One of the (pardon the pun) cool things about working up arrangements for Christmas songs is that it’s incredibly rare for someone to write in and say “Your version isn’t the way that it is on the original recording.” It’s kind of funny that no one, not even the folks that are of the “one-has-to-play-each-note-exactly-as-written-and-also-play-it-using-the-exact-same-gear-and-amplifier-settings” crowd, worries about taking liberties with arrangements when it comes to Christmas carols.
And that’s just as well, too, for there are certainly more than enough versions of just about every single holiday song known to civilization. Today, I’d like to offer up a “fingerstyle / chord melody” take on I’ll Be Home for Christmas, a song from the 1940’s that’s been sung by almost everyone, it seems. Hopefully our Guitar Noise arrangement will become part of your holiday song repertoire.
Before we start in, though, I have to digress slightly concerning two things. First, I’ve been playing this song for ages, but when I first started to work up an arrangement of it, I had no sheet music as a guide. Instead, I relied on memories of the various versions I’d heard. As a result, there are all sorts of “˜freedoms” taken, particularly with the time signatures in this arrangement. But I’m hoping that will make it an even more interesting lesson.
The second thing is that I incorporate the “verse” of the song, and you may not even be aware that it exists. We know many pop songs from the middle of the 1900s simply from their choruses, which actually seem to be whole songs. But quite often, these songs had a single verse that served more as what we’d think of today as an introduction. Then everyone would join in on singing the chorus. And, more often than not these days, it’s only the chorus that most of us know.
Our arrangement of I’ll Be Home is in the key of A. And though the song is written in 4/4 timing, we’re going to be approaching it in a different manner. In 4/4 timing, the two lines of the verse goes like this:
Back when I was putting this all together, the phrase of lyric gave me a strong impression of 3 / 4 timing. More like this:
Because I’d gotten this rhythm into my head all those many years ago, I pretty much think of the whole song in terms of threes and triplets instead of fours, as you’ll see when we get to the chorus.
For now, though, let’s take a look at those first two lines again, done up in a “fingerstyle chord melody” way:
First things first – I’ve moved the melody up an octave to place it totally on the first two strings of guitar. This means that you’ll have a bit of work ahead, changing chords at various places on the fretboard. But even this early in the verse, we’ll be running into two important chord shapes that will recur throughout the song. The initial Dmaj7 chord is made by placing the index finger at the ninth fret of the high E (first) string, and then forming a diagonal line with your middle finger on the tenth fret of the B string and your ring finger on the eleventh fret of the G string. The open D string serves as our bass note.
We then switch to full-barre Em7 chord shapes for the next three measures. Using this fingering of barring across all the strings with the index finger and then adding the ring finger to the A string two frets up, we create C#m7 (barre at ninth fret, ring finger on the eleventh fret of the A string), Bm7 (barre at seventh fret, ring finger on the ninth fret of the A string), and F#m7 (barre at second fret, ring finger on the fourth fret of the A string) and our free fingers to get the other melody notes. Your index finger will easily reach the tenth fret of the B string when playing the C#m and your pinky should have no problems with either the tenth fret of the B when playing Bm7 or the fourth fret of the high E (first) string when playing the F#m7.
The “diagonal line shape” of the Dmaj7 chord shows up again in first measure of the second line for the Bm7/D chord, although you may not immediately recognize it. Before you worry about playing the notes shown in the tablature, set your fingers for a typical “beginner’s Bm” chord – index finger on the second fret of the high E (first) string, middle finger on the third fret of the B string, and ring finger on the fourth fret of the G string. Once you’ve gotten those fingers in place, then put your pinky on the fifth fret of the high E (first) string to get the A note of the melody line. Once you’ve played it, you simply remove the pinky and all your other fingers are in place for the last chord of that measure.
Being able to read chord shapes as tablature is not something that many guitarists pick up easily and we’ll be spending a bit of time throughout 2010 working through this subject. Hopefully, though, this shows you why it’s an important skill to develop.
