Chord Leads is what I call the way of playing where the lead note is on the first string and the other strings form a chord. You strum across 3 or more of the strings, although sometimes you only strum on the 1st string, when you are going too fast to form chords or there is no easy or good-sounding chord to find ("easy" being a function of practice and physique).
You can play this style on any fretted instrument you can strum, but it's used mainly on tenor banjo and ukulele for some reason. I think it works far better than the way mandolin and guitar are often played with the melody note on the heavier strings and the chords formed above it. That sounds nice, too, but I've never been able to emphasize the melody as well as I can when you can play it on the 1st (highest) string.
Later on are tabs, but because they're tabs, they are specific to a certain instrument (in this case 5-string banjo in G-tuning). But the basic approach can be performed on any instrument. It takes knowing how to find the melody on the 1st string of your instrument and knowing which chords you want to use to harmonize with that note.
For each note of the scale, there are only certain chords that contain that note. Here is a table of those notes and chords, first from a generic, numbered perspective and then from the specific C scale--the easiest one to write in because there are no sharps or flats.
If you know theory, then you can figure out the chords you'd want based on the scale, the chord patterns, and your knowledge of how chords are built. If you don't, then you can make a list of all the chords in the song and try those. It helps to know how chords are built but another physical approach can be to merely learn the chord fingerings and use ones that are located on the correct fret. This means you need to know the closed-chord formations for your instrument and then try them.
If you're trying this approach, begin with an easy song and only use the 3 basic chords. Advance from there.
You may begin finding patterns that work that sound better than old patterns. For example, the basic approach for walking down from E to C is the C-G-C chords played under the e-d-c notes. However, you could also play C-G7-C under the same notes for a little different sound. If you wanted more "G" sound at the end, use the G6 chord: G6-G7-C. To add a more ragtime sound or the classic jazz II-V progression, use D9-G7-C.
Any of the progressions above (and any others you find) that use closed chords (where all the strings are fretted) can be used any place on the neck. Once you learn to play a few songs in one key, then it's easy to move the whole song up a little farther and to just use sections of the song in other songs in other keys. Therefore, you ought to start learning patterns in a key that best fits your instrument's 1st string and proceed from there.
|notes||Possible Chord Progressions|
for walking down from e to c
For 5-string banjoists, here is some tablature and explanations about using the chord lead method on Christmas songs in the open G-tuning. After you can play the song good enough just strumming, try to add frailing or bluegrass picking against the same fingerings and see what works well. Sometimes it's easier to stay in one place than to move all up and down the neck.
|Chord Lead Tab for 5-String Banjo G Tuning|
|Go Tell It On the Mountain
Mostly open strings, key of G
|Oh Come All Ye Faithful
"standard" chords, key of G
|Joy to the World|
key of D
|Away in a Manger
key of F
|Angels We Have heard On High
Key of F
key of Bb
|Up On the Housetop
Key of F