Recently I received a question from a frustrated guitar player who was having a hard time playing hymns on guitar. He explained that the old hymnals didn’t have chord symbols for guitar, just standard musical notation. He was unable to figure out the chords and changes from the sheet music. And he was also having a hard time trying to play along with the piano player by ear. He wondered how a guitar player should approach this type of music. My response is below.
Church hymns are usually played by piano or organ players and can be very difficult for guitar players to accompany. Usually hymns have changes on every beat, sometimes every half beat! This just doesn’t give any room for other instruments or other parts. And doubling the piano doesn’t sound good either (you end up interfering too much with the piano). Bottom line, hymns are composed in a manner where the piano/organ plays alone and takes up all the space. In fact, when we play a traditional hymn at my church, the other instrumentalists usually sit it out. I only play on hymns if there is enough space for me to fill. In this case I don’t play the chord changes, I just fill by ear. And I don’t play much.
Piano and guitar are similar in that they’re both chordal instruments capable of playing both chords and melody. In ensemble situations, both instruments need to simplify and leave room for one another. But traditional church hymns weren’t written this way.
The only time a guitar player can really play a hymn arrangement in its full form is when he’s playing solo. Below is an example of me playing the Christian hymn Holy, Holy, Holy in a chord melody, fingerstyle manner arranged specifically for solo guitar. Notice that I didn’t leave room for a piano player.
Church Hymns Guitar Tab
I arranged this version myself by ear with a little help from a chord chart. You can view the guitar tab for this at: http://guitarmusictheory.blogspot.com/2009/11/holy-holy-holy-guitar-tabs.html
This is a fingerstyle chord melody version for intermediate and advanced guitar players with finger picking experience. It’s a great lesson on how to use shapes and inversions based on the CAGED Guitar Chord system.
Play Until Yer Fingers Bleed!
Mr. Desi Serna