Speaking to yourselves in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Ephesians 5:19
Christian music is our context.
If that’s not your thing, rest easy. You can still benefit from learning common worship guitar chords and melody if you’re any kind of musician.
The context doesn’t exclude those who aren’t involved or interested in Christian worship. If you're looking for info on other topics, you can check this lesson of broad guitar-related concepts.
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But, it does give us a type of music that has, in my opinion, been uniquely successful when it comes to creating and maintaining good melody, especially when it comes to how the electric guitar has been utilized within the genre.
So it’s the backdrop of our canvas.
This article is ideal for guitar players who serve as worship leaders or musicians, though it’s not irrelevant to other musical fields.
Much of this material I’ve referenced from this lead guitar workshop by Ben Gowell.
Developing Structures: Common Worship Guitar Chords and Triads
Our goal is to learn musical structures, how melody fits into them and then how to develop our own melodies.
More specifically, we’ll form melodies that are complimentary of vocal leads and music that’s driven by a narrative in addition to a beat and bass line.
We’ll use the following approach: Instead of focusing on raw note-by-note progressions, we’ll setup structures first in the form of triads and then build over top of those structures.
But what exactly is a triad?
A triad is any three notes that are played in unison as a chord.
These shapes are important because they allow us to pull melodies out of pre-defined chord structures saving us from inefficient movements or trying to guess at what will sound good.
Our shapes will come primarily from three different chords:
- D Major Form
- C Major Form
- Power Chord Form
You should have a passing familiarity with these concepts in order to make sense of what we’ll be covering.
Let’s look at our C form chords:
Now our D form:
The power chords we’ll work with will include the following moveable shapes:
We’ll derive our triads primarily from these six chord shapes
So let’s go ahead and establish the actual triads we’ll be using so that we have two layers of structure with which to build our cozy, melodic home.
You don’t need to memorize the triads yet. Just be aware that we’ll draw from these diagrams throughout the workshop.
Spend some time playing the chords and triads and getting familiar with them before moving on.
We won’t necessarily use every single one, but the patterns are all worth getting familiar with.
Starting with Arpeggios
We’ll use arpeggiated chord shapes throughout most of this workshop, so it makes sense to start by simply playing through one of our original chord shapes.
Our first exercise is to take the C major chord and pick through it, like this:
Now this isn’t technically a triad.
As you probably noticed, there are only four notes. We need to remove one.
If you want to use the last note (at the first fret on the B string) you can, but go ahead and omit that one for now and play the following triadic arpeggio:
So, when you’re dealing with a worship song in the key of C (and there are many) how do we make this sound good?
Played through a clean amp signal, it’s tough to hear or visualize how that could sound like much of anything, other than a raw C chord.
But let’s work with it a bit.
The first thing you can do is transpose the pattern, but in this case we don’t want to change keys. In Gowell’s article, he mentions the importance of playing on the higher parts of the fretboard, so let’s move our shape up an entire octave to get a different sound while maintaining our key.
The higher frets tend to do two things to your tone. First, the higher pitch is more clear and defined than the lower strings.
You might get a nicer “ringing” sound and resonance with the pick.
The second thing it can do is cut down on your sustain because the length between the fretted string and your picking hand is now considerably reduced.
That can be good for what we’re going to do next.
For this example we’re going to use delay to begin decorating our melody.
We’re not done with the actual melody yet (the notes are still going to change) but we want to start getting a feel for what the final product is going to sound like.
I’m going to use my Line 6 DL4 delay modeler to dial in a better sound.
If you don’t own a DL4, just do your best to dial in a delay effect with whatever pedal you have handy. Now it should sound more full at this point, but it might also sound kind of straightforward and lifeless.
How do we fix that?
Adding a Dynamic Story
Triads in and of themselves do not make melody.
They’re structures for melody, but playing straight through in a repetitive 1-2-3, 1-2-3 pattern isn’t always going to work.
It can in some cases. But here, we need to add something more dynamic. We need a story line; something more substantive.
I have my own take on this (which we’ll get to), but for now, just start by varying the picking pattern.
Try something like this:
We establish more of a root note presence and go between two major-third intervals before grabbing the G-note on the 12th fret.
It’s simple, but it makes a big difference.
I’d like to build this out a little more. Since I’ve got everything I need here for a great melody, a little more creative experimenting yielded this:
This pattern is more dynamic, interesting and collectively more creative than our original arpeggio.
