Amazing Grace


I’m going to spend some time concentrating on the idea of chord melodies and the arrangement of songs for the single guitar, as opposed to the guitar as accompaniment for the singer. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but I think the best one is that this will be an easy way to focus on techniques as well as driving home some lessons on chord structure, chord substitutions and other ideas from music theory that you’ll be able to use in all your playing, whether in this style or any other.

And we’ll start off with Amazing Grace, a simple three-chord spiritual that I’m sure pretty much everyone knows. The song’s history is incredibly interesting enough to be a book of its own, which it is! John Turner has written a wonderful and insightful book called, appropriately enough, Amazing Grace, which traces the song from its African and Scottish roots all the way to modern recordings of it by artists such as Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Al, Green, Rod Stewart, Chet Baker, Tiny Tim, Destiny’s Child and Johnny Cash. By the way, if you want to hear what I think is the definitive arrangement of this song, get a copy of Jubilation by the Holmes Brothers and have a listen. Even better, see them live whenever you get the chance!

Our version, while much, much simpler, will have some charms all its own. We’ll first explore how to go about picking a key and then use the song as an exercise in developing the “voice” of your guitar. And, of course, we’ll also throw in a bit of theory, not to mention a look at chord voicing and a slightly altered tuning. After all, this is one of my lessons, right? Intrigued? Then, by all means, let us proceed…

Since Amazing Grace is a relatively short song, I think that the best approach will be to take it line by line. But before we even get to that, let’s decide upon a key in which to play. I’ve seen (and heard) this piece played in almost every possible key. Opening a nearby book (and woe to the guitarist who doesn’t own any books!), I see it done in the key of G. Let’s look at the melody in that key, broken down line by line:

Example 1 line 1
Example 1 line 2
Example 1 line 3
Example 1 line 4

This certainly seems simple enough. But if you’ve read my other pieces on arranging, you already know I’m going to have a problem with it. Namely, there’s too much of the melody going on below the G string. This will mean a bass-y arrangement, which, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’d like to get more of the higher strings of the guitar involved. Using this version, we won’t even touch the high E (first) string! And where’s the fun in that?

I’ve also got another bee in my bonnet. Somewhere, in a corner of the incredibly vast, invariably cluttered warehouse I call my mind, I’ve got a thing about bagpipes. Usually I can ignore it, but something about Amazing Grace triggers this reaction. It may simply be that I was exposed to way too many repeated listenings of that pipe band version of this song, which was a big hit when I was (somewhat) younger. I’m sure that I’ll get a lot of emails telling me the name of the band, so I’ll try to remember to pass the word along to those of you who might be interested in this sort of thing.

Be that as it may, I know that I have stumbled upon an idea that I’m not going to let go until I work it out of my system. I guess that means you’re stuck with it, too! Maybe it wasn’t the bagpipes at all as much as it was a rereading of an old article of mine, A Celtic Air, which gave me this craving. I don’t know.

But I do know, after spending the better part of the day trying out various permutations of this song, that there are a lot of fun things we can do with Amazing Grace. And the very first thing we’re going to do, as I mentioned before this digression, is to choose a key in which to play it.

And I’m opting for D major for three reasons. First, you might have noted that the melody line of Amazing Grace spans the range of one octave. In the example we just saw, it goes from D (open D string) to D (third fret on the B string). Since D is the fifth in the key of G and since I’d like to keep things fairly simple, using the key of D will mean our melody will range from A on the second fret of the G string to the A note on the fifth fret of the first (high E) string. We (hopefully) won’t be fumbling around looking for our melody notes! Here they are:

Example 2 line 1
Example 2 line 2
Example 2 line 3
Example 2 line 4

The second reason concerns my Celtic preoccupations. Being in the key of D, there’s no reason I can’t use Drop D tuning to create a cool drone on my lower strings. For those of you who may not be familiar with Drop D tuning, you can take a moment and go read another of my old articles, and one, I might add, with a terrific pun for a title, On The Tuning Awry. There you’ll find that changing from standard tuning to Drop D simply requires you to lower the tone of the low E (sixth) string down one step to D. You can do this with a tuner or even by ear.

Being in Drop D, your three lowest strings will now be tuned (low to high) D, A and D, which some of you might recognize as a D power chord. Power chords, as we’ve noted in many articles here at Guitar Noise, are chords containing two notes, the root and the fifth. This interval of a fifth is the basis of many an instrument throughout history, bagpipes being one of the many that’s been around a bit longer than the electric guitar. It creates a drone over which you can play a melody line. And having those resonating open strings as our bass notes will, no pun intended, give our guitar much more body than if we were in standard tuning.

