Playing Guitar Notes Vs. Chords: What to Know

Posted by Ben Heckler

If you’re anything like the staff here at Jam Addict, you’re constantly on the lookout for ways to up your guitar skills.  

One of the questions we see crop up a lot online has to do with the differences between playing/practicing individual notes (melodies) and chords

You can play the guitar in all kinds of ways. But while single-note melodies and chords may be built on the same scales and intervals, when it comes to actually playing them, the skills required are distinct from one another. 

Chords serve a different purpose from melodies

The fingers do as the mind tells them. Important items to keep in mind, then, is that notes and chords serve two very different purposes. 

Chords utilize multiple notes to provide accompaniment to melodies. 

A good guitarist must keep in mind the ways chords and their harmonies can support a melody.

The bass defines the harmony

The bass note in a chord defines the harmony. This doesn’t mean the bass note is always playing the root note of a chord.

Slash chords are chords that use non-root notes in the bass.

For example, try playing a C major chord. Now, try playing C major, but this time with a G note as the bass note. Make sure the other notes in your chord include the other notes in C major (C and E). 

You don’t need to play a lot of notes at once

a guitar laying in the grass

One of the best things anyone ever told me about playing chords is that “it’s not about playing a lot of notes. It’s about playing the right notes.” 

As obvious as that sounds, these words can be of substantial help to beginning (and even intermediate) guitar players. 

Many times, learning new chords and voicings will seem daunting. Some of my favorite jazz chords can even have as many as 7 or 8 notes in them, more notes than you can even play on a guitar with 6 strings. 

Always remember that you can capture the harmonic essence of chords without playing every note that you might play on something like a piano. 

Focus on learning what notes in a chord you can play that still sound good. Don’t be afraid to get bold, doing things like playing non-root notes in the bass, or even removing them from the chord altogether.

Melodies and chords are just intervals

Both melodies and chords share a very blaring trait in common: you can think about them both as intervals

If you don’t know what intervals are, you really ought to learn them. At Jam Addict, we preach intervals as one of the top 3 most important concepts when you’re a beginner learning how to play guitar or make music.  

You can read our article about intervals here.

Melodies are intervals on a horizontal timeline

Think of the first few notes of the Star Wars main theme. 

The relationship between the first and second notes played is a perfect fourth, and the relationship between the second and third notes played is a perfect fifth.

Melodies are just a series of notes with specific interval relationships to one another.

The truth is, melodies are nothing more than interval patterns with unique rhythms.

Make sure you have the basics covered

The fact of the matter is that there are only 12 types of intervals that you can play on a guitar ( or any Western instrument). 

If you train your ears on how to recognize these intervals as soon as you hear them, playing what you understand on your guitar will seem easy. 

This is because you always want to train your mind before you train your fingers. Learning music is like learning a language. 

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Instead of just using muscle memory with finger positions and fretting patterns, if you learn the building blocks like intervals, you’ll be able to play melodies you imagine in your head much more easily. 

fender electric guitar

You can do things with melodies you can’t do with chords

The guitar is a fantastic instrument for melodies because it allows for expression. You can bend notes back and forth to give your melodies more character. 

It’s much harder to do things like bends and slides when playing chords. They’re not impossible, but they are difficult to do. 

Plus, the reality is that you probably shouldn’t need to do these things when playing chords on guitar. 

While these types of techniques can be awesome, try to be tasteful about using them. Overdoing it may prevent you from focusing on what matters most in a melody, like the intervals they use or learning how it feels to play with a metronome.

Singles notes and chords – why not both? 

If you want to be a master of the guitar, we got a news update for you: 

You’ll probably need to just spend tons of time playing the guitar in many different ways. Chords and single-note melodies included. 

The keys are to make sure that you understand what you’re playing. Remember that more notes don’t always equal better chords, and that both melodies and chords don’t need to do the same kinds of things in order to be effective. 

Better yet still is trying to incorporate both melodies and chords next time you sit down to play your favorite song on guitar. Once you can sit down and do that for anything you hear, you’ll do more than impress others. You’ll impress yourself.   

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