The Little Drummer Boy

The Little Drummer Boy

Those of you who actually read my articles and lessons (as opposed to simply going through the notation and / or TAB or even just listening to the MP3s) know that I like to give you a reason to be learning a song. Besides just learning the song, that is! Sometimes we’ll talk about rhythm. Sometimes we’ll look at different ways to voice a chord or come up with a bass line or riff to make the song more interesting. I know that many of you do take these lessons to heart because you write me to tell me about how you’ve used an idea discussed in a particular lesson and applied it to a song you already know or even used it to learn something new yourselves.

But the point is that there should always be something to learn or to work on. And that’s what brings us to today’s piece, The Little Drummer Boy . We already have a great lesson on this, written by Peter Simms, here at Guitar Noise, which you can find it on our new Christmas lessons page. It’s a great exercise on using Drop D tuning to come up with a wonderful arrangement of this holiday carol.

Our lesson today is going to concentrate on a totally different matter: the pinky. Way too often, guitarists tend to under-use or, worse, ignore the little finger when playing. Many beginners don’t start working with it until they absolutely have to and at that point it’s almost like learning to play all over again.

So I want to give your pinkies a workout today. I hope you’re ready!

This may also be a good time to chat about keys. Peter’s lesson, as we mentioned, places The Little Drummer Boy in the key of D in order to make use of the low D note in Drop D tuning. You, as the guitarist / arranger can place a song in any key. One usually does this for reasons such as accommodating a vocal or simply making the song in question easier to play. The “original” sheet music I have for this piece, for example, is in the key of D flat, which is not one of the friendliest keys for the guitar!

How you go about choosing a key depends largely on your own abilities with the guitar, coupled by what you’d like to do, stylistically, with a particular song. So I look at The Little Drummer Boy and think to myself, “This is a lesson for relative beginners. That means keeping things fairly easy and still being a bit challenging and, above all, having fun.” I look again at the song and see that, in the “original” form I have, the chords are Db, Ab and Gb. In Peter’s lesson, this transposes to D, A and G. Either way, that’s three chords to deal with.

But now I make a short trip into Theoryland. If I think of these chords in terms of their keys, I’m dealing with the root (“I” – D or Db in the two versions we’ve mentioned so far), the fifth (“V” – A or Ab) and the fourth (“IV” – G or Gb). So now that I know this, I can make a couple of leaps in logic. First, I can decide which key I’d like to play this in based upon which chords I know best. Besides D, which we already have seen will give us the chords of D, G and A, I personally feel most comfortable playing in C, G, A and E. Let’s take a look at which chords will be involved in those four keys:

Chords in 4 keys

Not dealing with either F or B also sounds like a good idea to me, this being a beginners’ lesson and all. So that leaves me with G and A. And now I’m thinking about something else. Believe it or not, I’m thinking about the blues! After all, the I, IV, V progression is the key to most blues playing. And, remembering some of the blues lessons we’ve done, particularly Before You Accuse Me, I see that the key of A will give me open, ringing bass notes for each of the chords being used in The Little Drummer Boy. Do you see this, too?

Open bass notes are godsends for the fledgling chord melody arranger, for the obvious reason that you have a good, clear ringing note without having to give up a finger! The second best thing that can happen to us is to have a lot of open position chords involved in the melody notes. So I write out our song, melody and chords, in the key of A and I look at it:

Example 1 line 1
Example 1 line 2
Example 1 line 3
Example 1 line 4
Example 1 line 5
Example 1 line 6
Example 1 line 6

And it appears that fate is smiling on us once again. Most of the melody notes are either parts of the accompanying chords or very close by. As I’ve mentioned in numerous other song lessons, you’d think that someone actually went and planned it that way!

But now we’ve got another choice to make and that is how we want to use our accompanying chords. That may seem like a strange thing to worry about, but there are all sorts of ways of using the “chord” part of a chord melody arrangement. To illustrate, I’ve taken the first line of our song and done it three ways. Note that the notes of the melody line all have upturned stems while the chord accompaniment notes’ stems are downturned:

Example 2 - version 1
Example 2 - version 2
Example 2 - version 3

In the first version of Example #2, I’m playing our chord, strumming it only down as far as the melody note, mind you, on the first beat of each measure and letting it ring out under the rest of the melody notes. That doesn’t sound bad at all. Version two has me striking the chords every other beat, that is, on the first and third beat of any given measure. This fills out the sound some more and also gives the rhythmic impression of a steady drumbeat. Not a bad thing for a song with this title, no? On the last version, I play a chord with every melody note. This fills things out even more but seems a little heavy- handed for my tastes. So I’ve decided that I’m going to go with the second option for this arrangement. Having decided that for myself, though, I should point out that you should (as always) feel free to work out other options. I find myself often playing a combination of these versions.

