When you play lead guitar or write songs, you are creating melodies. But do you know the principles behind ALL great melodies from JS Bach to Burt Bacharach, and from Charlie Parker to The Beatles?

In this article we will look at the most important of these principles. This one has been around for hundreds of years. If you understand and apply it in your music, you will find that:

  • your melodies have more momentum, making them easier to follow
  • your melodies will outline the chords, and be more relevent to the chords they are being played over
  • the listener will find your melodies make more sense and are more enjoyable
  • other musicians will appreciate your melodies more as they will be able to hear the chords better
  • you will be more satisfied with your own improvisation and compositions as they will sound more like the great melodies that you love and admire!

The Principle

We can state the principle in this way:

Chord Tones happen on strong beats of the bar; non-chord tones or passing notes happen on weak beats of the bar.

Lets define some of these terms.

First, we’ll define strong beats as “down beats”. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in a bar of 4/4. Weak beats are the ones in between, the “and” of 1, 2, 3 and 4. You can also have strong and weak beats even with no ands; in a bar of 4/4, 1 and 3 are strong beats and 2 and 4 are weaker beats. There is a hierarchy with the levels of strength and weakness in different parts of the bar.

Chord tones are the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the chords. Non-chord tones are the 2nd, 4th and 6th notes of the chords (also called the 9th, 11th and 13th). In jazz you can also use altered chord tones: b9, #9, #4, #5. Passing notes are notes in between chord and non-chord tones.

How To Use It In Lead Guitar Playing

You can use this principle in your lead guitar playing IF you are able to identify the chord tones and non-chord tones for each chord in the chord sequence you are soloing over. So a prerequisite for this approach is learning your 7th arpeggios. I recommend learning the 3-string and 5-string sweep arpeggios in the root, first and second inversions for the following chords:

  1. Major triads
  2. Minor triads
  3. Major seventh
  4. Minor seventh
  5. Dominant seventh
  6. Minor 7 Flat 5
  7. Diminished 7

If you know all of these, you can go on to learn other more complex chords such as 7#11, 7#5 and maj7#11, but start with these basic ones. The arpeggio shapes for these chords will be shown to you by a good guitar teacher (especially one who has studied with Tom Hess or one of his students).

Once you know where the chord tones are, the non-chord tones are easy to find in relation to them. The 2nd is always in between the Root and the 3rd. The 4th is one fret above the major 3rd or 2 frets above the minor 3rd. The 6th is between the 5th and the 7th.

You will need to learn the common terms for these non-chord tones, as sometimes different people will use different names for the same thing. For example, if you play an A over a C major 7 chord, it could be called a 6th or a major 6th . If you play an Ab over a C major 7 chord, it could be called a b6, a minor 6th, or even a #5 or an augmented 5 in certain circumstances! They are all correct, but it depends a bit on the context. It can seem confusing at first but just as with any language, as you become more familiar with the terms and the context, it gets much easier to understand the terms!

How To Use It In Composing

Lets say we want to compose a solo over a backing track with 2 chords, Gmajor7 and Aminor7. We want it to have some jazzy phrases, sound a little quirky, but still make it follow this principle of melody writing so it makes sense over the chords.

We could start composing the first bar (Gmajor7) by writing out the beats on top, and the interval below:

Beat: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Int: Root pt maj3 4th 5th 6th maj7th
Note: G Bb B C D E F#

Now we’ll do the same for Aminor7, bearing in mind we just ended on an F#:

Beat: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
Int: 7th pt Root 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th
Note: G G# A B C D E F#

This gives you a super cool jazzy line that looks like this:

If you play this line you can hear that it fits the chords perfectly while still having some character due to the non-chord tones and passing notes.

Experiment yourself with using different combinations of passing tones and non-chord tones on weak beats.

“Passing tones” can be ANY note, but they work especially well if they are 1 fret away from a chord tone. In other words, the chord tone is being approached from either 1 fret above or 1 fret below.

The only thing left to do is to start playing around with the rhythm more, breaking it up with long notes, rests, triplets, 16th notes


Once you have gone through the process of composing numerous melodies, solos or riffs over chords using this principal, you will eventually absorb and integrate the rules into your improvising. You won’t even have to think about it, you will naturally hear melodies in this way, and play them easily on your guitar. When you can do this, you will have SO much fun improvising and composing!

Keep working and having fun along the way. An excellent guitar teacher will help you speed up your progress greatly; if you live in Dublin, Ireland, check out these guitar lessons in Dublin.