Recognizing chord shapes can often make changing from chord to chord easier as well. For instance, just looking at the chord charts and tablature for switching from this “beginner’s Bm” to the following E7 may seem daunting, all it really involves is moving two fingers. Your middle and ring finger are already where they should be, so you shift the index finger to the second fret of the D string and then drop your pinky onto the fourth fret of the high E (first) string.
If you want to add a bit more bass, you can also flatten out your index finger across the second fret of both the D and A strings, giving you the fingering of 022434, which allows you to play the chord across all six strings. You want to be careful with this, though as you need the note of the open high E (first) string as part of the melody line. You can achieve this by tilting the index finger into the middle of the fretboard, clearing the first string completely, or you could always reach the same note at the fifth fret of the B string with you pinky.
The second half of the verse starts out the same but then finishes with a group of interesting chords, not to mention a brief change of time signatures:
Something both cool but somewhat frustrating and unnerving about is that any one specific combination of notes can turn out to be a part of many, many possible chords. If I were to give you the notes C, E and G, as an example, you could say that they are a C major chord, but they could also be part of Am7 (A, C, E and G), Fmaj9 (F, A, C, E and G) or many other chords. Most jazz players use only three or four strings in order to create chords, so there are all sorts of ways to identify them.
Since Bm, or Bm7 if you will, is the focal harmonic point of the first measure in the second line here, I’ve named each of these chords as extensions of Bm or B. Shifting from chord to chord may seem difficult at first, but using your index finger as an anchor on the lowest fret and shifting it up the neck (from the second fret to the fourth and then to the seventh) will help you make smooth transitions. Having your index finger on the seventh fret for the B13 also puts you in perfect position for the E9.
This part of the verse can be done very freely in terms of timing. You can make it incredibly melodramatic if you’d like, especially if doing so helps you buy time between the chord changes!
Part of the charm of this arrangement, of most chord melody style arrangements for that matter, are getting ringing strings and overtones wherever possible. That’s why you’ll find many times I’ll opt for a chord voicing involving open strings when I can.
With the “verse” out of the way, we can concentrate on the “chorus” part of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, which is the part you’re probably really interested in, anyway. Like the verse, the original chorus is written in 4 /4 timing. But while there is a strong pulse on each beat, and again this is to my ears and may not work for you, there is also a distinct feel for triplets in the accompaniment. It’s got the same kind of feel as The House of the Rising Sun. So I’ve worked out the chorus in 6 / 8 timing to accommodate this feel. If nothing else, it keeps me from writing out a lot of triplet notation!
I could have just as easily written this out in 12 / 8, the way many blues songs are written out, but I simply found 6 / 8 more convenient. And, as you’ll see and hear, it does make coming up with an easy, yet interesting accompaniment a breeze.
Essentially, the chorus can be broken down into four parts, each of which goes with a line of lyric:
I’ll be home for Christmas you can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams
To make matters even easier, the first and third lines are, essentially identical in terms of melody and chords. So we’ve only three parts to learn! Here’s the first:
The first measure involves what some people call the “classical guitarist’s A chord,” although folks like Pete Townsend use it a lot. Essentially, it’s a partial barring of the second fret, covering the four high strings with the index finger, and then adding the pinky to the fifth fret of the high E (first) string to get the A note of the melody. You then slide the pinky down to the fourth fret at the end of the measure.
For the most part, I tried to make the accompaniment be a simple “down and up” arpeggio, again much like the lesson on The House of the Rising Sun. There will be places where this will have to be changed, but if you can get used to starting with your bass note and (including that bass note) play three strings down and then three strings back up, you should be fine.
An Adim7 sets the stage for the second measure. Slide your index finger, still barring the first four strings, up to the fourth fret and add your middle finger to the fifth fret of the G string while dropping your pinky onto the seventh fret of the high E (first) string. Use your ring finger to fret the A note at the fifth fret of the high E later in the measure.