But it’s the third reason for choosing this key that I’d like to dwell on for our lesson today. Playing in the key of D allows us to use a lot of flourishes, that is, hammer-ons and pull-offs, that will give our arrangement style and character.

And you can hear that right from the very first notes:

Example 3 straight playing
Example 3 with flourishes

Quite a difference between those two styles, no? The first one is very much in the style of playing we’ve worked on in pieces like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and it certainly will service this song well. But there’s a lot more movement, more drama, more panache if you will, in the playing of the second example here. We’re allowing our guitar to have a voice. We’re letting it sing ! We’re giving it some soul !

And it’s not all that hard to do! You can start out by fingering your typical standard open position D chord, with your middle finger on the second fret of the first (high E) string, your ring finger on the third fret of the B string and your index finger on the second fret of the G. Once you’re set, slightly raise your index and middle fingers off their respective strings, leaving the ring finger in place. Now, with your picking hand, simultaneously pluck the open A string with your thumb and the open G string with your index finger. As soon as you do so, hammer the index finger of your fretting hand back onto the second fret of the G string. You should hear the A and G notes start out together, with the G becoming an A (albeit an octave higher) almost immediately after.

This style of playing evokes many emotions, mostly because you’re giving your guitar an almost human-like quality by letting it have a “voice.” The notes aren’t spot on. They can seem either hesitant or confident, depending on how you strike the strings. So take the time to experiment with just this one set of notes. You’ll find that you can get a fairly wide range of expressions depending upon many factors such as how hard (or how softly) you strike the string or how “immediate” your hammer-on follows your initial striking of the two open strings. Chances are likely that you may not always be able to duplicate what you did the moment before and that is precisely the point! You and your guitar are becoming unique.

Let’s now add the next note. As soon as you hammer-on the A note with your index finger, slightly raise your ring finger from its place on the B string. We’re going to repeat what we just did, only this time the picking hand thumb will pluck the sixth string (and you do remember that we’ve tuned that down to D, right?) and your middle finger will pluck the open B string at the same time. And again, as soon as you’ve done that, bring down your ring finger of the fretting hand to its original position at the third fret of the B string.

I should note that you can do both of these hammer-ons while keeping your middle finger in place on the second fret of the first (high E) string, but I find my striking smoother and that I have more control over the tone by not planting it in place. You should try out both ways before making a decision about that yourself. And you should always feel that you are able to change your decision later!

Once I get that ring finger back down on the third fret of the B string, I raise my index finger again. This is like cocking my arm before throwing a ball. My next hammer-on will involve using both my index and middle fingers and I want to be ready! Fortunately, the second beat of the measure is merely a playing of the open D string with my thumb. We’ll discuss that more in just a moment. For right now, though, let’s concentrate on the task at hand, namely simultaneously picking the open A string (again with the thumb), the open G string (with the middle finger of the picking hand) and the open high E string. I recommend using the ring finger of your picking hand for this. Once you’ve plucked these three strings, you’re going to hammer-on to the second fret of both the G and high E string with their respective fingers. And then you’ve going to pull those fingers back off! This will sound the G and E notes of those open strings. And then you’re going to simply pluck the B string (where your ring finger is still sitting on the third fret) with your middle finger of the fretting hand. And if that wasn’t enough, you’re going to finish it off by repeating the G and E string hammer-on, only this time you’ll be striking the sixth (low D) string with your thumb.

I’m sure that this explanation wasn’t as clear as I’d like it to be, so let’s examine it in minute detail, just to be on the safe side:

Example 3a
Example 3 continued

Again, I truly can’t stress enough the importance of being patient with yourself in learning a technique like this. Even though this last example, with the two-finger hammer-ons and pull-offs only lasts for two beats, there’s still a lot going on as far as your fingers are concerned. But taking the time to work through it now will allow you to use this technique on command in the future. And, once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll not only be amazed at how you can do it without thinking, but also at how many opportunities you’ll get to use it in countless songs.