The D Major Chord Shape and Our Second Arpeggio
Now that we understand the process and have a concrete example under our belts, we can delve into another arpeggio; this time, based on the D major chord shape.
First, the D major chord shape is heavily used in the realm of contemporary worship music.
It’s so frequent that Jordan Taylor was able to have a little fun with it.
What you see in Taylor’s video is actually quite true. And what I’m saying is that you should get away from boring and predictable patterns in favor of more dynamic and melodic lead sequences.
That way “the riff” will actually be worth listening to.
Since it’s the D major chord shape, I like to start with a basic D chord when teaching it. Here’s our triadic pattern:
Now remember what we said about our triadic shape? It’s a structure and not necessarily a note-for-note blueprint.
With this particular triad we can easily add notes that will work well with the root (in this case D) and allow us to create a more interesting and dynamic melody. Think of it as adding more chapters to the story.
Here’s what the diagram would look like. It basically becomes a free-form scale.
I’ve highlighted the original shape with hollow circles and a connecting dotted line. The notes around it can serve as extra tools to use as we craft our melody.
Take the note on the second string at the fifth fret for example.
We can add it to an arpeggiated pattern and begin to draw out our original tab.
Let’s take it a step further by adding a couple more notes.
Emulating Chord Changes
You might notice that we haven't actually played the root D note (which in this case would be the open fourth string). That’s on purpose, since our goal is to create melody and not to lay down a thick rhythm line.
But what if we wanted to track with the chord changes a little bit?
It’s basically two whole steps and a half step, making it a building block of the major scale.
In this case, we’ll simply reverse it, going one half step and two whole steps, giving us the following pattern:
Try playing through this next tab and pay close attention to how the notes on the third string sound.
Now, if you combine this pattern with what we came up with earlier, you have a lot of different notes and options to work with.
So instead of just playing the second fret on the third string the entire time, you can change it up and move along with the chord change or bass line of whatever you’re playing.
Once you get familiar with the sounds, you can mix things up on the top three strings, (G, B and high E) in order to come up with your own structured melodies.
So how does this actually work?
How do we apply it in the real world?
I think the best way to illustrate this concept is to come up with a melody and add it to a song that we can easily become (or already are) familiar with.
Phil Wickham‘s Singalong albums are great for this sort of thing, because it’s just Phil and his acoustic guitar.
The song we’ll work with is off Singalong 2 and is a short rendition of “Spring Up Oh Well”.
Here’s the track for you to play along with:
Our goal is to come up with a melody to compliment Phil’s vocal line and the chord progression he’s playing on his acoustic guitar.
Ideally, this should be purely driven by your own creativity at this point.
You’ve got all the music theory and structures in place, so there’s nothing left but to use those tools in order to add something to the song.
If you feel stuck, I’ll go ahead and give a few examples.
First, let’s go over the chord progression:
I've got a river of life flowing out of me...
Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see...
Opens prison doors, sets the captives free...
I've got a river of life flowing out of me.
Our chord progression looks like this: D-G-D, D-G, E-C-G and Em-C-D-G.
Our song is thereby in the key of D.
That means a good place to start would be here:
If you know the notes on the fretboard, you can target your root note and then setup the triad from there.
We’ll set our triad at the seventh fret on the third string, based on the root D at the fifth fret.
I’ve added one more note that I want to use. The following pattern I thought sounded good with the track.
Here’s one way you could expand on the pattern:
Remember to add your effects and apply what we learned earlier about dynamics. At this point, it’s up to you to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Here’s a full set of notes, including an embedded tetrachord that gives you a grid to work from.
Breaking in More Triads
Now that we’ve been through the process we can work on developing some familiarity with a few other triads.
If we go back to the triadic shapes we started with, there are two particularly familiar patterns I’d like to cover in more detail.
For now, don’t worry about which key we’re in. Just get used to the shapes.
You might notice that the second shape can be easily turned into the D major shape we’ve already covered.
We can expand this pattern on the fourth and third string (D and G) to give us what begins to look more like a regular scale.
You can think of this as a scale and it’s also wise to memorize it as one. Just run through the pattern like you would any other scale shape.
Here’s your tab:
Once you get that many notes together and you can make sense of them, your musical options really start to open up.
With just this pattern you can play almost any melody (in a major key) you can think of without even moving away from the third fret (or whatever fret you start the pattern on). I’ll give you two of my own examples, but I’d encourage you to use the skills you’ve learned and come up with some tabs of your own.
