Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

Sometimes the easiest way to learn something is to use the simplest means possible to you. That, pardon the pun, does indeed sound easy.

Take the whole concept of chord melody. You get a melody you know (hence the “melody” part) and then, basically, add the proper chords (the “chord” part) with it and there you go. And while it may not always be that straightforward, there’s certainly no reason that it can’t be on occasion.

And perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in some of the songs we’ve known since we were able to speak. We’ve already demonstrated this in fact with some of our earlier lessons, such as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. And when we get into this time of year, the realm of Christmas songs, whether religious ones such as Silent Night or sacrilegious one such as, well I’ll leave it up to you to pick one, the truth is that most Christmas music lends itself very nicely to the practice of chord melody.

So let’s kick off the season with a very easy piece with which to develop our skills. I’m picking Jolly Old Saint Nicholas to lead the way because it is definitely a perfect example of how easy playing a chord melody piece can be.

For those of you who might not be familiar with this particular song, allow me to give you the melody, which I’ve taken the liberty of writing out in the key of C major:

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

Those of you with eagle eyes (or ears) will notice two things right off the bat. For starters, the third line of this song is exactly the same as the first one. And then the fourth line, with the exception of the very last note, is the same as the second one.

If this melody is new to you, then please take the time to play it enough so that you feel comfortable and (relatively) confident with it. Whenever possible, you should approach a chord melody project in this way. The better you feel you know the melody the better your sense of the “rightness” of the chords will be. By this I mean that you will develop an ear for which melody notes are part of the actual chord and which are merely passing tones. If you recall our lesson on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star , you probably remember that all the melody notes were part of the accompanying chords. That certainly isn’t always the case. Will it be so here with Jolly Old Saint Nicholas ? We’ll have to see about that…

Something that I hope you’ll see immediately is why I chose the key of C Major for this song. Let’s take a look at the chords we’ll be using, at least at first:

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

If all these chords are familiar to you (and please do not worry if you can’t play an F yet – trust me on this one), then let’s press on. Play a standard C major chord and listen to and/or look at the note that you strike last in that chord. Guess what? It’s the same E note that starts off our melody line. How’s that for planning?

Now you’ve got a few choices here in terms of interpretation. You can play the whole C chord four times, like this:

Example 3

Or you can strum the entire C chord on the first beat, letting it ring out while adding the three additional single E notes to complete the measure, like this:

Example 4

Personally, I prefer the second approach and I plan to use it throughout this particular lesson. You should feel free to do otherwise. You can also do any of the variations that may pop into your mind, such as playing the whole chord on the first and third beats and the single E note on the second and fourth beat, or one of many other possibilities. All I ask at this stage is that you try to be consistent in regard to your rhythm, if for no other reason than to give yourself one less thin to worry about right now.

Our first measure taken care of, let’s look at the second one. We’ve got G as our chord and D, which is indeed a part of the G chord, as our melody note. Playing this is certainly within our abilities. It requires that we finger the G chord in such a way as to have the D note (the third fret of the D string) covered and it also requires that when we strum this chord, that we only strum down as far as that note. In other words, we don’t want to hit the high E (first) string when we strum. I like to use G6 here, since that leaves the high E (first) string open and makes me concentrate on not hitting it! Also, you’ll see that the G6 chord will serve us well at the very end of this song.

Likewise, when we play the A minor chord in measure three, we should strum only as far down as the B string, where we’re fingering the C note on the first fret. We can strum the high E (first) string again when we play the C chord of the fourth measure.

So our first line should be played something like this:

Example 5

And I’d like to take a moment here to wander over to “Theoryland,” and you’ll be correct in guessing that it won’t be our only excursion this lesson! Since measure five starts out with F major, I find that I like to use C7 instead of C in measure four. If you’ve never played C7, then it’s high time you did. Start with your normal C chord. If you’re like most people, your index finger will be on the first fret of the B string, your middle finger on the second fret of the D string and your ring finger on the third fret of the A string. Now simply add your pinky to the third fret of the G string. This gives you the Bb note, which, when added to C major (C, E and G), creates the C7 chord. Using the seventh chord of the root (in this case, C major) to change to the fourth (F in this case) is very pleasing to the ear.

