable. Instead of looking to shredders for your melodic inspiration, look to lead vocalists.
What they sing is also considered a melody line, unless of course they're singing backup.
Think about what you hear Paul Hewson (Bono) singing in U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
"But I still, haven't found, what I'm looking for..."
That phrase builds the melody of the chorus.
Now it's not smart to just copy the lead vocal line during songs, but you can use them for inspiration and guidance when coming up with your own melodies.
What you'll notice is that they rarely require a lot of notes.
2. A Decorative EffectThe modern guitar player is fortunate to have so many tools and sounds at their disposal. And while a shimmering effect isn't required for great melody, it's an incredibly easy way to enhance your sequences and make them seem fuller.
Some might say that it's cheap. They might say something like:
"Your melody should be good on its own merits, without having to use an effect to prop it up."
First, I agree that a melody should be good on its own merits, but more so, I don't believe that an effect can "mask" a bad melody.
Here are some good effects to focus on.
- Short-Timed Delay: It can be a lot of work to set your delay right, but a shorter repeating cycle (maybe one or two seconds) can add a lot of depth to simpler patters. To use the U2 example again, David Evans (the Edge) has this technique down to a science.
- Shallow Chorus: Deep choruses can actually cause your tuning to sound slightly off, which is one of the reasons I prefer a really subtle chorus sound. You can read up on how to adjust the settings of your chorus pedal, if you want more information.
- Slow Phaser: Once again, we're going for subtlety. If the phaser effect is too quick, you risk muddying your sound and distracting from the melody. Here's some more information on placing your phaser.
- Reverb: A good amp will usually come with a reverb knob, which can couple nicely with any of the three effects we've already mentioned.
You've also got to make sure you're not adding too many effects and snuffing out your sound.
One or two is usually enough to get the job done.
3. A Feeling (Positive or Negative)All music should invoke an emotional response from the listener. What guitar players tend to struggle with is wanting to invoke a visual response or to entertain someone by what they see. To be sure, some guitar players can do that.
John Petrucci and Steve Vai make a living by being impressive to watch, just as much as they are to listen to.
But chances are, you're not either of those guys in terms of your skill level. Most of us aren't.
And even if you were, you'll notice that they're still incredibly melodic, with music that's emotionally drawing and sensitive.
So don't count on the visuals of your playing to entertain people. That's far more difficult than appealing to their emotional side, which is what a well-crafted, addictive melody is designed and intended to do.
But how do you create an emotional melody?
There are primarily two ways:
- Major Key: Major keys are going to have a more positive and "happy" resolve than a minor key. Scales and chords that are major in their tonality are good for invoking this response.
- Minor Key: Predictably, minor keys are the opposite, as they exude a more dark and gloomy resolve than major keys. Scales and chords with this quality are good for drawing out a corresponding emotion.
The power of positive and negative emotions have long been the driving force behind the popularity and appeal of music in general. If you take that out and try to appeal solely on visual stimulus, you're going to fail, no matter how fast of a player you are.
4. Simple IntervalsIntervals (in the context of the guitar) are used to signify the number of notes (or frets) between two notes.
We've discussed them at length in a number of posts, but most notably in the Guitar Player's Plain English Guide to Music Theory. I've also touched on it in a piece I wrote for the Guitar World Blog. By piecing these basic intervals together, we can come up with sequences and methods for building either a minor-sounding pattern or a major-sounding pattern.
We'll start with the major pattern method.
Building Melodies in a Major Key with Basic IntervalsFor our major key melody, we'll use something called a tetrachord.
Tetrachord is simply the term used to describe the following interval sequence: Whole - whole - half. A major scale is said to be two identical tetrachords separated by a whole tone.
So our tetrachord example:
And our major scale example:
Building Melodies in a Major Key with Basic IntervalsTo create melodies with a minor key, we can start by taking only the last two components of our tetrachord and modifying it a bit to get a minor-sounding sequence of notes.
Instead of whole - whole - half, we use whole - half - whole, demonstrated in the following tab:
Memorizing these patterns will give you a starting point when you're ready to begin writing your own melodies.
5. A Familiar Chord ProgressionChord progressions, particularly within a musical genre, are incredibly consistent.
Some might condemn this as a lack of creativity, but if you want to play what's going to sound good, it helps to get familiar with the established and commonly-used chord progressions of our day.
For example: Why is the G, C and D progression so widely used?
Because it provides a simple, great-sounding backdrop for vocal and instrumental melody.
So the morale of the story: You don't have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to your chord progressions. They're a foundational component of your musical genre of choice. So if you want to create melodies that are addicting and easy to remember, build them over top of those widely loved and accepted progressions.
To outline the process and be a little more specific, here's what it looks like:
- Choose a key (C for example).
- Look for chords in that key.
- Chose a common chord progression (listed in the above link).
- Improvise or write a melody.
I would always recommend having a way to record or play back chord progressions so that you're able to write your melodies over top of them. Otherwise it's difficult to come up with them outside of some kind of chord structure.
Take the time to set that up before you start writing your lead sequences on the guitar.
And you're done...That's it.
Five steps, and you've got yourself all the tools you need to create melodies that people will like and remember.
The more you're able to understand the musical components that are involved with what you're playing, the easier it will be for you to write music and contribute something worth listening to.
And now that you've seen the process, the word "melody" should no longer be a mystical and ambiguous phrase in your mind.
Quite the opposite; it's concrete.
Though a small aspect of music theory, it has a lot of technical implications for how we tackle the guitar.
Don't Shun Music Theory TerminologyTherefore we shouldn't be so quick to turn our nose up at terms and concepts that fall under the category of theory.
These terms are important and not as hard to understand as you might think.
My advice is to take the time to understand them and get them right. It'll give definition and clarity to what you see happening on the fretboard. You'll know, "Ok, I'm playing a melody right now." instead of, "I'm playing "this."
You want to be able to describe with some level of familiarity what you're actually doing.
You've started with melody, so why not tackle a few more theory terms in plain English?
Connect With UsWe don't use a blog commenting system for the same reasons that CopyBlogger doesn't. That said, you can connect with us via Twitter or Google Plus.
If you like our resource and want to support us, check out our donate page.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Terekhova and Giulio Magnifico