Away in a Manger

Coming up with single guitar chord melody arrangements (or close to chord melody, I suppose you could call it, too, since sometimes you don’t play full chords) can be a lot of fun, if for no other reason than sometimes you end up with something totally different than what you first set out to do.

Case in point – this lesson on the old Christmas carol Away in a Manger started out as a very simple lesson on melody movement, but, well, you’ll see!

Away in a Manger is a beguiling, simple yet beautiful melody built on a descending major scale line, but starting on the fifth note of the scale. In the key of G, it would be like this:

Example 1

When I was working this out, I was indeed playing in G. This led me to thinking, what if I raised the melody up an octave so that I could play it mostly (almost entirely, in fact) on the high E (first) string and then use the open B, G and D strings as a drone, kind of making the guitar more into a dulcimer. That turned out like this:

Example 2

I liked this a lot, especially since it opened up some many possibilities for concentrating on the single notes of the melody. One could, for instance, use a single finger and slide from note to note. Or you could place your index finger on the B note at the seventh fret of the high E (first) string and set up the C note (eighth fret) with the middle finger and the opening D at the tenth fret with the pinky and then using pull-offs to sound the first three notes of the melody. Being able to focus on the tone of each note of the melody, how playing it even with different fingers creates a different tone, can keep me occupied for hours!

As much as I enjoyed being able to play around with the melody, I found myself missing having a low G note in the bass. But the thought of trying to have one finger on the G note at third fret of the low E (sixth) string while simultaneously playing the D note at the tenth fret of the high E (first) string, well, let’s just say that I didn’t think it being a good idea and leave it at that.

But there are all sorts of ways of getting around these kinds of challenges if you have an open mind. Since I wanted to have a low G note for my bass, why not tune my low E up to G just for this song and give myself nothing but open strings for my bass accompaniment, like this:

Example 3

Now, you might wonder why I didn’t tune my A string down to G instead, and you certainly can do that. But I was worried about the fact that, Away in a Manger being in the key of G, the song would primarily contain G, C and D chords and tuning the A down to G would make the C chord problematic, whereas changing the low E string wouldn’t change the C chord at all.

Away in a Manger, like many songs, has four lines and the melody line of the first and third lines are the same. Let’s tackle that first line with our newly tuned guitars:

Example 4

You’ll notice that I changed the accompaniment in the third measure, using the C note at the third fret of the A string as the first bass note but not changing the other two notes. Technically, this creates a Cadd9 chord instead of a regular C, but I liked the way it sounded, slightly dissonant but in an interesting way. After trying out using regular C and this one, I ended up liking the open D string much more.

Although I didn’t realize it at time, keeping the A string tuned to A made the first full measure of the second line much easier to deal with:

Example 5

This is simply a C7 chord (x32310) slid up two frets, creating a D9 chord (x54530) and the use of the F# (fourth fret of the D string) and C (fifth fret of the G string), mixing with the ringing tones of the D (third fret of the B string) and E (open high E (sixth) string) in the melody, makes this sound much more interesting than if I’d used a regular D with just the open high E string (xx0230).

The “regular” open position D chord does have its place, though, as it’s the perfect choice for the second measure. Some people might find this measure easier to play by making a partial barre at the second fret, covering the three high strings with the index finger. Doing so should allow you to play the initial D note (third fret of the B string) of the melody with the middle finger and the A note (fifth fret of the high E (first) string) with the pinky.

Using a partial barre also puts you in a position to simply stand up your index finger onto the second fret of the D string for the Cadd9 chord (x32030) in the following measure. The middle finger would get the C note in the bass (third fret of the A string) and the ring finger would play the D note at the third fret of the B string. You would then slide that finger up to the eighth fret to get the G note of the melody and hang onto it so that it could ring out while you play the B note (seventh fret of the high E) to end this phrase.

Since the melody of the third line is an exact copy of the first line, I thought it might be nice to do something different this time around. Adding a bit of additional harmony is always nice:

Example 6

These are basic double stops, and shouldn’t give you too much trouble provided you remember to keep the G note of the melody (eighth fret of the B string) the same while changing the harmony note from F (tenth fret of the G string) to E (ninth fret of the G string). And you don’t have to release the B note (fourth fret of the G string) in favor of the open G string if you prefer not to. This was something I thought was nice.

The final line has a few slightly complicated challenges to it involving a few partial barres:

Example 7

Begin the first measure here with your index finger barring the first four strings at the fifth fret. This, along with the open A string in the bass, gives you an Am7 chord for your harmony. Your pinky should be able to reach the C note of the melody (eighth fret of the high E) without difficulty and you can use either your ring finger or your middle finger to get the B note (seventh fret) that follows.

You remove the barre in the second measure but replace it, this time using your middle finger to barre, in the third measure. That frees your index finger for the F# note at the fourth fret of the D string. This chord, x04555, is D9/A by the way. Use your ring finger or pinky to get the F# note at the seventh fret of the B string and then slide that finger up a single fret to play the final G of the melody line.

Okay, let’s put this all together, shall we?

Away In A Manger line 1
Away In A Manger line 2
Away In A Manger line 3
Away In A Manger line 4
Away In A Manger line 5

I hope you’ve enjoyed working out this Christmas carol with me. Even though it’s fairly simple, I think we’ve managed to come up with an arrangement with some flair of its own.

As always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s Guitar Noise Lessons page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until our next lesson…