Angels We Have Heard On High
It never hurts to review things. That’s a bit of an understatement, no? And, strange as it may sound, one of the best ways to review things is to try them out on something new.
No, I’m not trying to pull you leg here. Way too often, and for some reason it seem especially more true nowadays than when I was learning guitar way back in the primordial ooze, people learn a song without realizing that the techniques they’ve picked up in learning this one piece can easily be applied to many, many other tunes. Good musicians are constantly expanding on what they’ve learned, using those skills as the groundwork on which to build new ones.
Since we’ve covered a lot of ground in both bass lines and Travis-style finger picking in the past two years here at Guitar Noise, it makes a lot of sense to try to incorporate these ideas and techniques in our exploration of chord melody arrangements of holiday songs, no? So let’s get to it!
These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
Today we’ll work up an arrangement of Angels We Have Heard on High, a traditional French carol. And since we’re basically concerned about playing a chord melody version, how about we start out with the melody and chords?
The verse of our carol is laid out in the first two lines, which are repeated. To make matters very simple, all of our melody notes are either on the open high E (first) string, or on the first or third fret of the high E (first) and B strings.
As far as the chords go, it also helps to see that we only use C or G for this section, even though we’ll be changing that in just a moment! Why? Well, the purpose of this lesson is to work on bass lines, and what better place to start? Let’s take the first two measures of the melody and add a very simple moving bass line:
Since we’re going from a C chord in the first measure to a G chord in the second, we can use the standard descending bass line, going from our first root, C, to G. Well, we could except that if we use one note per beat, we’d end up on G at the end of the first measure. That certainly doesn’t sound bad, but instead we’re going to stop at A (the open A string) on the third beat and hold that note over the fourth beat. Part of the reason this will work is because Am is the relative minor of C major. The two chords are very similar: C being made of the notes C, E and G while Am is made of the notes A, C and E. Since there will be a G note in the melody on the fourth beat, we’re technically creating an Am7 chord (notes are A, C, E and G), which contains all the notes of the C chord we started with.
And speaking of chords, it’s time to fill the spaces between our melody and our bass line with those chords. Keeping with the spirit of giving, I’m going to offer you some choices:
First thing I’d like to mention is that no matter how you usually finger your G chord, you’ll probably have a lot easier time of the second measure if you go with your ring finger on the low E (sixth) string, your middle finger on the A string and your pinky on the high E (first) string. This frees up your index finger to get the F note in the melody (first fret of the first string) while still hanging on to the G chord in the accompaniment. This fingering will help you with all three versions of Example 3.
That being said, Example 3A is almost standard chord melody, with the melody note lying atop the accompanying chord. The notation and tablature are arranged for finger style guitar. The optimal technique would be to play the bass notes (the ones with the down-turned stems) with your thumb and either plucking the melody and accompanying partial chords with your fingers or playing them by sweeping a finger or two in an upward movement. At this point in the arrangement, you could also certainly play full chords here, as opposed to the partial chords I’ve written out. Just be very careful of letting the melody note ring out when you strum.
But I earlier mentioned that I’d like to also do a bit of review of Travis finger picking. So Example 3B gives us an arrangement of this carol in this style. Essentially it’s all pinches of the melody and bass notes on the beat, with a strike of the open G string on the off-beat. Again, I can’t stress enough that using the fingering we discussed just a moment ago for the G chord will help you to make the stretch to the first fret of the high E (first) string when the melody calls for it.
Of course, some of you might ask, “Why can’t I do both chords and picking?” No reason that I can think of! That’s why there’s an Example 3C. In the final MP3 example of this lesson, you may even hear me reverse the two, playing some Travis style picking in the first measure and chunks of chord melody in the second. What’s life without a little variety, eh?
Since this workman’s approach has served up well for the first two measures (and remember that these two measures will be both the first and the third lines of the verse), it makes sense to do the same for the next two measures, which will be played for both the second and fourth lines of the verse:
You might notice something interesting here. In Example 4A, I went with the same descending bass line I used in Example 2, going from C to B to A in the first measure. But somewhere in playing around with filling in the chords, I decided why not change back to the original C chord, if for no other reason than to be different the second time through the changes of the verse? So you’ll see that the bass note on the third beat of the first measure in Examples 4B, 4C and 4D is C (third fret of the A string) and not the open A string. This is purely a choice of my own. You can still use the note of the open A string if you like.
