If my students are interested in playing fingerstyle guitar, Scarborough Fair is a song I will try to them fairly early on in their studies. Even though there are probably several dozen, if not hundreds of recorded versions of this wonderful song (and you owe it to yourself to go listen to some – try Justin Hayward’s for starters), most people who know this incredibly old traditional tune (many different versions of it existed before the 1800s!) know it through the Simon and Garfunkel arrangement, which Paul Simon learned from British folk guitar legend Martin Carthy. Like Blackbird, the song seems daunting at first, but it’s truly not hard at all. Most of the arrangement, like most songs for that matter, involves simple patterns that get repeated during the course of the verses. There are a few variations thrown in here and there, but with patience and practice, you will find that there is nothing here that you cannot play. There are no outlandish finger stretches or wild barre chords.
More important to you as a guitar student, having to continually shift from one pattern to another is excellent practice for your finger picking. Not only that, but being able to switch patterns on the fly will make your own playing sound much more organic and keep you from falling into the finger style trap of maintaining one single non-changing picking pattern.
So if you’d like to explore some very interesting and intricate fingerstyle guitar playing, come along. This sounds great no matter what type of guitar you play. I’ve played it on classical, acoustic, twelve string and electric (yes, even twelve string electric!) and it comes across beautiful on all.
And while I’m thinking of it, let me also note that in this lesson I will freely interchange the use of the words “measure” and “bar.” They are synonyms, so don’t let that throw you, okay?
For this lesson on Scarborough Fair, we will use the Simon and Garfunkel take on Carthy’s arrangement as our inspiration, but there will actually be quite a few differences that hopefully you won’t even be aware of! On their original recording, the song is played in the key of E minor. Simon uses a capo on the seventh fret, which means that he is really playing in A minor. The voicings that he creates result from both the capo and the choices of the chords he uses.
Since there is a lot of fret movement in this song, I encourage my students to first work on the picking pattern. After all, it’s easier to work on one hand at a time than to worry about both. The best way to approach this is to start with the “theme.” This is the haunting fingerpicking that we’ve talked about before in a number of my guitar columns. This two measure chord progression pops up four or five times during each verse, so nailing it down early in the lesson will provide us with an excellent base from which we can tackle the other parts of the song. Here are the two chords used as the “theme:”
I suggest starting with the second chord in order to work on getting the fingerpicking pattern into your fingers. You will probably want to try one of these two methods:
The song is in 3/4 timing and the pattern consists entirely of eighth notes. So you should be thinking in your head, “one and two and three and…” Let me suggest that you play this chord, the Asus2, with your middle finger on the D string and your ring finger on the G. You’ll understand why when we go on to playing both chords of the theme.
I tend to play this the first way, with my thumb, middle and index fingers but I highly recommend that you at least try to work in your ring finger as well, as shown in the second pattern. As always, start out as slowly as you need to in order to get it all clean. Smoothness is what we’re trying to achieve. This isn’t a fast song by any means. You want there to be a dreamlike quality to your playing.
Whichever picking you choose, practice it until your fingers can play it “on their own,” so to speak. It really doesn’t take all that long for this to happen. Once you settle on a pattern and just play it, your fingers usually fall into it pretty quickly. This is the sort of thing you can do while reading or watching the TV (with the sound off) or talking with someone on the phone or almost anything.
When you don’t have to look at your picking fingers anymore, you’re ready to move on to playing the second chord, the A7sus4(add6). Here, use your middle finger again on the D string and your index finger on the B string. Once again, simply play the chord with your picking pattern until you are satisfied that your fingers know what they are doing. Your notes should be smooth, flowing evenly from one to the next. Only when you feel ready should you move on to playing both chords:
Because you’ve practiced the picking beforehand, you should find that you can concentrate on your fretting hand. On the neck, keep your middle finger on the D string, as I recommended. Use your index finger to fret the 3rd fret of the B string in the 1st measure. Now simply slide the middle finger to the 2nd fret (still on the D) and play the 2nd fret of the G with your ring finger. Since each measure begins with two notes on open strings, you have plenty of time to switch from one chord to the next. And since your picking hand is on automatic pilot, you will be amazed at how quickly you’ll get the hang of this. Before you know it, you won’t have to watch either of your hands, and that’s the whole point.
