There is more than one approach you can take to write a melody on the guitar.
An approach that rarely works is learning a scale, playing it up and down, or playing random notes derived from it, and expecting to stumble on a melody.
It is possible to come up with melodies on the guitar like this, but it involves a lot of trial and error, and putting yourself at the mercy of hitting the right notes.
Another approach is playing the notes of the chords of the harmony backing the melody on the beat and filling in with non-chord tones.
This method does work and many guitarists have learned melody writing this way. However, it’s a bit more advanced since it requires some basic knowledge of chord theory.
In today’s lesson, we’ll use an approach to writing melodies on the guitar that is effective, and also pretty easy: motif development.
Some definitions first
Before we go into actually writing melodies on guitar it’s important that you understand the definition of the musical elements we’re going to use:
A melody is a series of notes that sound musically satisfying and is perceived as a single entity.
Melodies are memorable, and recognizable from the harmony (the chord progression backing the melody).
Rhythm refers to the duration of the notes in relation to each other.
A motif (also called motive, cell, or figure) is the shortest musical idea that contains some thematic and structural identity of its own.
In this lesson we’ll be writing a melody on the guitar by coming up with a motif and developing it into a whole melody.
A phrase is a musical sentence. It is made of smaller elements like motifs and individual notes.
An interval is the distance between two notes.
A scale is a series of notes that follow a specific intervallic formula. From the scale we derive the notes we will use in our melodies.
Now that we’re on the same line on some important terms that we’ll be using, let’s get into the step-by-step process of writing a melody on the guitar.
Step 1: Learn a scale
Scales are a very useful tool for melody writers.
The most popular scale on guitar is the minor pentatonic, but for this lesson, we’ll be using the A natural minor scale as an example.
Learn this scale in the given position because all the notes in the melody we’ll be creating will be derived from this particular position (except for one note, I will explain why later on)
Learning the natural minor scale in 5 positions will give you the ability to create melodies using the entire fretboard. As a creator of melodies on the guitar acquiring this ability is ideal, but to keep things simple we’ll be sticking to a single position in this lesson.
Step 2: Create a motif
Next, we’re going to choose a note from the scale and build a short musical idea around it.
This is the part where you need to do some experimentation.
Pick a note (ideally it should be a chord tone, that is the notes A, C, or E in the key of A minor, but you can choose any note in the scale for the purposes of this lesson if you don’t yet know the name of the notes on the guitar fretboard).
This is the motif I came up with, the one we’ll be developing into a melody as an example:
My motif is one bar long. I suggest that the motifs you will be writing today will also be one bar long – for simplicity’s sake, and so that your melody will fit nicely into 8-bars – but this should by no means be considered as a rule. A motif can be both shorter and longer than one bar.
As an exercise in melody writing, try to come up with 20 different motifs using notes from the given scale.
If you’re a beginner at coming up with melodies on the guitar, I suggest that you keep your motif as simple as possible, both rhythmically and melodically (like the one in the example above).
Step 3: Write down the rhythm, then answer it
In a way this step is optional.
For instance when coming up with the melody for this lesson, I didn’t actually write down the rhythm of the motif.
It all happened in my head while thinking of an answering motif.
I’ve added this step to break down and simplify the subject of motif development as much as possible but eventually, you will reach a stage where you can do all this without needing to write down anything.
Note: If you don’t yet know the rhythmic duration of notes, I suggest you go through this lesson before continuing. Understanding how rhythm works is a skill you will find valuable both when you’re learning other people’s music on the guitar as well as when creating your own.
What this step involves is simply writing down the rhythm of the motif on one note (bar 1 in the example below) and answering it –by repeating it exactly as it is, or with a small variation (bar 2).
Now, here is the most important concept you need to understand when it comes to writing a melody using the motif development method.
The human ear loves to hear what’s already familiar. If you come up with something entirely different in each bar of music the listener has no musical idea he can grasp and will soon get lost.
Yet, if the listener keeps hearing the same thing, he will soon get bored.
The solution to this apparent paradox is variation.