Now let’s do something with the second pattern I highlighted, which is basically an F chord moved up to the third and fifth fret.
We can quickly access the notes highlighted (in hollow circles) on the fifth and sixth fret to expand this triad.
Got any of your own variations? You’ve got the structure.
The rest is up to you.
How it Works in Worship
I want to setup the process for how we get to our end product in a worship service. If you’re a lead guitarist, how does this actually work?
First, I want to lay some basic musical structures and then talk about melody and how it relates to the God of the Bible and our modern worship services.
First, the musical structures.
The Structure Behind Melody
We’ve already mentioned playing in key and playing something over a given chord progression.
For most of us, that process is going to be instinctual as we’ll come up with lead patterns and melodies that sound good, simply by using our ear.
But it’s helpful to understand what’s actually happening, in addition to being a good ear player.
The two disciplines should coexist.
So if you want to understand how to get from silence to a melodic lead guitar pattern, here’s how the process goes:
- A Song’s Key: Usually the first chord of a song will give away the key of the song itself.
- Bass Line: The bass line will be made of notes that correspond to the key. For example, if the song is in the key of E major, there’s a predefined set of chords and “common” chord progressions.
- Chord Progression: Usually chosen before one would identify the key of a song, a chord progression is technically derived from the key it is played in. It serves as the backdrop and canvas on which a melody is painted.
- Melodies: Often made up of single notes, either from human vocals, piano or guitar, these notes make a melodic, musical line that are laid over top of the chord progression. This helps to distinguish it from other songs that share the same progression, as many of them do.
This is the track that you travel (whether you realize it or not) when you create melody. It makes your music unique and identifiable.
Because a beat, bass line and even a chord progression by itself doesn’t make a song unique.
It might make a good backing track, but there are often songs that share one or more of these qualities. So while you don’t need to think about process every time you play a lead pattern, it’s helpful to know and study initially so that you understand the ground on which you’re standing.
But why is melody so important when it comes to worship in the Christian church?
Why Melody is Important in the Church’s Music
I believe there are a few specific reasons Christians should aspire to be more melodic guitar players and musicians.
1. Melody is the primary carrier of creativity and variety.
The work of God’s Spirit is evidenced by originality and uniqueness within a given structure.
And he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs. (Exodus 35: 31-32)
While the musical realm is highly structured it also gives us room for an incredible amount of artistic expression and movement.
For as much as artistic culture claims to esteem creativity and self-expression, their music is often extremely repetitive, predictable and without any real variety, even down to lyrical choices.
Worship of God must be different.
As a guitar player you have unique opportunity to make it different by developing original melodies.
Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men. (Proverbs 22:29)
2. Melody expresses and/or compliments words.
The scriptures instruct us to sing to the Lord a new song, which again would lead us to believe that originality is of some value.
But additionally we see the importance of singing and using words to offer worship.
We can even see a correlation between melody and our vocal praise. In Isaiah 23, making a “sweet melody” is followed by instruction to “sing many songs.” In Isaiah 51 we read about “the voice of melody.”
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians is even more explicit.
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19)
So if we can use our guitars to develop, anchor and compliment the vocal aspects of our music, we doing something more than just “adding flavor.”
We’re actually engaging in a firmly scriptural and beautiful aspect of musical worship.
3. It’s the most effective musical tool for retelling history and God’s redemptive story.
Once again, I’m going back to Phil Wickham for my example. The dude is just an excellent musician and songwriter.
If you listen to “Mercy” off of The Ascension Wickham tells the story of redemption almost entirely with the melody of his own vocal cords.
The rhythm and chord progression are both exceedingly simple.
And that’s not to say that rhythm and chord progressions aren’t valuable, but they can’t tell stories or illustrate ideas on their own. Melody is what we use in music to retell God’s story of redemption and to look forward to what he’s going to do in the future.
“May the church not be formed by the world in which it lives, but by the narrative to which it belongs, the story of God.” - Robert Webber, author of Ancient-Future Worship
Learn Melody and Learn to Tell the Redemptive Story
Modern music is easily replicated and imitated.
As Christians, the music we use to glorify God should be expressly different than that. It should actually be much more difficult. Not necessarily in terms of technical prowess, but in that we need to carefully craft our music to tell God’s redemptive story.
In other words, our music (just like our preaching, community, study, etc.) should be Gospel-centered.
The best way to do that is to learn melody and be able to use it as a way to compliment or illustrate the Gospel narrative.
If you’d like to share your thoughts feel free to do so via the comments section below.