The E note of the open first string is the melody note for the word “Christmas,” so I use most of the barre chord version of the Bm chord but leave that first string open. This is actually fairly easy to do if you don’t think of it as a barre chord, but rather as an Am chord slid up two frets. Plus, then your fingers are in shape for the E chord that comes next.
If case one of the subtle subtexts of the many lessons here at Guitar Noise may be eluding you, let me make it clear: you don’t have to let chord names freak you out. There is very little about music that you can’t figure out, provided that you keep your head and don’t panic. For instance, you may look at the chord in the next measure, C#m7(b5) and have a heart attack. But there’s no reason for it. C#m is C#, E and G#. Adding the “7” means adding the note, B, to the chord. “b5” indicates that you lower the fifth of the chord, G# in this instance, a half-step, turning it into G. So the notes of “C#7(b5) are C#, E, G and B. That’s three open strings plus a C# thrown in somewhere. No reason whatsoever to panic that I can see.
You could make this more interesting, not to mention slightly harder to finger by going with a fingering of X42000, but since you’re fingerpicking arpeggios, make it easier on yourself by skipping the D string entirely.
Likewise, the following chord, F#7(b9) may seem unwieldy, but all you’ve got to do is to barre across the second fret again with your index finger and then add your middle finger to the third fret of the G string and your ring finger, just for a moment, to the third fret of the high E (first) string. Then you only need stand the index finger up at the second fret of the A string to put you in perfect position for the Bm7 of the last two measures.
Let’s move along to the second line of the chorus:
Things start our relatively easy, with three simple open positions before moving up the neck for the F#m7 in the fourth measure. But even this isn’t that hard if you stop to think and prepare for a moment. The chord immediately before it, Amaj7, shares the same shape and fingering on the B, G and D strings, so if you set yourself up to play that Amaj7 without your index finger (pinky on the second fret of the B string, middle finger on the first fret of the G string and ring finger on the second fret of the D string), then you only need slide the whole shape up to the sixth and seventh frets and drop your index finger down on the fifth fret of the high E string to complete the chord.
And if you plan out your arpeggios, you don’t have to play the whole B7 barre chord, either. For all intents and purposes, you can get away with leaving the A string clear (other than the index finger needed to barre the seventh fret, of course!) and just use your middle finger on the eighth fret of the G string. Plus your ring finger for the melody note at the ninth fret of the B string when it comes along. The last two measures of this section are a repeat of the third and fourth measures of the first line.
After repeating the first line again, you’ve only one more to go:
This brings us back to the two basic chord shapes we covered in the “verse” section. The Bm7 (based on the Em7 shape but barred at the seven fret) we remember as the third chord of the song. The “diagonal line” chord is played across the fifth, sixth and seventh frets of the high E (first), B and G strings, respectively, to create Dm. Adding the pinky to the seventh fret of the high E (first) string will give you the melody note.
Then comes our old friend C#m7(b5) and since that’s nowhere near as scary now, why not try stretching our hand a bit and using the x42000 fingering for it? Follow that up with a full F#7 (index finger barred across the second fret, middle finger on the third fret of the G and ring finger on the fourth fret of the A), another Bm7 and another diagonal Dm and you’re just about finished. We’ll close with a nice open string version of Amaj9, fingering the sixth fret of both the D and G strings.
If you want to have an ending with a little more pizzazz, try replacing the final two measures with a reprise of the first four measures of the “verse” section, only try it in 6 /8 timing to give it a little more interest. I’ve not tabbed this out, but I play it in our final version. And just in case you were wondering, I’m playing all the MP3 examples for this lesson on a classical guitar.
As always, I hope that you had fun with this arrangement of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. It’s one of my favorite seasonal songs and I hope you enjoy it as well. It may take you a little longer to get confident about playing it, but I’m sure you’ll manage it with just a little bit of practice, patience and perseverance.
And, again as always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until our next lesson…