What Child Is This – Greensleeves

Loreena McKennitt

Lest you think that only Weird Al Yankovich makes a living from taking someone else’s melody and writing new lyrics to it, let me offer you more examples from history: Love Me Tender, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, The Star Spangled Banner, and today’s lesson, What Child Is This, which comes to us by way of an old English folk song called Greensleeves.

Today’s lesson deals primarily with the use of chord arpeggios, as opposed to chord melody, I guess. Perhaps a better thing to say is that we’ll be looking at the use of spacing in an arrangement.

First things first though, and that means we should take a quick look at our melody and the accompanying chords. Virtually every copy of this song I’ve seen, whether in the dozens of versions I’ve here in my own books or in books I’ve leafed through at the music stores or the TABs I’ve seen place Greensleeves (and I think, for the sake of this lesson anyway, that I’ll call it Greensleeves if for no other reason than it’s simpler than writing out What Child Is This each time I want to mention it!) in the key of E minor. So I’m going to do the same, at least to start:

Example 1 - line 1
Example 1 - line 2
Example 1 - line 3
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Example 1 - line 5
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Example 1 - line 7
Example 1 - line 8

Now E minor tends to make the melody go a little lower than I’d like. It goes all the way down to the B note on the A string! So let’s say we try the song in A minor instead.

Example 2 - line 1
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That’s a bit better. If you’d like to play this in E minor, then put your trusty capo up on the seventh fret and continue on in the lesson. At the end of the lesson I’ll even play it with a capo as well as without, just so you can hear how pretty it sounds.

And before we go any further, let’s talk about one note in the melody in particular, the F# that is the fifth note in the melody. I have been searching through more than a dozen versions of Greensleeves and there seems to be no consensus among the folks who arrange this song. Some use the F#. Others use F natural. Both work fine, as you can see and hear:

Example 3 - line 1
Example 2 - line 2

I’ve included the accompanying chord along with the melody so you can hear the interesting change of tone that each note brings. I’ve been playing around with this for the better part of two months now and I still can’t make up my mind on which note I prefer. So I’m leaving it up to you. “Dealer’s choice,” we’ll call it. I’m going to stick with the F# here because I like the switch between it and the F chord that comes later on in the song. But whichever note you decide upon playing, it’s a good idea to use it consistently, at least throughout a verse. Now there’s an idea! Use the F# in one verse and the F in the next…

And since we’ve started to talk about how we’re going to plan our arrangement, now would be an excellent time to look at the melody of the piece. You might be saying, “We did that already! We know what the notes are, in two different keys!” But what I’m talking about is the sound or shape or even space of the melody. Greensleeves is very interesting in that, except for the pick-up note that starts us off, each measure starts out with a note of at least a beat and a half’s duration. This gives us a lot of options as far as accompaniment is concerned. Let’s try out a few, using the first two lines as our example:

Example 4 - Version 1
Example 4 - Version 1 continued
Example 4 - Version 2
Example 4 - Version 2 continued
Example 4 - Version 3
Example 4 - Version 3 continued

Each of these sounds pretty good, so it’s kind of hard to make a decision. In Version One we use the time-honored tradition of playing our chord on the first beat and letting it ring through the rest of the measure. If I was going to play this song at a relatively fast pace, I would seriously consider this to be the best choice of accompaniment. Version Two is a straightforward waltz arrangement with the root note on the first beat and the rest of the chord on beats two and three. I find this a little too busy for my taste as I found the first one a little static. So busy, in fact, you can hear I had a hard time with it!

Version Three strikes me as being a perfect balance. Doing a three-note arpeggio of the chord on the first beat and a half of each measure works very well with the melody line. It’s almost a “call and response” sort of approach. This is what I decide to work with for the rest of the arrangement.

And having decided that, I can plan out pretty much the whole song. But before I TAB it out for you, it might be a good idea to look at the basic accompaniment and get this set in our heads and fingers:

Example 5

As you can see, we’re going to pick a three-note arpeggio of each chord, starting with the root note and then using whatever notes are on the next two strings. I recommend using your thumb to play these arpeggios while your fingers strike the notes of the melody. Practicing these measures (and you should play each measure twice in a row in order to get the flow of the first two lines of the song) will help you to get the rhythm down so that adding the melody will be a snap.