So, just to get it into thoroughly into our systems, we’re going to play it to death during our arrangement of Amazing Grace. But before we get back to the rest of the first line, let’s first take a look at our bass notes. In this transcription, like most of our other lessons, I’ve indicated which notes are to be played by the thumb by giving them downturned stems. Whenever possible, I’m going to try to keep this little arpeggio going on in the bass:

Example 3b

With Drop D tuning, this should be a cinch. The first beat is the open low D (sixth) string. On the second beat, and this occurs in almost every measure, I’ll pluck the regular open D (fourth) string. Finally, on the third beat, I’ll hit the open A string. When we get to our final MP3, you’ll hear me do a few measures of this as an introduction. It helps me to get the beat set in my head as well as to establish the D tonality of the entire song.

And while I do try to do this throughout the whole song, at least the measure where the D chord is the accompaniment, sometimes I can and sometimes I miss. That’s life (at least that’s what the people say…)! As we work our way through the rest of Amazing Grace we’ll find times when it might become necessary to miss a note here and there in order to concentrate on what’s going on in the higher strings. In the measure where I think you might have a bit of trouble, I’ve made the second beat a half note (duration of two beats), usually on the open D (fourth) string.

So now that we’ve gone over the use of hammer-ons and pull-offs, as well as the use of our bass strings, what do you say about finishing off that first line?

Example 4 line 1
Example 4 line 2

After all that practicing, you should have the first part of this down cold. There are only a few small things to add in order to complete this line. Notice that on the third beat of the third measure, the melody note is the open high E (first) string. Instead of maintaining the D chord, as I have from the start of the song, I place my index finger on the first fret of the B string. This would allow me to make a D7, if I had the rest of my D chord in place. With the open first string, though, I now have a D9 chord, which creates a very pleasant transition from the original D to the G chord that marks the first beat of measure four.

When I place my index finger on the second fret of the B string to make the D9, I also place my middle finger on the second fret of the G string. This is just my being sneaky. Should I, by accident, strike the G string, there won’t be any “clunker” note. And more importantly, all I have to do now to get my G chord in place is to slide both fingers two frets farther up the neck (my index finger is now on the third fret of the B string and my middle finger is on the fourth fret of the G) and add the bass note. It never hurts to think ahead!

And now’s the time to remember that, being in Drop D tuning, our G note is going to be on the fifth fret of the sixth string, not the third fret as it is in standard tuning. Fortunately, because I took care to have my fingers set on the G and B strings, all I have to do is place my ring finger on the fifth fret of the low D (sixth) string and I’m set.

Since we’ve changed chords, I’m also going to change the bass notes as well:

Example 4b version 1
Example 4b version 2
Example 4b version 3

But as I’ve noted here (and truly no pun intended there!), you can also maintain the D in the bass or even switch between the G note on the fifth fret and the open low D (sixth) string. Just don’t hit the A string! Please notice that I still use the regular open D (fourth) string as the bass note of the second beat. I like to do this because, in my ears, it creates a sort of continuity with the rest of the song. In fact, until the two times when we will later switch to an A chord, I always have the open fourth (regular D) string as the second bass note of each measure.

The last measure of this line is simply playing the A note on the second fret of the G string along with the bass. That puts us right back where we started. And now we can move along to the second line:

Example 5 line 1
Example 5 line 2

This second line of Amazing Grace begins almost exactly the same way as the first line. The only difference is that we’re adding an adorned B note at the start of the melody. The next measure is identical to measure two of the first line. And at the end of measure three, in place of the D9 chord of the first line, we’re sticking in yet another hammer-on of the G and high E (first) strings. In this notation, I’ve omitted the bass note on the third beat, but with some practice, it’s easy enough to add. In fact, in the final MP3 of our lesson, you’ll hear me play it like this:

Example 5a

Please take the time to see and hear that this hammer-on in not a grace note, as all of the previous ones have been. We want to draw this out so that both the open strings and then the notes of the hammer-on are of the same duration, namely a half-beat each.

The last measure of this involves changing from the D chord we’ve been using pretty much throughout the song to A, with the A note at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string serving as our melody note. There are a couple of ways to do this. Let’s look at them both:

Example 5b line 1
Example 5b line 2
Example 5b line 3
Example 5b line 4

In the MP3 examples, I use the first version of this (the “either” as opposed to the “or”). We’ve discussed this particular voicing of A, which is used a lot by classical guitarists (and, for some reason, Pete Townsend), in some of our past lessons. While it may seem a bit of a stretch, it’s actually pretty easy to get used to with a little practice. I also like to use this voicing because it gives me something different to play in the bass, alternating between the open A string and the E note at the second fret of the D (fourth) string.