What we do love to listen to is the same ideas repeated with variations.
These variations can be of two kinds:
Rhythmic (this step) or melodic (the next step). They can also be harmonic, but we’re not dealing with the harmony (chords and chord progressions) in this lesson.
To complete this step, choose your favorite 5 motifs out of the 20 you’ve come up with; write down their rhythm on one note and then answer it with a similar, but slightly different, rhythm. You can apply changes to the rhythm by, for instance, dividing an eight-note into two sixteenth notes, or a quarter note into two eight notes.
Step 4: Fill the second rhythm with notes from the scale
Now that we know the rhythm of our answering motif, we need to put in the notes.
Once again, we’ll be using the concept of variation, this time melodic.
Here we have numerous choices.
Repeating the motif exactly as it is (with just the rhythmic difference), sequencing it (playing the same pattern of notes starting from a different note), changing the order of the notes, and changing the intervals between the notes, are just some of the many melodic variations one can apply to a motif.
In my example, I start with a sequence (the first 3 notes) and then change the direction of the interval.
To complete this step, answer each of your 5 motifs with a variation, using the rhythms you’ve already written down.
Step 5: Write a whole phrase, then a melody
This step is simply a repetition of the previous two steps.
If your motif is one bar long, by now you have two bars of melody already composed.
Bars 3 and 4, should simply answer the first two bars using the same process.
In the example, I use the same concepts (sequences, changes in interval direction, etc) to create more variations to my original motif.
Note that this is a phrase rather than a complete melody. The reasons behind this are rooted in the harmony (while writing this I’m taking note of the chords that would back this melody. This goes beyond the purposes of this lesson, but I should be writing a lesson on how to harmonize a melody on guitar soon).
For now, just notice that the last note of my phrase is the note B, not a chord tone of A minor (A, C, or E). Thus, the phrase is not finishing on the root chord, as the full melody would.
From the five sets of 2 bars that you’ve written so far, choose your favorite two and answer them with another two bars to make a complete phrase.
The next part to this step is repeating the whole process so that bars 4 – 8 answer bars 1 – 4, as I do in the next example.
Though what we’re doing here is just a repetition of the first part of this step, here are some things you should keep in mind:
- This time I’m ending the melody on a chord tone, the root note A. Always finish your melody on a chord tone, preferably the root. Otherwise, it wouldn’t sound conclusive and leaves the listener unsatisfied.
- Though the entire melody is in the key of A minor, the note before the last (G#) is derived from A harmonic minor rather than the A natural minor scale. This is very common in minor melodies since the raised 7th degree of the scale naturally leads to the final root note and makes it sound more conclusive.
- Bar 5 is an exact repetition of Bar 1. Using exact repetitions in your melody is completely OK.
Choose your favorite phrase from the two that you’ve written so far, and develop it into your first 8 bar melody.
Step 6: Make your melody a guitar melody
So far we have written a melody, and used the guitar to do so.
However, the melody in the example could be played on not just a guitar but a flute, a violin, a piano, and most other musical instruments.
Apart from the timbre, which makes make instruments sound different from each other, every instrument can make particular sounds through the use of techniques that apply to that specific instrument.
The guitar is no exception.
In the final example, I’m applying the following techniques to my melody:
- Vibrato at the end of each motif.
- String bending. This technique and vibrato give the guitar qualities similar to the human voice.
- Hammer-ons and pull-offs between some notes on the same strings. (Go to this lesson to learn more about this technique)
- A slide before the last note.
Conclusion: Where the go from here
As explained in the introduction, an approach to creating a melody on the guitar that rarely works is playing random notes from a scale and expecting to stumble upon a melody.
Instead, I gave you a step by step approach that you can use.
However you should only use this as a stepping stone.
In the end, coming up with melodies is creative work rather than following a formula.
What I suggest that you do is to use this approach to write as many melodies as possible, and at the same time improve in other areas such as music theory, guitar technique, and ear training.
Eventually you will reach a stage when you can just think a melody in your head and play it on the guitar.
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