Speaking of the melody, why don’t I give you our full arrangement of Greensleeves now and then we’ll take a look at the possible trouble spots. Sounds like a plan!

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Example 6 - line 7
Example 6 - line 8

It occurs to me that this arrangement is yet another example of how keeping the chord shapes in place will hold the song together for you. We start out by getting our A minor chord in place. Our finger plays the pick-up note A (second fret of the G string) and then strikes the C note (first fret of the B string) of the melody. When our finger hits the C, our thumb simultaneously sounds the open A string and then strikes the D string (where we’re fingering the E note on the second fret) and the G string (where we’re fingering the A note on the second fret) to complete our accompaniment arpeggio.

We then use our pinky, much as we did in The Little Drummer Boy, to get the D note (third fret of the B string) of the melody for us. I bet you didn’t know that I was preparing you for this back in that song lesson! We’ll also use our pinky to get the F# in the melody (second fret on the high E (first) string) in the next measure. If you are opting to play the F natural note in the melody, then you’ll want to use your index finger, moving it from the C (first fret of the B string) to the F (first fret of the high E (first) string) to play it.

If you look carefully at Greensleeves, you’ll notice that each time we are using the G chord as our accompaniment, the two measures of melody are exactly the same! So once you get measures three and four hardwired into your system, you’ve gotten down a quarter of the song! Because we want to have the D note (third fret of the B string) to start our melody in these measures, it’s smart to use a “G6” fingering and ignore playing the first (high E) string altogether.

How you’d play measures three and four depends a lot on how you make your G (or G6) chord. I usually finger it with my middle finger on the third fret of the low E (sixth) string, my index finger on the second fret of the A string and my ring finger on the third fret of the B string, which is where the D note of the melody is. Once I play the D note in the melody, along with the accompanying arpeggio, I remove my ring finger to get the B note of the open B string. In measure four, after doing the arpeggio, I’ll get the A note (second fret of the G string) by moving my index in order to play it.

If you normally fret a G (or G 6) with your ring middle finger on the third fret of the low E (sixth) string, your middle finger on the second fret of the A string and your pinky on the third fret of the B string, the only difference you’ll have is to remove that pinky from the D note to get the open B string. You should still use your index finger to fret the A note on the second fret of the G string, but since that finger is free anyway, you won’t have a problem.

Which brings us to measures five and six, the first two measures of F. If you can play the F barre chord, you will have little, if any, trouble doing this. In fact, you get an added bonus because the index finger, while barring the first fret, is covering the G# note you’ll need for measure six. Just lift off your middle finger, which is playing the A note at the second fret of the G string and voila! There’s your G#.

But for a lot of folks, that barre F might cause you some problems. If this is the case with you, let me recommend two ways around it:

Example 7

Both of these alternate versions employ fingerings of the F chord that are much easier than barring the first fret. Because we don’t have a melody note on the high E (first) string, we don’t have to worry about covering it at all, which allows us to use these simpler fingerings. The trick, though, is to be ready with your index finger. As soon as you play the A note on the third beat of measure five, you’re done with playing any notes on the B string. So why not use that opportunity to move your index finger from the C (first fret of the B string) down to the G# (first fret of the G string) so you’ll be able to play the melody smoothly? Planning ahead like this certainly can’t hurt!

Some people might find the change from arpeggios to a straight chord a little too abrupt for their tastes. The best way around that is to play a slow, deliberate strum of the chord. Instead of sounding out of place, it actually sounds like a bit of a breathing space, which gives the song a little bit of variety. You’ll hear me play this phrase with both the barre F arpeggios and the “slow strum” chord in the last MP3 of our lesson and you should hear that any of these versions sounds fine.

In measure eight, where we are playing the E chord, I have to cut the arpeggio short since the E note (second fret of the D string), which would normally be the last note of the arpeggio, is the melody note. But this is also the end of the melodic phrase, so taking a little pause here adds to the mood of the song.

Believe it or not, we’ve covered almost all the aspects of playing Greensleeves. Most of the rest of the song involves slight variations on what we’ve done to this point. Measures nine through twelve are note-for-note copies of measures one through four. At measure thirteen we encounter our first slight change:

Example 8

Measure thirteen is another place where you can use the “alternate fingerings” of the F chord we discussed in Example #7. In fact, they might prove easier than the full barre chord because so little is involved to go from the C note of the melody to the B note (the open B string) that follows it. If you do a full barre, keeping the F note in the bass (first fret of the low E (sixth) string) going might pose a slight challenge. It’s simply a matter of raising one side of the index finger a bit while keeping the tip of it on the F note instead of lifting the whole finger off. With (relatively) little practice you will find this comes fairly easily.

