With your kind permission, I’d like to take various aspects of the holiday songs we’ve done so far and combine them into one lesson, that lesson being an arrangement of the John Hopkins Jr. carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are. We’ll also use this song as a chance to learn how to play further up the neck than our usual first position melodies.
Is there any particular reason for choosing this song over the thousands of other holiday pieces that would like our attention? No, there truly isn’t. I was thinking about this carol the other day because I was remembering playing at a Christmas party last year when, totally off the cuff, we came up with a terrific version of this. Since that version involved Anne’s amazing conga playing, we won’t be doing that. But we should have a very fun time with this.
Just about every copy of We Three Kings I’ve seen places the song in E minor and I think that will work out well for us, particularly since we’re going to try to make use of a lot of open strings for our bass notes. And we’ll also get a chance to put into practice some of the things we learned about chord shapes in the Moving On Up column I wrote ages ago. If you’d like to take a moment to go over that piece, please feel free to do so and we’ll start in when you get back.
All right then, let’s first take a look at our melody and the accompanying chords, at least according to most of the arrangements I’ve read:
There isn’t anything here that should frighten us off. Perhaps a quick review of some our chords (and the notes that make them up) would be in order:
My reason for doing this will become apparent in a moment because what I’d like to do now is to move the entire melody of We Three Kings up an octave. So now it will look and sound like this:
And now that the melody is up there, what are we going to do to accompany the melody? The first thing that comes to mind is to use barre chords but you all should now by now that I’d like to find a different solution. After all, the guitar is a pretty versatile instrument and there are a lot of possible ways to tackle this. Also, the key of E minor is very guitar friendly, offering lots of opportunities for open strings and easily made chords that can be played up the neck.
So, let’s think. The first two lines involve Em and B7 chords. An Em chord consists of E, G and B. We’ve got the B note in our melody. The E note could always be played by striking the open sixth (low E) string. All we need is a G. We have an open G string or we could also play it on the eighth fret of the B string. Let’s try both:
These both will certainly work. And, as you can see, I’ve even come up with a third idea! Using the top three strings will give us some more harmony and it’s easy enough to do.
All of these ideas sound fine. The second and third choice seem a little more interesting to me so I’m thinking why not see how they work out in the first two measures? I’ll use the low E (sixth) string as our bass note on the first beat of each measure and see how it works:
In Version One, I use my index finger for the notes on the first (high E) string. Usually I’ll use my middle finger for the G note (eighth fret of the B string) and my ring finger for the F# and E notes which follow. Some people prefer to use the ring finger for all the notes on the B string. Obviously you remove your fingers, whichever ones you decided to use, to get the last pair of notes in measure two.
Version Two is a great example of the chord shapes we explore in the Guitar Column Moving On Up, where you’ll find both of these chord shapes I’m using to make the accompaniment. The first set of notes is our A minor shape (or B minor, if you prefer) and I use my index finger on the first (high E) string, my middle finger on the B string and my ring finger on the G. The second and third sets of notes use the D minor configuration. For this shape, I shift my fingers slightly, keeping the index finger on the high E (first) string, placing my pinky on the B string and moving my middle finger to the G.
That second set of notes, by the way, is an F#m chord, which becomes F#m7 when we stick the E note in the bass. You could also just call it F#m/E. I think it sounds good so I’ll keep it in my pocket so I can pull it out to play when I’d like.
Now let’s add the B7 chord in measure three and finish off this line. As usual, we’ve a few choices open to us:
I don’t know about you but I find this very interesting. The “full chord voicing” is made by taking your open position B7 chord and then shifting your pinky up to the G note (third fret of the first (high E) string) and then back down to the F# again. Shade of The Little Drummer Boy! Personally, I find the “implied chord voicing” easier to finger; it’s actually a Bm7 chord with the ring finger on the second fret of the high E (first) string, the middle finger on the second fret of the G string and the index finger on the second fret of the A string. This leaves the pinky free to get the G note in the melody line.
