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! Additionally, hymns arranged for piano and organ are full arrangements featuring the melody, chordal accompaniment, and even fills. These arrangements are intended to be played solo, that is, without any accompanying instrumentation. This just doesn’t give any room for guitarists to add parts. And doubling the piano doesn’t sound good either (you end up interfering too much with each other). 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 solo piano and organ music is not written this way, so it’s up to you and the pianist to work something out. Unfortunately, piano players who are used to reading music are not always good at playing anything other than what’s written on the page. In other words, they don’t know how to play any differently and they may not be able to change their parts to allow you space to play along.

As far as how to read the standard musical notation, well, if you don’t know how to read music, then you’re not going to be able to read the music. You’ll need to play by ear or follow a chord chart (or learn how to ready music).

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 holy holy holy guitar tab here. 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.

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About Desi Serna

Desi Serna guitar music theoryHailed as a “music-theory expert” by Rolling Stone magazine, guitarist Desi Serna is a music instructor and author who has written several books on guitar including Fretboard Theory, Fretboard Theory Volume II, Guitar Theory For Dummies, Guitar Rhythm and Technique For Dummies, and How To Teach Guitar and Start Your Own Music Instruction Business. He is known for his practical, hands-on approach to music teaching, with a focus on the guitar fretboard and emphasis on popular songs. Desi honed his craft through decades of teaching, performing, and publishing. He lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area, produces all the instruction featured in the GMT Members area, and is online everyday connecting with his subscribers and giving guitar players personalized training and support.

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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