The hardest past of the song comes in measure fourteen. This is because of the melody’s movement from G# (first fret of the G string) to F# (fourth fret of the D string) and back.

Here I’ve decided to use two thirds of the E arpeggio, just as I did in measure eight, in order to create a little more space between the melody and the accompanying arpeggio. You could play our full three-note arpeggio here, but I find that going directly from the final E (second fret of the D string) of the chord arpeggio to the F# note of the melody seems a little cramped. You should try it yourself and if you find you like it then you certainly should play it that way.

Giving a little break here with the arpeggio also helps to be ready for the stretch our pinky will need to reach that F# note on the fourth fret. For many of you, I don’t expect that you’ll have any problems with it. Most of you, I suspect, can finger the note and that’s really the secret of playing it. Once you’ve played the F# note, get your pinky out of there! Trying to keep it on when you go back to playing the G# is what causes most folks to get dead sounding strings. Besides, you’re going to need that pinky in the next measure!

Speaking of which, measures fifteen and sixteen present us with a very interesting problem. Here the melody consists of two notes, each held for three beats apiece. That’s a lot of time to fill. What I have come up with in this arrangement is a compromise. In measure fifteen we play an A minor arpeggio, but one we’ve not used before. Since the A note (second fret of the G string) is the melody and we want to start our arpeggio on the open A (fifth) string, we don’t have the luxury of using the three-stringed arpeggio that we’ve been playing through Greensleeves thus far. But while we can’t use three strings, that doesn’t mean we can’t use three notes! What we’re going to do is to strike the open A string and then, using the (surprise!) pinky, finger the C note on the third fret of the same string to get the second note of our arpeggio. Once we’ve played that, we get the pinky out of the way again so that we can cleanly play the E note at the second fret of the D string. And because we’ve done all that exhausting work, we’ll simply play our two A notes again for measure sixteen.

We’re almost home now. The “chorus” section of Greensleeves (where the lyrics of the Christmas carol go, “…this, this is Christ the King…”) starts out with two measures of C, which replace the two measures of A minor in the first part of the song. This is the only musical difference between the first sixteen measures of the song and the last sixteen. Because the melody, in the first measure of C, lasts all three beats, we’re going to play a six-note arpeggio to fill up the whole measure and then revert back to our three-note arpeggio in the next measure. It will be like this:

Example 9

Our pinky gets some more work here, fingering the G note on the third fret of the high E (first) string. The accompanying arpeggio is just down and up the other strings, as you can see. Sometimes simplicity can be the best solution. In the following measure, there are many ways to get the F# note. I tend to use my ring finger since this allows me to hang on to the E note in the accompaniment. As always, though, you should use whichever finger you feel most comfortable with.

And, as I’ve mentioned, this is essentially all there is to the song. I’d like to point out two things that I like to do. One of them is in the notation and TAB of Example #6. When we get to the E chord in the middle of the “chorus” section (measure twenty-four), I play what basically amounts to a “double-stop” arpeggio of an E major chord, like this:

Example 10

With my E chord in place on the neck, I pick the strings in pairs – first the low E (sixth) and the D, then the A and the G and finally the D and the B. This is purely for a bit of dramatic flair. It gives the chorus a little push towards the final two phrases.

And in the very last measure, that is the very last measure, when I am ending the song and not just going on to do another verse, I like to make certain that everyone else knows that I’m done as well. So, I do my best to make it as obvious as possible:

Example 11

Instead of finishing up with my two A notes (the open A string and the A note at the second fret of the G string), I make a complete A minor chord by barring the first three strings at the fifth fret and playing these along with the open A string. Let me play the whole song through once and then repeat the “chorus” section so that you can get a feel for it. As promised earlier, I’ll do this with my capo on the seventh fret in order to play the song in E minor.

I think that this covers everything. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lesson and this look into arpeggios and spacing. Next time out, we’ll try to come up with an arrangement of one more Christmas carol that uses most, if not all, of the concepts we’ve been discussing these past weeks.

Until next lesson…