It’s easier to play a fingerstyle arrangement of a song than you might think. Knowing a few basic chords, coupled with some elementary finger picking technique, you can make even the simplest songs sound rich and complex. In this lesson, we’ll use the traditional Welsh carol, “Deck the Hall,” to explore just how this is done.
If you haven’t done so already, let me suggest that you take a quick look at our two-part tutorial on basic Travis-style picking. Part 1 will get your fingers limbered up while Part 2 will teach you the technique of pinching, which is an essential tool when playing chord-melody fingerstyle arrangements such as this one.
Let’s start out with a quick look at the structure of this carol. Melodically, the first two lines are identical. Plus, the accompanying chords are the same. The third line (“…don we now our gay apparel…”) is dramatically different and the fourth line starts out the same as the first two but finishes with a slightly different melody.
To make our lives easier, we’ll create our arrangement in the key of C, which will give us relatively easy access to all the melody notes (up until the last half of the third line) while still being able to finger the majority of the C, F and G (and occasional Am) chords that accompany most of the melody. Let’s examine the first half of the first line (in other words the first two measures!), which is the “Deck the hall with boughs of holly” part:
Even though it may not look like it, essentially all that’s going on here is switching between C and G chords. However, they’re not your run of the mill C and G chords. In order to accommodate the G note that opens the melody, you want to play your C like this:
To play this, form a regular open position C chord and use your pinky to get the G note on the third fret of the first (high E) string. Pinch the A and high E (first strings), using your thumb on the A and whatever finger you’d like on the high E (the ring or middle fingers are strong choices) and then continue to strum downward with the thumb, striking the D and G strings. Shift the index finger of your fretting hand from the first fret of the B string to the first fret of the high E (first) string to get the F note in the melody (picked with one of your fingers – not the thumb!) and then remove it to clear the high string for the note of the open E (done again as a pinch with the thumb striking the A string.
For the G chord, you’re going to use a variation of “G/B,” which you may recognize as a slash chord. The most efficient way to finger the B note (second fret of the A string) is with your middle finger, which means you’ll use your pinky to get the accompanying D note (third fret of the B string). It looks like this in a chord chart:
Once you’ve gotten through the first measure, the second measure should be a breeze. You will find that if you use your middle finger and pinky to fret the G/B that you’ll then slide easily into fingering a C chord to play the last two pairs of notes in this measure.
So far, so good! Now let’s move on to the “Fa la la la la la la la la” part that everyone loves (if only because it’s the part of the lyrics we always remember!):
To make this passage easy on your fingers, fret the first pair of notes with your ring finger on the third fret of the D string and your pinky on the third fret of the B string. Believe it or not, this shape comes from the F chord. It’s basically an F6:
Using your ring finger and pinky allows you to reach the F note (first fret of the high E string) easily with your index finger. You should also find it very easy to shift back to the C chord that follows. This C starts with a pinch of the high E and A strings and then runs the bass notes up the D string. Pick those with your thumb. Then pinch again on the D and B strings to finish off the first measure of this section.
The second measure is another C to G to C chord changes. This time, though, we’re getting a little fancier with the picking and alternating each pinched pair of notes with a strike of the open G string. If you’re pinching the strings with your thumb (on the A string) and middle finger (on the B string), this frees your index finger to pick the open G string. Playing this note repeatedly is called a pedal (or “pedal point” or “pedal note”) in music, by the way. It’s a technique used in a lot of songs (the Beatles’ “Blackbird” comes immediately to mind) and a good one to keep in your catalogue.
As mentioned, the second line of “Deck the Hall” is a carbon copy of the first in regard to its melody and chord accompaniment. However, that shouldn’t stop us from playing it in a slightly different manner. Let’s add the open G string pedal point to the second measure and then give the last measure a run of bass notes that leads to G, which is the chord that starts the third line. The entire second line will be like this:
Okay, that gets us through the first two lines, or half of “Deck the Hall.” Now it’s time for the tricky part – namely, the third line. Let’s approach it by looking at the first two measures first:
You want to start this line with a G7 chord, but one that allows you to get the D note at the third fret of the B string, like the first of these two chords:
Remember that when you’re playing this you don’t have to have all your fingers in place on the frets. Doing so obviously has its advantages, but if you’re keeping your fingers close to the strings and in the basic shape of the chord, you won’t have problems moving your fingers around from one chord to the other.
