Happy Christmas (War Is Over) – John Lennon

John Lennon

In addition to being topical (both in terms of the season as well as in regard to the “topic of the month), John Lennon’s Happy Christmas is a good way to follow up on some of the lessons we learned last time out. As you recall, we used Riders On The Storm to examine the use of chordal riffs in place of a single chord. Today we will do more of the same, plus we will tackle that old “so what do I strum?” bugaboo and then throw in some simple basslines just in order to have too much to learn at once.

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

The Basics

Simply for the sake of driving you all crazy, let me say that there are lots of ways to play this. I’ve chosen the key of A major because I think it will be easier than the other keys for most of you and still pose some challenging moments.

Takedown Notice

Throughout the second and third verse, and then again at the very end of the song, you will hear a second melody line being sung. This is called a descant part, in case you are interested. This is a musical device often used by songwriters to make a song interesting. The second melody is often from another part of the same song (the verse sung at the same time as the chorus, for example), but it can also be a totally unrelated melody made up for the occasion or even a melody from another song. Here the descant follows along with the chord progressions of the first four lines. For the outro, though, it only plays through the first two:

You’re going to want to keep this descant melody in mind, because we’ll be incorporating it (or a harmony of it) into our strumming pattern, as you will soon see.

Happy Christmas is played in 3/4 time – there are three beats to each measure instead of the usual four beats in most of the songs we hear. Some people find this time signature a little tricky to strum, so let’s take a moment to go over it.

I love playing waltzes. They provide a great opportunity to work not only on your general strumming, but on basslines as well. The easiest way to play one is hit just the root note of the chord on the first beat and then follow up with the full chord on the second and third beat, like this:

The strumming of Happy Christmas is not far different from this. For the verses, let’s play a sweeping downstroke on the full chord on first beat of the measure and then follow it up with two sets of down-and-up strokes (eighth notes) for the second and third beats:

Strumming pattern for Happy Christmas

You’ll want to practice this on each of the chords in turn. Except for the last line in the chorus, each chord is played for four measures of three beats. The final line of Em, G, D and E are all two measures each. Believe it or not, you can now go ahead and play the song. Check it out. When you’re ready to do a few more interesting things with the strumming, come on back here and we’ll move on…

The Ornamentation

To give the song a little life, we’re going to come up with a chord progression that allows up to mimic the descant part as we play. For the most part, this will involve using chords such as suspended fourths and seconds as well as the occasional major seventh. Let’s look at the melody line of the descant part during the first four lines of any given verse. We’ll also look at a harmony line of thirds:

You can see that during the first two chords the melody is root, major seventh, second and root. What I want to do is to “decorate” my chords with these notes. In essence I am creating new chords but they are all based on my “core” chord of A, Em, D, etc. And while I am finding a chord pattern that flows smoothly with the melody line, I also want one that is not too hard to play. Sometimes I need to grab the note from the harmony line instead and graft that onto the core chord. Sometimes I may use a different third and sometimes a combination is in order. For the A chord, I’ve decided to go with the following pattern. Note that my first strum is not a complete one – I deliberately miss the high E string so that I can emphasize the C# note (second fret on the B string):

Here I am using the notes a third up from the descant melody. I could just as easily use the melody itself, but, to me, it doesn’t ring out as clearly in the range where I would have to play it, namely on the G string. More often that not, it’s the notes on the first two strings of the guitar which attract all the attention.

The B minor progression is the one I have the most difficulty with. Neither the melody nor harmony is particularly easy to finger from a first position Bm chord. I decide to keep the open A in the bass for simplicity’s sake; a B would be nicer but this certainly will do. When I play the whole pattern, I have to take care not to hit the high E string until I want the E note in the third measure:

When we get to the E chord, there are many ways to go about it. Since I’d been doing the descant’s harmony line so far, I decided to keep doing it and I think it led to a nice and simple progression:

When the song modulates to D in the third line, everything becomes much nicer. I can follow the melody line straight through this section and the only tricky spot is nailing the D# on the fourth fret of the B string during the second measure of Em. Please note that since the melody line is all on the first two strings, I opt to do all of my second and third beat strumming on the middle/lower strings of the guitar. Again, this brings out the part I want to stress without muddling things up.

Did I mention I love waltzes? When we get to the chorus section, I go back to using a more “traditional” strum – the bass note on the first beat followed by eighth notes of full chords to complete the measure. I’ve also switched the key signature (for the time being) to D major, since the song is now in D (if you’re interested in this check out the guitar column Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes). To make things more interesting, I alternate the bass note in each of the first three measures (using a hammer-on for the first beat of the second measure) and then in the fourth measure I throw in what’s called a “walking” bassline:

Walking basslines are a lot of fun and very easy to do in 3/4 time. Starting with my chord’s root (G) on the first beat, I hit the A note (open A string) on the second beat and then the B (second fret on the A string) on the third. This allows me to nail the A again on the first beat of the next measure and resume my waltz strumming:

At the end of this section I do a descending bassline from A to F#, fully aware that E is going to be my next root. Another thing I really like about playing the bass notes on this song is that the vocals here are also straight quarter notes so it makes things very dynamic with everyone on the same page rhythm-wise.

For the final section, I have to stagger the bassline a little bit because of the Em to G change in the second measure. I do this by playing a full chord on the first beat and then switching to the single bass notes. When I finally reach the D again (and note the key signature changes once more) I finish with a bassline that is actually an arpeggiated D major chord, which leads me to an E major chord which signals a return to the original key of A:

I want to point out that I will often play the second fret of the low E (sixth) string by grabbing it with the tip of my thumb, especially when playing in a D chord as we do here.

Okay, we have all the pieces. Shall we put it all together? Here’s the first verse all written out for you:

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this song and that you put it in your repertoire. And since The Joy Of Guitar is our topic du jour, I’d like to thank all of you who have taken the time to share with me the joys you have been getting from learning the guitar. I hope that you, too, are sharing with others and getting the joy of both playing and teaching.

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 Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson, and hopefully always…


Where Did The Guitar Tab Go?
On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.