The second voicing (the “or”) is essentially your standard F chord moved up to the fifth fret. I don’t use a full barre across the fifth fret for two reasons: first, the open A string is going to be our bass note anyway and second, in Drop D tuning, barring the fifth fret will give us a G note on the low D (sixth) string, as we saw at the end of the first line. While this forces you to use octaves of A (the open A string and the seventh fret of the D (fourth) string) as your bass, that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

With either or these methods, it is easy to change the C# of the A chord to D, creating Asus4 on the third beat, and then back again. I use this slight change of the A chord to bring a little variety to these two measures. Since the melody line is hanging on to that A note for a full five beats, it’s nice to have some movement in our accompaniment. If you opt for using the “F” style A, then you could do this instead:

Example 5c

In this example, we’re using the F# and G notes (located on the seventh and eighth frets, respectively, of B string) to create an ascending harmony line. The addition of the F# changes the A to A6, while the G creates an A7 chord.

The very start of the third line of Amazing Grace perhaps poses our biggest challenge. While keeping the high A (fifth fret of the high E (first) string) as our melody, we need to change from our A chord back to D. This is what I’ve come up with:

Example 6 line 1
Example 6 line 2

Since the A note of the melody actually shoots off the F#, I’m using a voicing of A6 which is just a Dm chord positioned at the fifth fret. My index finger in on the fifth fret of the first (high E) string, my pinky (can’t forget to include the pinky!) plays the seventh fret of the B string and my middle finger gets the C# note at the sixth fret of the G string. Add the open A string in the bass and I’m all set. This voicing allows me to switch to my D chord by changing only one thing, placing my ring finger on the seventh fret of the G string. This is the same voicing of D we’ve used in songs like Silent Night.

Now, of course, there are other ways of doing this. If I’m using the “classical” version of the A chord from our last example, then I might consider doing this

Example 6a

And while this is perfectly fine to do, I think that some of you may find it a bit of a stretch (pun intended this time!) to make this chord. And, my ears prefer to hear that F# note as part of the D chord. So this is why I chose to change from an open position chord to one at the fifth fret. While it is a little harder, it comes at a point in the song where you can use the open strings in the bass to cover up your move up the neck. If you listen very closely to the final MP3, you’ll even hear the squeak of my strings as I do so.

The rest of the third line is a mirror image of the end of the first line. That certainly won’t do for us, will it? So when we get to the G chord, let’s try a new hammer-on and pull-off combination, this time alternating between the open G and B strings and the notes of the G chord that kicks off that measure. With all the hammering-on and pulling-off you’ve done up to this point, this should be a piece of cake!

Which brings us to the fourth and final line of Amazing Grace :

Example 7 line 1
Example 7 line 2

And this is all stuff that we’ve covered up to this point. Except, and there’s always an exception, right, for the third measure where we’re throwing in an A6 chord. If you want to get technical, the F# in the melody line, when played over A, is what creates the A6. Be that as it may, this simply involves us coming up with still another hammer-on. What I’ve notated here is perhaps the easiest thing to do. On the first beat, strike the open high E (first) and B strings with your picking fingers while striking the open A string at the same time. Then hammer your ring and middle fingers on the first two strings. I wait until I have done that before adding my index finger to the mix, but you can certainly do it at the same time if you so desire. Then simply remove your ring finger from the high E (first) string to get the E note in the melody for that last beat in this measure.

If you want to get truly fancy, you can do this final bit as pull-off as well. And, what the heck, since we’re throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, why not add that G to D combo from the end of the third line? Something like this:

Example 7a

The possibilities, as the cliché goes, are endless. But seriously, by playing around with the technique of hammer-ons and pull-offs, you can come up with some very interesting effects. Not only in terms of your melodies, but in terms of dynamics and tone as well. Our final MP3 is of me playing through Amazing Grace twice. While this is chalk full of little mistakes, you can hear how smoothly and naturally the song flows from one line to the next:

I hope you had fun with this lesson and that you enjoy playing, and playing around with, Amazing Grace. Getting comfortable with doing hammer-ons and pull-offs is essential for any guitarist and I hope that this particular arrangement will give you the confidence to use these techniques without fear. They can add a lot to the individual voice of your guitar, allowing you to give your playing a broad range of tonal qualities. You should find that it is possible for even a “strictly rhythm” guitar to “cry and sing.”

And, as always, please feel free to write in 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 Forum page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until our next lesson…