And for these two measures, at least, again you’re faced with essentially a G to C to G chord change. The last G is actually G/B (the second chord shown in the last example, which is different from our earlier G/B) and you’ll probably want to finger it with your index finger on the second fret of the A string, your ring finger on the third fret of the B string and your pinky on the third fret of the high E (first) string.
Because of the work you’ve already done in the first two lines of “Deck the Hall,” these first two measures of the second line hopefully won’t pose that much of a challenge for you. This is good because you’re going to need a lot of patience for the last two measures:
Here you start with a pinch of both open E strings, and you want to take advantage of this by getting your fingers ready for what’s coming up. Since all the fingering you’ll be faced with (up until the last two beats of the last measure) will be on the high E (first) string and the D string, do yourself a favor and keep one finger on each string. I recommend using your index finger on the D string (starting on the first fret) and either your ring finger or pinky on the high E (on the second fret).
After pinching the open E strings and then the second pair of notes (the F# on the second fret of the E string and the D# on the first fret of the D), slide your fingers up one fret to get the next pair of notes. That takes care of the first two beats of this measure.
Better yet, you’re essentially going to repeat what you just did to finish off the last two beats. Slide whichever finger is on the high E (first string) up to the fifth fret (you can either slide your index finger along with it or lift it off the D string – either way works) and then pinch this note along with the open A string. Now slide your finger on the high E string up to the seventh and add your index finger to the sixth fret of the D string and pinch this pair. Slide each finger up one more fret and pinch and you’re done with the hardest part of the whole song!
But don’t forget you’ve still got the last measure of the third line to go! Slide whatever finger is on the high E string down from the eighth fret to the seventh fret and pinch the high E string along with the open G string. Then play the open D string, using that moment to slide your finger on the high E down another two frets to the fifth fret. Place your index finger at the fourth fret of the D string and pinch the high E and D strings together, following that with a strike of the open A string. Finally, set yourself up with a normal open G chord and you’ll be good to finish up the last two beats. You’ll probably find it easiest to pick all the bass notes with your thumb.
And that leaves the last line, which you may remember starts out the same as the first two. But since you’ve gotten a lot better since the first time you played that line, let’s add even more pedal notes with the open G string in the first measure:
Be careful with the last pinch in the second measure. You want to have the open D string (instead of the E note at the second fret that’s been used before) in order to create a walking bassline running from D to the F (third fret D string) that starts the next measure.
The next-to-last measure is a little tricky but, again, nothing you won’t be able to handle when you put some thought and practice to it. In all probability you played the E note (second fret of the D string) that was the last note of the previous measure with your middle finger. Slide that up one fret to the F note (third fret of the D string) and you should be able to get the A note at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string with your pinky. Keep it planted there while you play the other bass notes - the aforementioned F, the open G string and the A note at the second fret of the G (which you’ll get with your index finger) – and then slide it down to the G note at the third fret of the high E (first) string while playing the C note (first fret of the B) with your index finger. In fact, here you can make the same C chord that you made at the start of “Deck the Hall” Now you can definitely and officially relax because you’ve got one last set of G7 to C to G to C changes to make and you’re finished!
Let’s listen to the complete carol, shall we? As always, please forgive the (numerous) mistakes I make:
I hope that you have fun with “Deck the Hall.” At its heart, this arrangement is basically changing from C to G chords a lot and picking the appropriate strings. Once you get a handle on that and practice the trickier changes, you’ll find that it’s a fairly simple piece that sounds a lot more complicated than it is. And hopefully you’ll enjoying playing it for yourself and your family and friends.
Do be sure to share you music with others, not only during the holidays but whenever you can. It may not seem like much but each time you give someone the gift of music you are making the world a better and happier place. And it certainly needs it.
Until our next lesson,
“Carols,” the festive songs we hear and sing this time of the year, haven’t always been “Christmas carols.” Some may be tied to religious holidays (like “Good King Wenceslas” being a Saint Stephen’s Day carol) and other can be seasonal. “Deck the Hall,” for example, is a New Year’s carol.
And, traditionally, carols were dance tunes whose melodies were set but could have any set of lyrics that metrically fit the melody. There would often be contests as to which singer could come up with the best lyrics for a tune.
The melody of “Deck the Hall” comes from a sixteenth century winter carol called “Nos Galan” while the lyrics we all sing today are from Thomas Oliphant, a Scotsman who also wrote English lyrics for Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as well as the lyrics for the chorale for the 1863 wedding of Queen Alexandra of Denmark and England’s King Edward VII.