Now that we’ve gone over all this, and since we know that the first four measures repeat themselves in measures five through eight, let’s do the first two lines of the song. I’m going to even write out the notation for both versions so that you can hear how it sounds. Do note that I’m also using the “implied chord voicing” of B7 in both cases. You, of course, can choose to use the “full chord voicing” if you wish:
Now let’s tackle the rest of the verse of the song. Here it is:
This looks like another exercise on chord shapes, doesn’t it? We start out with a standard open position G and then shift to a D chord (in the A major shape) at the fifth fret. We’ve used this chord before in many lessons. Last year’s version of Silent Night, for obvious seasonal reasons, springs immediately to mind. Then it’s back to the E minor (in the A minor shape) that we used in “Version Two” of the first measure of this song.
The next measure is simply three pairs of notes played on the first two strings. You could, if you wished, very easily add the open low E (sixth) string to this in order to fill out the sound a bit, but I think it works pretty well without it.
In the original chord accompaniment the next measure had A minor. We’re going to modify that slightly and play an Am7. The reason for this is that it’s very easy to do! Just barre your index finger across the first four strings, making certain to leave the A string open for your bass note. The ring finger or pinky can then get the B note of the melody that follows and removing that finger gets you back to the A note (fifth fret of the first (high E) string) that is still covered by the index finger.
Strangely enough, as much as I like playing the “implied chord voicing” of B7 in measure three, I prefer to do a full chord voicing here in this section of We Three Kings. A long, slightly slower strum allows me plenty of time to get my fingers set, especially the G note of the melody, which is fretted by the pinky.
Right before the chorus, there’s a measure of D7. Lyrically, this is the “…oh…..oh….” part. In order to make this slightly less dramatic (if you can believe that!), I like to use an easy implied harmony. Just start out by forming a D chord, but don’t play the note on the B string. Then slide the whole thing up to the fifth fret, like this:
When people sing this part of the song, the timing tends to get pretty screwy. So have fun with it! I came up with this second way of playing it by accident when working on the MP3 recordings, and I liked it enough to throw it into my “fun” arrangement, which you’ll hear at the end of the lesson. All you need do is slide up chromatically, one fret at a time, instead of going directly from the second fret to the fifth. It’s like taking the local train instead of the express…
Meanwhile the rest of us will start in on the chorus. Like the verse, the first four measures get repeated. Also, the last line of the chorus is the same as these two, so it makes a lot less work for us. Now that’s an added bonus, isn’t it?
In the original chord notation, the chorus starts out with two measures accompanied by the G chord, the third measure has C and G returns again for the fourth measure. Since the melody note is the G on the third fret of the high E (first) string, I figure why not have a little more motion and make the accompanying chord of the second measure Em? Because it’s the relative minor of G major, this isn’t a terribly dramatic change and you always have the option of just playing two measures of G. Anyway, here goes:
This should pose few problems for you. Remember that we’re using versions of the Em and C chords that have the G note on the high E (first) string). This will probably involve using your pinky for most of you! The only tricky part is getting the D note (on the second fret of the B string) in the second measure. Simply take whatever finger you’re using to play the G note in the melody (third fret of the high E (first) string) and shift it down to the B string. Feel free to use big sweeping downstrokes on the first beats because this is certainly a joyful part of the song.
I know several ways of playing We Three Kings and, in the interest of giving you the chance to quickly learn this song I’m opting for an easy way of playing the third line of the chorus. Let’s take a look and a listen:
Yes, it’s back to our chord shapes! And they are all ones we’ve already used so you should have no trouble putting them into play here. Using the Am7 instead of the C in the original notation allows us to play through this with relative ease. Barring the fifth fret, again with your index finger, you use your pinky to get the C note (eighth fret on the high E (first) string) in the melody and then slide that down to the seventh fret for the B note.
It’s also good to note that, here in the third line of the chorus, you’ll want to finger the two measures of the D chord in such a way to leave your pinky free to get the B note of the melody.
And now that we’ve got all the pieces together, how about we try to play the whole thing?
I hope that you have enjoyed this season’s presentation of Christmas song lessons. And I also hope you haven’t minded, at least too much, my attempts at teaching you some things about music, music theory and guitar technique along the way.
I know that I’ve said this about a million times, not only in these lessons but throughout the entire Guitar Noise website, but sometimes the most important thing about learning any one song is learning how you can use a technique, a riff, a strumming pattern or any little thing, in another song. Once you have a handle on a song’s basics, it doesn’t take a lot to get into making your own arrangements. With your permission, here’s an example of that, using today’s song. How’s that for an incredible coincidence?
A Happy Christmas to all of you and my wishes for a wonderful 2005.
Until our next lesson…