Okay, let’s get on with the rest of the song. The intro (bars 1 through 3) starts with the same first chord (and the same first measure) of the theme:
See how easy it is because you’ve already played it? The picking pattern in the second measure is the same. All that changes is that you add your ring finger to the fifth fret of the A string. Basically, you’re playing a first position C chord that you’ve moved up two frets. At the start of the third measure, slide your ring finger from the fifth fret to the third while removing your other fingers from the neck. The timing here changes slightly, so only play the first three notes of your pattern (thumb, middle (or ring) and index). Then on the third beat play the second fret of the A string with your middle finger, using your thumb to pluck the note. From there, you go right into the theme. Repeat it a few times and you’re ready for the main body of the song itself.
Guess what? Five of the measures of the first line (bars 6 through 10) are the theme! Measure eight is the only different one, so let’s give it a look:
Playing this all by itself, out of the context of the rest of Scarborough Fair, it probably sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Hey! It’s the first measure of Blackbird! How about that? We already know how to do that. The real trick here is in shifting from one picking pattern (the “theme” pattern) to this new one and then back again. I really can’t stress this enough, but the easiest way to learn how to do this is to slow things down. It’s all striate eighth notes so the timing of the pattern will still be “one and two and three and one and two and three and…” If you take the time to concentrate on count as well as using your index finger to pick the open G string on the “ands,” you should have little trouble. And it’s a very important thing to get set now, as we’ll see in the next line coming up.
The first three measures of the second line (called “Herb”) (sorry, I really couldn’t help myself…) look more complicated than they are:
Bar 11 is a C major chord, played as an arpeggio. The next measure is an Am arpeggio. Could life get much simpler? This is the third picking pattern of the song. As you can see, I’ve illustrated two ways to play it: one using the thumb, index and middle fingers and the second incorporating the ring finger as well.
The “blackbird’ pattern reappears in bar 13. Here the first beat is a C chord and the last two beats are a D chord, but you play this measure with the same picking pattern we used in bar 8. Then you go right back into the theme once more.
So we’ve gotten through half of the song without even working up a sweat! But, of course, here comes the fun stuff. We’ll need to examine the third line in two parts. Here’s the first:
They’re throwing everything at us now! Measure 16 starts out with an Am arpeggio, but it’s a totally different one than we’ve used thus far. This one starts with the bass note and then descends from the first string to the third before returning to do a walking bass line from the open A to the C note that starts the next measure. Thankfully, this is another C arpeggio and we have seen it before! Then we go into another “blackbird” pattern where the melody line descends instead of climbs. If you hang on to your C chord in bar 17, you’ll find your fingers already in position to measure 18 this very smoothly. All of this leads us to a much needed rest:
Okay, so it’s not really a rest as much as it’s a bit of flash. Measure 19 brings the first break in the “all eighth note” timing since the intro. This tends to derail people quickly! Once you realize that it’s just the timing and not you, it shouldn’t throw you at all. The first two beats are self-explanatory. The third beat, as well as the first beat of bar 20, is a quick hammer-on involving two string. If you think of this as an Am7 chord (x02010) and use your middle and index fingers to do the fretting, you might find this to be the part of the song you most look forward to playing!
The final line of the song is almost anticlimactic in comparison, but it’s not without a trick or two:
Bar 21 repeats the Am arpeggio we’ve done a couple of times while measure 23 is the same “blackbird” pattern from bar 8. It’s the one in the middle that requires a little more attention. I know a lot of people who play this with an open B string, but I prefer to follow the melody line with my guitar, hence the third fret on the first beat (part of a G arpeggio) and the second fret on the third. This is one of those little stylistic things that you can use or ignore.
You wind up the fourth line by gong back into the theme and then back through all the verses. The outro is an exact copy of the intro except that it comes to a stop instead of recycling the theme again. I like to add the twelfth fret harmonic on the first string. Don’t forget that with the capo this is at the nineteenth fret! I use the side of my thumb to play it.
So, here’s the complete package!
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lesson. Scarborough Fair is an excellent exercise in fingerpicking as well as chord shapes and truly gives you a taste of how the guitar can be just as grand (no pun intended) an accompanying instrument as the piano.
But Wait! There’s More!
This is a great arrangement, isn’t it? But it’s certainly not the only one. When I decided to include Scarborough Fair as one of the song lessons for The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar, I had to create one that was decidedly easier than this, as the book was meant for a complete beginning guitarist. The idea for this section of the book was to use the basic techniques learned throughout the book to play complete song arrangements. At the same time, though, I wanted it to be interesting and teach a few new simple ideas. Check out the easy version of Scarborough Fair.
Let me also take this time to wish you all a safe and wonderful summer (or winter, if you’re one of our many readers south of the equator!). Please take the time during our “sabbatical” to review any of the (many) old lessons and to write me with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at email@example.com.
Until next lesson…