O Little Town of Bethlehem


Sometimes the term “chord melody“ can be a bit misleading. One doesn’t have to use full chords to create harmony. Two notes can imply a full chord, as you know from playing our Guitar Noise lesson on “O Tannenbaum.”

We’re going to work a bit of the same sort of magic with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written by American Episcopalian priest Phillips Brooks (inspired by his 1865 visit to the fabled city) and his church’s organist, Lewis Redner. For the most part, we’ll use either pairs of notes of chord arpeggios to create our arrangement of this beautiful carol.

The First Two Lines

I’ve chosen to write this arrangement in the key of D to make use of both the open D and A strings for bass notes and also the open B, G and D strings as part of the G chord. You get a taste of that right in the first line:

O Little Town of Bethlehem example one first two lines

Even though the first set of notes is based on an open position D chord, it’s a good idea to fret the high E (first) string with your ring finger and the G string with your middle finger. In fact, you want to use your middle finger as a bit of an anchor during the most of the instances where you’re playing two notes at the same time. If you use your middle finger on the G or D string, that frees you up to use your ring finger whenever the high note is on the same fret and to use your index finger when the high note is one fret lower, as in the second pair of notes in the second full measure.

The third measure demonstrates why this use of the middle finger as anchor can be so helpful. If your first inclination is to use your index and middle fingers for the pair of notes on the second fret of the B and D strings, then you’d find it more than a little awkward making any sort of smooth transition to the two subsequent pairs. But keeping your middle finger on the D string allows you to quickly move from pair to pair.

By the bye, you definitely want to finger a “normal” open position D chord at the start of the last measure in this example!

As mentioned, playing this song in D is giving us a number of opportunities to use open strings, which in turn gives us a chance to reposition our fingers when the melody makes a bit of a leap to higher notes, as it does in the start of the second line:

O Little Town of Bethlehem example two first two lines more

The first two measures of Example 2 are the trickiest part of our song. Use your index finger to barre the first five strings at the fifth fret and your ring finger to barre the first four strings at the seventh. This will allow you to play the first two eighth notes and the following quarter note (where the B and G strings are played at the seventh fret).

Then stand your ring finger up on its tip on the seventh fret of the D string. Use your middle finger to play the sixth fret of the A string and your pinky to get the seventh fret of the high E (first) string. Lift up your pinky and your index finger will have the two notes at the fifth fret (on the high E and G strings) that you need to close the measure.

You’re still not out of the woods, though! You next need to make a bit of a leap to place your index finger on the second fret of the D string and to put your pinky on the fifth fret of the high E. This takes a bit of practice but it’s not as hard as it sounds. You could, as an alternative, play the E note (second fret of the D) at the seventh fret of the A string and the G note (third fret of the high E) at the eighth fret of the B string. That’s a lot fewer gymnastics for your fingers but you’re still going to have to jump down the neck for the G in the bass (third fret of the low E string) at some point. I’ve tried it both ways and find myself preferring the former. You may find otherwise, though, so be sure to experiment.

The final two measures in this example are more chances to use your middle finger anchor when playing. If you thought you were getting good at it earlier, now’s your chance to find out for sure! And, like the first line, you want to finish this section off with an open position D chord.

The Last Two Lines

That D chord kicks off the third line of the song:

O Little Town of Bethlehem example three last two lines

It’s a good idea here to use your ring finger to get the E note (second fret of the D string) when you play the third chord (Em) and then slide it up the D string for each of the following two chords. You should end up starting the second measure with your ring finger at the fourth fret of the D string, your middle finger on the third fret of the G and your index finger at the second fret of the B string. This is an F# chord, by the way. For the second F# Lay your index finger flat across the second fret to make a barre chord out of it and get you the F# in the bass (second fret of the low E string). You’ll revisit this F# barre in the last measure of this example.

The last line starts out the same as the first and ends a little like the second:

O Little Town of Bethlehem example four last line

Try to get the G note in the bass in the second measure with your index finger. This will make the next pair of notes (seventh fret of the high E and the fourth fret of the low E) a lot easier to manage!

As always, here, is a full version for you to work with. And (again, as always) please forgive any of the numerous performance mistakes!

Download a PDF of the complete arrangement

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and that you find it a great Christmas present for both you and your family and friends.

And let me take a moment to wish all our readers, their family and friends, a wonderful holiday season. We thank you for your continued support of Guitar Noise and look forward to bringing lots of great lessons in 2012!

Until the next lesson…

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

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