More often than not, the secret to playing a seemingly complicated guitar piece is to remember that most guitar lines spring from the shapes of your basic open chords. This is especially true when you’re creating chord-melody style arrangements of songs, whether those songs be jazz standards or basic Christmas carols, such as this lesson on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
As with all of our Christmas Song Lessons here at Guitar Noise, we’ll break this carol down into short phrases. For most of you, this particular lesson should be slightly challenging but in no way beyond your capabilities.
What I’d also like to do with this lesson is to point out the connections between the song arrangement and the chords of the carol. There are, as with many Christmas carols, many different arrangements of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” so my apologies in advance if this version is slightly different than the one you know. Hopefully, not so much so that you don’t enjoy it!
Let’s start out with the first two measures:
Our arrangement is in the key of C, which works well for the guitar because of the range of the notes of the melody. Many hymnals have “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in the key of G or F, so if you want to play along with those you’ll need a capo either on the seventh fret (for the key of G) or the fifth fret (for the key of F).
Beginning with an open position C major chord, you’ll then create a descending walking bass line from C (at the third fret of the A string) all the way down to F (the first fret of the low E string). In the first measure, simply start with the C chord and then, while keeping your index finger on the first fret of the B string, play the B note (second fret of the A string) with your middle finger and then, after playing the open A string, use your ring finger to play the G note at the third fret of the low E string.
In the second measure, I take the liberty of making life a little easier by using an Fmaj9 chord, which is an F chord with an E and a G note added to it. Simply put, we’re taking advantage of the guitar’s open strings to embellish the basic F chord and make it a lot more interesting. Plus, it’s a cinch to play by using your index finger on the low E string and either your middle or ring finger on the B string. And you also get to make a very smooth transition to the G that finishes the second measure simply by sliding both fingers up two frets. Technically speaking, this is a G6 chord, at least as long as you’re playing the open high E string.
Moving onward to the next two measures, you notice that essentially the song repeats its use of the C, F, and G open position forms:
Here we run the bass line up from C to F in the first measure, finishing this measure out by barring the index finger across all six strings at the first fret to get the F notes on both the low and high E strings. Some of you may find it easier to wrap your thumb around to play the low F. Those of you who struggle with barre chords and with wrapping your thumb around the neck of your guitar have three other options for that low F note at the first fret of the low E string. You can simply repeat the F at the third fret of the D string or go with either a C note (the third fret of the A string) or an A note (the open A string) in the bass. Both will work perfectly well. The A in particular fits nicely as it leads the ear down to the G note in the bass that begins the third measure.
Of course, once you’ve gotten through both Example 1 and Example 2, you might want to take the time to work through them together, as in this audio example:
Except for the very last chord, the next two measures (the second line of the song which begins with the lyrics “Peace on earth and mercy mild”) are essentially the same as the first two measures of the carol. So let’s combine them with the following two measures (“God and sinners reconciled”):
The aforementioned chord change is the use of a D/F# chord, which replaces the G (G6, really) in the second measure at the start of the song. Like that Fmaj9 to G change, this one can be done with a simply shift of the index finger on the low E string and shouldn’t prove very difficult. This D/F# will show up again in the fourth measure of this phrase, so it’s good to get your fingers used to the position.
In the third measure, you are basically starting out with a G chord and walking the bass line up from G to D, as you’ve seen and heard done in many songs, like “You Are My Sunshine.”
Another ascending bass line highlights the next section of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” this time moving from C up to G:
Despite what it may look like, the first measure is entirely done with a C chord, albeit a C chord that has the G note at the third fret of the high E string (which you play with your pinkie). From there we go to a full measure of block chords – F, C, and then G (again, G6 if you prefer). These two measures are played twice in the carol, first for “Joyful all ye nations rise” and then for “Join the triumph of the skies.”
And while the last two lines, like the first two of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” are very similar, they are worth breaking into halves to make learning them easier:
This first measure may be the trickiest part of the arrangement, but it’s easy to learn with a bit of practice. Use your index finger to play the third fret of the D string while your pinky gets the fifth fret of the high E string. If you can barre your index finger across the third fret of both the D and A strings, that will save you a step, but simply shifting your index finger from the third fret of the D to the third fret of the A will work fine as well.
After clearing your index finger off the strings in order to play the open A, use it to play the G note at the third fret of the high E string while having your ring finger play the C# note at the fourth fret of the A string. Then you just slide the index finger down to the first fret of the high E string to set up the Dm chord that begins the second measure.
There’s one more slightly tricky part in the second measure of the next segment and then you’re home free!
Example 6 starts with a G/B chord that you’re undoubtedly familiar with if you’ve done any sort of fingerpicking at all. You can hear it, for example, at the beginning of “Blackbird” by the Beatles or in Paul Simon’s version of “Scarborough Fair” (in “Bar 8” of this particular lesson). It then shifts quickly to an open position G7 chord before settling down as another C chord with the G note on the high E string, complete with a short descending walking bass line from C to B to the A of the Am chord that starts the second measure.
After that Am chord is where the second tricky part pops up. If you’ve played any classical guitar pieces or done some jazz guitar work, you’ve probably come across this voicing of Dm/F, which could also be called an F6 chord. Making the shift from the Am to the Dm/F involves moving each finger, even though the A note at the second fret of the G string is common to both chords. The simplest way to change from one to the other is to move your index finger from the first fret of the B string (on the Am chord) to the first fret of the low E string. As you do so, get both your ring finger and pinky into position at the third fret of their respective strings (the ring finger will be on the third fret of the D string while the pinky takes the third fret of the B string) and then sneak your middle finger down onto the second fret of the G string. This will probably be a new chord change for many of you, so take your time and practice working on changing between these to chords in isolation until you feel confident about putting it together in the context of the carol.
The final four measure of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are, as mentioned, virtually identical to the four that immediately precede them. The only difference here is in the very last measure:
And this difference, the Fadd9 to G to C which ends the carol, is a lot easier than the Am to Dm/F to E that you just dealt with!
All right, then, let’s see about handling the whole song. As always, I appreciate your forgiveness for the (as always) numerous mistakes that I made during the recording!
I hope that you have enjoyed this lesson and that you like our arrangement of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” I’m hoping to have another carol arrangement out before December 28 and even though that may be a little late for Christmas, the song in question – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” from the poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – should be played a lot more than just a few times in December.
As always, feel free to leave comments here at Guitar Noise or to drop me a line with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to our next lesson.