For now, let’s get down to work and tackle the first line of this song.

Example 3 line 1
Example 3 line 2

Okay, let’s make it the first two lines, especially since they are both focused around the A major chord. Before we get going I’d like to recommend that, if you’re worried that playing the chords every other beat might be too hard, you start out learning this by playing the chord on the first beat of any given measure and then work up to playing it on the first and third beats. This will give you a chance to get comfortable with both the chord and melody fingerings. But playing them every other beat isn’t as hard as you might think and you possibly will find advantages to learning it the “every other beat” way, particularly when it comes to playing downstrokes and upstrokes.

Measure one starts out with a nice sounding of the A chord, played on just the A, D and G strings. Technically this is an A power chord, which some of you might recognize by the name “A5.” It’s only the A and E notes of the A chord and gives us a nicely resonant ringing that will continue while we go on playing single notes in the melody. I do this with a downstroke, by the way. Since the first note lasts for three beats, I hit just the A and D strings with a downstroke on the third beat and then play the open B on the fourth beat with an upstroke. Usually I start out by having all my fingers set on my A major chord before even striking the first note. This means I need to lift my finger off the second fret of the B string in order to sound the note of the open B. But if you’re careful about which strings you strike, you can start out by fingering Asus2 (X02200) and then you don’t have to worry about it. That’s totally up to you.

The second measure has us playing our A chord again, but this time we’ll strum down only as far as the B string since the melody note is the C#, which is on the second fret of that string. We play this with a downstroke and it lasts for two beats. Then we play the whole thing again for the third beat and catch only the C# note on the upstroke for the fourth beat. This is a good place to point out that, by having your chord in place, you don’t have to worry if you catch an extra string or two on your upstroke. It will sound fine. But do practice hitting only the strings you want. It’s a skill that’s easy to develop with practice, persistence and patience.

The pinky makes his first appearance in measure three. We place the little finger on the third fret of the B string to get the D note in the melody. Since this is on the first beat of the measure, we’ve got our A chord ready to go with it. This creates Asus4, just in case you’re interested in things like that.

I should mention that you can play this measure in a number of ways. For instance, you can you can pick the first three melody notes each time or you can use a pull-off going from the D to the C#. If you’re so inclined you can even hammer-on to get the second D note. When I’m playing this I don’t often think consciously about it. While I worked out this lesson, though, I noticed I tended to pick each individual melody note in order to give it a clear, distinct tone.

However you choose to play it, measure three ends with a downstroke on the A chord again, and again with C# as the melody note. We want to hit that hard enough to hold that note through measure four while we add two more rhythmic downstrokes just to tide us over.

The second line is simply a variation of the first. The difference between the two is the timing of the melody notes in the first two measures. To me, this is where the “every other beat” playing can help drive the song. Even though the melody rests on the first beat of the first measure, hitting just the A and D strings impels the piece along and this combination of downstrokes and upstrokes is great practice.

In the third line we switch our chord from A to E and this is when things start to get very interesting. If you’re like most people, you’re playing the E chord with your index finger on the first fret of the G string, your ring finger on the second fret of the D and your middle finger on the second fret of the A string. So far, so good! Let’s see what we’re going to try and do:

Example 4

Hit the E chord on the first beat of measure nine with a downstroke to either the D or G string. That’s your choice. Then catch the open B string on the upstroke for the second beat. Now, while holding on to the E chord for dear life, place your pinky on the C# note at the second fret of the B string and strum down only that far with a downstroke on the third beat. Then slide your pinky up to the third fret of the B string (the note in the melody is D) and catch that note on the upstroke. If you’re not used to using all your fingers at once, this may take a little practice.

But in measure ten you can give yourself a break. The first note is simply a full-bodied E chord struck across all six strings. Then you catch the open high E (first) string on the upstroke and then play another full chord on the downstroke of the third beat. Adding the pinky to the second fret of the high E (first) string gives us the F# note that ends this measure. Use an upstroke to play this. And again, notice that if you hit more than that single note things will still sound fine because the rest of your E chord is still intact.

