Church Hymns On Guitar

Church Hymns On Guitar

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:

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.

Guitar Theory

To learn more about music theory for guitar, including scales, chords, progressions, modes, and more, sign up for a free preview of my Fretboard Theory books and DVDs by using the form on this web page.

Play Until Yer Fingers Bleed!
Mr. Desi Serna

Comments ( 5 )

  • Jared

    Good post and video. But one thing to consider also is that you can simplify the hymn to a rock or country rythmn and then easily have a guitar and even a full band play along with the song. This might not be a style that suits some churches (particularly those with a full organ) but it is certainly an option.

  • Troy

    Thanks Desi


  • Pete

    First of all, this sounds great! I’ve always been primarily an electric player but have recently broken out my old acoustic guitar. What are some good songs to get started fingerpicking so one could build up to something like this?

  • Fred

    HI Desi,

    I purchased your materials a couple of years ago. They are pretty useful.

    Regarding playing of Hymns – About 20 years ago I chorded out a hymn book in order to lead singing for a group of 55+ people at my church. They were my parents generation. I led the singing with with just guitar. I’ve never know anyone else to do this, but I recommend it if one has the interest.

    By the way, did you know that many hymns and most Emily Dickinson verses can be sung to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas?

    I learned to decipher the chords from the written key, then transpose them to common singing keys. The chords are usually pretty basic triads, and I only changed chords at the beginning of a measure. It worked. I used key of C, G, and D, with a capo up a fret or two sometimes. I had one guy in the group give feedback as to whether it was too low or too high. Older people like to sing hymns sitting down, and therefore sing softer and lower. Hymn books are written for SATB choirs, where the melody line is pretty high. Transposing down is the thing to do. For instance, one flat is key of F, play it in D or E. Two flats is key of Bb, try it in G.

    I learned to transpose from a Peter Paul and Mary book back in high school. Try singing a Paul Simon song in his key – he sing pretty high. I had to key it down.

    Thanks for your materials. You’re doing a good thing.


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