Creating a Harmonised Lead Guitar Part

As a guitar tutor, one of the things I get asked about most often is how to harmonise lead guitar parts in the style of Thin Lizzy, The Allman Brothers, Queen & many other bands. Well here, then, is a quick guide to knocking out a credible harmony guitar part…

What is the scale?

The most important thing to get sorted before you do anything else is to understand what scale is being used. Here is a short melody that we shall harmonise (click on the TAB to hear the tune):

hamony melody

If you analyse the notes in this piece you will see that they are as follows:

Bar 1: B A G E G F#

Bar 2: E G F#

Bar 3: E C G E G F#

Bar 4: F# G A

Bar 5: B A G E G F#

Bar 6: E F# G

Bar 7: E C G E G F#

Bar 8: A G F# E F# G

Final Bar: G

If we arrange these notes in order from E (Em provides the overall feel to the underlying chord sequence, so it makes sense to use this as our reference point), you get the following collection of notes:

E F# G A B C D & E

This is the scale we shall be using as the basis for harmonising the melody. You can see that it has eight notes (if we count the “E” twice). This makes it likely that it is one of the incarnations (modes) of the ever-popular major scale (doh-reh-me-fah… etc.). And indeed it is: what we have here is an Aeolian mode (sometimes known as the “natural minor scale”). The point is that most melodies will be in some way based upon the major scale & your first job is to figure out which one is being used. If you find that there is a number other than eight notes in you melody, it means that one of two things is happening:

  • More than eight notes: this means that the melody is based on more than one major scale. Try to identify which others scale(s) are involved and harmonise the melody in “blocks” – identify where the different sections of the melody, based on different scales, begin & end, then harmonise them separately.
  • Less than eight notes: If you don’t have enough notes in you melody to identify which major scale is being used, analyse the notes in the chords (you’ll need to do this anyway, as you’ll see later) to ascertain which notes are “missing”. You should then find you have the requisite number to make up a scale.

Anyway, assuming you have the right number of notes in your scale, all you have to do to create a harmony is pair each note in the melody with the next-but-one up the scale. Like this:

Melody Note E F# G A B C D E
Harmony Note G A B C D E F# G

So, whenever the melody note is a G, you would play a B to harmonise with it & so-on. Here is what that works out as if we apply it to our melody:

Bar 1 melody: B A G E G F#

Bar 1 harmony: D C B G B A

Bar 2 melody: E G F#

Bar 2 harmony: G B A

Bar 3 melody : E C G E G F#

Bar 3 harmony: G E B G B A

Bar 4 melody: F# G A

Bar 4 harmony: A B C

Bar 5 melody: B A G E G F#

Bar 5 harmony: D C B G B A

Bar 6 melody: E F# G

Bar 6 harmony: G A B

Bar 7 melody: E C G E G F#

Bar7 harmony: G E B G B A

Bar 8 melody: A G F# E F# G

Bar 8 harmony: C B A G A B

Final Bar melody: G

Final Bar harmony: B

And here is how that looks when written out. Click on the TAB to hear it being played along with the original melody:

harmony1That works OK, but there are a couple of places where the harmony notes stray outside the chords. This only really matters when it happens on a prominent note in the melody, the “main” notes if you like. Where it happens on notes which just “connect” the main notes, it is less noticeable. This kind of harmony is usually what you get from most harmoniser effects units – they fail to take into account the chord sequence happening underneath. The final step is to make sure that all of the “main” notes in the harmony conform to the chords underpinning everything. Here are the notes in each of the chords:

Em = E G B

D = D F# A

C = C E G

Am = A C E

And here are the parts which contain the most noticeable non-chord related harmony notes:

The first note of both Bars 1 & 5 (in the melody) is a B, which harmonises to a D & this is not found in the underlying Em chord.

The final note in Bar 4 is an which harmonises into a C, which is not present in the underlying D chord.

The final note in Bar 6 is a G which harmonises into a B note, not found in the underlying C chord.

The first note in Bar 7 is an E which becomes a G when harmonised. This is not found in the underlying Am chord.

All you have to do in this situation is “correct” the harmony note by taking it up another scale step:

Melody Note E F# G A B C D E
“Corrected” Harmony Note A B C D E F# G A

Replacing the notes mentioned earlier with the “corrected” ones from this table will provide a more focussed sound, which “dovetails” into the chord sequence much better. Here is the new “corrected” harmony part written out. Click on the TAB to hear it being played:

harmony2

And that is pretty much all there is to it. You can create a slightly different harmonised sound by using 6ths – just go to the note 6 steps in the scale above your melody note, for example: E would harmonise with C in our current melody {E(1) F#(2) G(3) A(4) B(5) C(6)}, and where the harmony notes need to be corrected, you simply move them down one scale step to fit the chords. If you combine both harmonies together with the original melody you will get a very Brian May sounding 3 part harmony.

That’s harmonies, folks. I hope you found it informative & until next time…

Have Fun :o)

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

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