I’ve actually a far more interesting reason for choosing this. Ahead in measure five I see that dreaded F chord and I’d truly like to avoid playing it. And I’m sure that most beginners feel the same way. But let’s first notice that we’re only going to play as far as the A note at the second fret of the G string. That means we won’t be playing the B or E (first) strings. Now we also already know that our F chord consists of the F, A and C notes. When we’re playing our C7 chord, we’ve already got the C note covered with our ring finger on the third fret of the A string. To change to the F chord, all we have to do is to move our pinky from the third fret of the G string (Bb) to the third fret of the D string (F) while shifting the middle finger from the second fret of the D string (E) to the second fret of the G string (A). Let me chart it out for you:

Example 6

I know that some of you might be tempted to use a “beginner’s F” – you know, the one with the open A string in the bass – but I highly encourage you to give this voicing a try. I think you’ll find it sounds fuller and, as you’ve seen, it’s not at all hard to do.

And you’ll also find that going back to the C chord for measure six is also a snap. Here our biggest concern will be making sure we strum the correct notes in our melody. So we’ll want to go only as far as the open G string for the first note. Since this is one of the few places where we change strings, I like to strum the whole C chord, down to the C note at the second fret of the B string, when we hit the third beat of this measure. It’d read like this:

Example 7

In measure seven we run into what might look like a bit of a snag in terms of putting a chord melody together smoothly. We want to play D but the melody line is D, C, D and then E. This is where a little imagination, a modicum of guitar knowledge and a touch of theory will help out a lot. Since we know that this D is going to resolve to G in the very next measure, we can opt to use D7 instead of D. This means that our D7 chord will contain two of the three melody notes, namely D and C. But I’d like to go a little further. After all, I’ve read an article on this site called Building Additions (and Suspensions), so I know that any ninth chord contains the root, seventh and ninth. D9, then, will be made up of D (the root), F# (the third), A (the fifth), C (the seventh) and E (the ninth). Those are all the notes in this section of melody!

So what I need to find here is a voicing of D9 that allows me to use all three notes with (hopefully) relative ease. And in this case, the guitar is ready to oblige. Remember our C7 chord that we used only a few measures ago? Well, what if we slide that whole chord up two frets on the neck of the guitar? The high E (first) string will be open, giving us the E note. Then our index finger will be on the third fret of the B string. There’s our D note. Our pinky should be on the fifth fret of the G string and by golly if that isn’t the C note we need! How about that? Our middle finger has moved to the fourth fret of the D string, giving us F# and the ring finger now rests on the D note at the fifth fret of the A string.

Having solved how to get the notes we want, all we need do now is be fairly careful with our strumming. Let’s take a look:

Example 8

At the end of measure six we should be playing a C chord. Let’s slide that up two frets and add our pinky to the fifth fret of the G string. Now, on the first beat of measure seven, we’ll strum our D9 chord from the A string down to the B string. This gives us the melody note of D along with the D9 chord (it’s the point of that whole “chord melody” thing, remember?). Then we’ll pick the G string to get the C note, then pick the B string again for the D and finally we’ll play the open high E (first) string for the E note. After doing this, we set up the same G chord we used in measure two and we’re done with the second line. Shall we look and listen?

Example 9a

We’re almost home now! Line three is the same as line one, so there’s no need to worry about it. And in line four, the only difference from line two is the last two measures. Here we simply want to condense things a little. When we reach measure fifteen, we want to play our D9 for the first two notes and then switch off to our G (really G6) chord voicing to get the last two, like this:

Example 9b

And then we end with a big confident C chord, ending on the C note at the first fret of the B string to wrap it all up. Shall we try to put the whole thing together?

Example 10 line 1
Example 10 line 2
Example 10 line 3
Example 10 line 4

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little exercise in chord melody arrangement. And please don’t fall into thinking that just because this is an easy song that there’s no lessons to be learned from it. As I said in my very first column, “Everything begins somewhere…” and why not start out with something that you can make sound like something accomplished?

This is something we’ve discussed this often in our “Easy Songs for Beginners” and “Songs for Intermediates” lessons. Once you have the basics of a song down, there’s no end to the fun you can have arranging it to suit your own style and taste. If you don’t believe that it can be done, even with a very straightforward song like Jolly Old Saint Nicholas , then let me offer this up as an example. I was in a bit of a giddy mood when I was recording the MP3s for this lesson, so I wheeled this off:

With the exception of two arpeggios and a short run of notes at the end of line two, this is pretty much the arrangement we just made for today’s lesson. All I’ve done is snazz up the rhythm a bit. It’s nothing you can’t do on your own.

Over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to put up quite a few holiday pieces, so get yourself ready for them.

Until the next lesson…