Also, the fingering we discussed twice already for the G chord that starts the second measure becomes moot here, since the first melody note of this measure is the open high E (first) string.
Okay, we’ve gotten through the verse. Now comes the fun part – all those Glor-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-or-orias! It is going to be a bit of a challenge, but I think you’re up to it. Here in the chorus, we’re going to go for some separation and interplay between the melody and bass lines, much as what happens when this carol is sung by a choir. It basically boils down to one part moving while the other stays still:
I deliberately left out the chords in Example 5, but you may actually find it easier to play this part by keeping the chords intact and then strumming them as they occur in Example 5A.
Remember that we’re going to be starting out the chorus on a C chord, so start out by fingering a typical open position C chord (ring finger on the third fret of the A string, middle finger on the second fret of the D and index finger on the first fret of the B string) and add your pinky to the third fret of the high E (first) string in order to play the G note of the melody.
The bass line of C to D back to C and then to B won’t be all that difficult if you maintain the C chord, or at least the idea of it, in your head. The tricky part comes when we want to change to an A chord at the third beat. It’s even trickier because the melody note is the A located at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string. But fortunately you can deal with this by playing what I call a “classical style” A chord, which involves barring the first four strings at the second fret when playing the aforementioned A note with your pinky. This will allow you to get the G note (third fret of high E (first) string) with either your ring or middle finger, whichever feels more comfortable to you.
We could leave it at that, but going from the bass note of the open A string to C# (fourth fret of the A string) sounds too nice to pass up. But we luck out again as the melody note is F and we can easily find that note at the sixth fret of the B string. So, using our index finger on the A string and either the ring finger or pinky on the B string makes this work out very easily. The E note that finishes this measure can then be played either at the fifth fret of the B string (using either your middle or ring finger) or by simply plucking the open high E (first) string.
The second measure begins with a D minor chord, which will eventually take us to a G chord. I liked the shape of the first bass phrase, so it certainly bears repeating. This will actually give us a G/B at the third beat. “G/B,” as you probably recognize as a “slash chord” from many of our lessons here at Guitar Noise (such as Eleanor Rigby), is just a fancy way of saying play a G chord with the B note (second fret of the A string) in the bass instead of the regular G, which we use at the fourth beat of the measure anyway.
In the third measure we start out with our C chord again, but this time we run the bass notes straight down from C to F (first fret of the low E (sixth) string). You could do a full barre chord of F here, but it sounds perfectly fine if you just get the F notes on both E strings at once. There are all sorts of ways to finger this. But I’d like to recommend you try using your middle finger on the low E (sixth) string as you can then slide it up to the second fret at the fourth beat (using your ring finger and index fingers, respectively for the D and C notes on the B string) and also use it for the G note at the third fret that begins the fourth measure.
I cannot stress enough that these past four measures are tricky and will require patience on your part. Work slowly and always keep the chord shapes in your head and fingers. Those shapes will help you get your fingers where you want them to be (and when, too).
A little concentrated effort and persistence on your part is all that is required. Don’t be afraid to just work on these four measures all by themselves for an hour! You’ll be rewarded for your efforts!
Compared to what you’ve just done, the rest of Angels is going to be a piece of cake, so it’s going to be up to us to make it more or less interesting. I took the liberty of giving you four options of bass lines for the next two measures. Oh, and ignore the fact that I call “Example 6” by the name of “Example 7” in the MP3, will you?
Of these four, I’m probably most taken with the fourth version, especially since it uses the low F again and does a little teensy bit of Travis finger style in the last measure. Let’s fill these out to demonstrate both the middle of the chorus (measures five and six) and the final two measures as well:
All right, then! Here’s the whole enchilada! And, as always, please pardon the (many) mistakes!
As I mentioned, this piece is going to pose some challenges. But it is not beyond your capabilities. Far from it! Remember that the chord shapes are your friends in that they will give your fingers an anchor as well as direction. Practice, persistence and patience are your allies.
I hope that you enjoyed this lesson and that you get the chance to play this lovely carol over the holiday season. As always, please feel free to email me ([email protected]) with any questions you might have. You can also reach me at the Guitar Noise Forum pages, either on a thread or by dropping me a PM.
Until our next lesson…