We’re not quite out of the woods yet, though. The melody pretty much goes down the way it came, so begin measure eleven with one more solid downstroke of the E chord. Then add your pinky for the D note (the third fret of the B string), hit that on your upstroke and then slide it down to the C# note (second fret of the B) and hit it with a downstroke. Finally, again using a downstroke, strike another E chord but this time only down to the open B string as that’s where the melody has come to a rest.

Are you still with us? The next two lines are the hardest but, believe it or not, you should be able to work through them now after having done what we’ve accomplished so far. Let’s tackle measures thirteen through eighteen at once, shall we?

Example 5 line 1
Example 5 line 2

Measure thirteen is an exact replica of measure nine, so we should have no problems with it. And while measure fourteen is, melodically, a mirror image of measure ten, it’s pretty important to note that we’re playing an A chord as our accompaniment instead of E. This doesn’t let the pinky off the hook, though! We use the little finger to get the F# note at the end of this measure as well as to play the G natural (third fret of the high E (first) string) and the F# (second fret of the high E (first) string) that lead off measure fifteen. Removing the pinky will give us the open E note that follows and then we switch our chord from A to D and this will give us the D note (third fret of the B string) in the melody. You’ll note that I’m using the open A string as the bass note of this D chord in order to give it a little fuller sound.

Changing our accompanying chord to D also plays right into how the melody goes. The F# (second fret on the high E (first) string) which starts the next measure is all ready to go! We strum the whole D chord with a downstroke and then remove our finger from the first (high E) string to get that melody note and then strike the D note, still in place at the third fret of the D string before changing back to our A chord, which we strum just down to the C# note at the second fret of the B string.

Our A chord also allows us to continue on with the melody without skipping a beat. The open high E (first) string is our next note, and then we bring our pinky back into play again, using it to fret the D note on the B string. We take it off again to get the C# (still in place because we’re still holding on to the A chord) and then we change from A to E in order to get the B note of the open second string. And now you can take a breath because you’ve done all the hard work! It’s smooth sailing now!

I’d like to take a moment to point out that, in this section of the song we’ve just gone over, I find myself playing downstrokes on the chords and upstrokes on the individual melody notes, as I’ve indicated in the notation. And this might be a good time to discuss the use of strokes. Some people might find it easier to use the alternate picking technique. This is when you alternate your down and upstrokes no matter what. There are times, especially when you are trying to achieve either speed or smoothness, that this approach is certainly key. But here, in this song, I think that it’s a matter of taste. I’ve tried picking it in different ways, but when I’m not consciously thinking about it, I find that I play the up and downstrokes pretty much the way I’ve spelled out for you in the notation.

And speaking of notation, please understand that what I’ve written here is not perfect. On some occasions you will play, say for example, the open B string as part of the E chord, only to cover it with the D note on the third fret. The notation says to hold the B, the whole chord in fact, for two beats, but this is obviously impossible since you’re going to need that string for a different note. I’ve written the notation in this manner to give you the chords on their proper beats and to encourage you to let them ring as long as you can. Preferably until the next sounding of the accompanying chord!

The last section of The Little Drummer Boy starts out much like the first two lines:

Example 6 line 1
Example 6 line 2

It’s only at the final two measures that we encounter a small change. Here we switch to our E chord in order to get the first strum. Then we employ our pinky one final time, using it to finger the A note at the second fret of the G string. Finally we hit the open B string again and then finish with an A chord strummed down to the A note of the G string. Et voila! We’ve gotten through the song! Let’s hear it all at once, shall we? I use a few measures of A to get me started:

The Little Drummer Boy is one of those songs that allows for a lot of a performer’s personality to come through. You can go through a wide range of dynamics in terms of volume and intensity. I gave into temptation and went a little overboard in my use of the E chord in measure eighteen. So much so, in fact that I threw in another measure! You have to be careful about being too enthusiastic sometimes!

And for those of you who might ask me about this, I played all the MP3s on my Seagull S6 Folk guitar (cedar top) using a medium pick.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little exercise in chord melody arrangement and that you feel free to play it for the upcoming holidays. And I hope that the main idea of this lesson, that is, getting your little finger involved, is something you all get to work on.

Next week, we’re going to do something both easier and harder! If you need a hint, then brush up on your German and reread the Easy Songs for Beginners lesson on Bookends and we’ll see you here soon.

Until the next lesson…