The ringing open strings of a guitar give it one of its many special musical qualities and it’s great to take advantage of that sound when one can. And sometimes the easiest way to do so is to employ an open or alternate tuning. This lesson, an open D tuning arrangement of the carol, “Good King Wenceslas” will explore how easy (and fun!) it can be creating arrangements and playing in an open tuning.
To give yourself a little background as to what we’re going to be doing, you should read up on open tuning, either in the earlier two-part Guitar Noise Column called “Look Ma – No Hands!” and “Here There Be Monsters” or in our Quick Guide on Open Tuning. Or all three if you’d like!
Next, get your guitar in open D tuning. To do so, first tune both E strings down one whole step to D. Then tune the B string down a whole step to A and finally tune the G string down one half-step to F#. This shouldn’t take you all that long.
Now we could make this song incredibly easy. Because the first three melody notes are D, then an E followed by two Ds and an A, you could simply strum it like this:
It truly doesn’t get much simpler than this, does it? You only need add whatever finger you’d like to the second fret of the first string at the appropriate time and then, on the last melody note of the first line strum only down through the second string. That may take a little practice but it’s nothing you can’t handle.
But it goes without saying that you’d like to try something slightly more challenging. So let’s revisit the first line again, this time giving it a more harp or lute-like quality through the use of arpeggios:
I have to admit that I tried a lot of different ways of playing the first line before settling on this one. I especially liked the way that it moved the melody notes around between the third, first and second strings. But there were certainly other ways to play it, too. One that I like a lot involved a continuous downstroke with the thumb on the four low strings while picking the melody on the first and second strings. It’s quite a lot like a beginning classical piece (“Tanz,” which you can find, by the way, in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar) that I use to get many students started on fingerstyle guitar and in “Good King Wenceslas,” the result would be something like this:
I was so taken with this way of playing the carol that I used it for the template of the last two lines, as you’ll soon see.
In both versions, I also really liked the way the second measure ended up needing no fingers for any of the notes, which buys time to set up the second line:
Here the most practical fingering is to use your middle finger on the sixth (lowest) string and your ring finger on the third string. Keep your fingers on the strings and slide up from the fifth fret to the seventh fret when hitting the open fourth string between the third and fourth beats. Then remove your middle finger and, keeping your ring finger on the third string, slide up to the eighth fret for the last melody note of this phrase.
The first two lines are repeated, which makes life a lot easier when it comes to learning this song. As I mentioned, the one variation I liked a lot served as the template for the next section, being the third and fourth lines of the song:
Deciding which fingers (or even just a single finger) to play the melody in the first two measures may involve some trial and error. Using a single finger and sliding from one note to the next is certainly an option and has a nice tone to it. You could also go with using each of your fingers – pinky on the first note (seventh fret), ring finger on the next (fifth fret), middle finger on the next (fourth fret), and index on the next (first fret) – which is a great exercise for developing finger dexterity.
The second two measures of this phrase look, at first glance, like a mirror image of “Example 2,” but look closer and you’ll see that there’s a slight varation going on here, making use of the open fifth (low A) string. Personally, I like the change and the slight dissonance it creates. If you find you don’t, then just use “Example 2″ instead for these two measures.
Which brings us to the final phrase of the song:
The first measure starts simply enough, using the “four low strings in succession” accompaniment while playing the melody on the second string. But things seem to get a little tricky in the next measure where you’ll need to lay your index finger first across all six strings on the fifth fret and then move it up to cover all six strings at the seventh fret.
You may remember reading in the lessons on open tunings that one advantage of using them is that, assuming your open tuning is that of a major chord, you can play all your other major chords simply by barring a finger at the appropriate fret. That’s precisely what you’re doing here.
Of course, you may be at the stage where you need practice and confidence in playing barre chords and that’s another great reason for trying open tunings. You get in the practice of the “barre” part of barring without worrying so much about adding your other fingers to the mix.
Be slow and deliberate here, getting the feel of where your index finger needs to be to play each note cleanly and clearly. And if you’re thinking that this arrangement is giving your basic skills a workout, you’re absolutely correct!
Of course, to add more to that workout we want to add an additional finger to our barre chord, and that’s just what occurs in the third measure of this final phrase. Sliding the index finger back to the fifth fret (still covering all six strings), add your ring finger or your pinky to the seventh fret of the first (highest) string. When you remove that finger, your index finger will still be on the next melody note.
Then slide your index finger back up to the seventh fret and again use either your ring finger or your pinky to cover the melody note at the ninth fret of the second string. And, once again, removing that finger you’ll still have your index finger ready for the next note of the melody.
You get a bit of a break in the next-to-last measure as it all takes place on the fifth fret. And then you get a huge sigh of relief as the last measure involves nothing but open strings.
And now that you’ve got all that taken care of, let’s try the whole thing:
I hope that you enjoyed this lesson. If all goes well I hope to have time to put together a Guitar Noise Podcast which will deal with adding some additional, pardon the pun, ornamentation for this beautiful carol sometime in the next week or so. It would be nice to get back to doing that on a regular basis!
Do feel free to drop me any comments or questions right here with this lesson or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to chatting with you all.
Please also accept my best wishes to you, your families and friends for a wonderful holiday season and a terrific upcoming New Year.
And, as always,
Originally, “Good King Wenceslas” was a carol for Saint Stephen’s Day, celebrated on December 26, and is based on the life of Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia. Within decades of his assassination in 935, several biographies had been written of the young duke, telling of his piety and good character. The noted historian, Cosmas of Prague, wrote in 1119, “…no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.” The Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, posthumously gave Wenceslas the title of King, which is why the carol’s lyric calls him so.