With Strings Attached: Leading congregational singing with the guitar

At a recent Hymn Society conference, I attended a workshop led by Mimi Farra on leading congregational singing with the guitar. The room was so crowded I sat on the floor right next to the piano, which was played by Mimi's sister, Kathleen Thomerson (who wrote "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light," RW 45:34). Mimi and Kathleen don't live in the same area, so it was a treat for them to be able to play together, and it was obvious they knew how to pick up cues from each other as well.

Mimi stressed that behind the seeming simplicity of leading worship with instruments is a lot of careful thought and technique. The congregation should not be aware of that technique; it should just be secure in knowing when to sing. Without their knowing it, the congregation can also be led to let their voices swell on one verse or become quieter on the next.

After her workshop I asked if she would be willing to write up what it takes to lead congregational singing with guitar. For those who want the "live" experience, Mimi will be leading another workshop this summer at the Hymn Society conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Praise the LORD with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy.
—Psalm 13:2-3

Praising God with stringed instruments is a common refrain in the Scriptures. The Psalms are filled with references to using strings as part of praise (see 71:22-23; 92:3; 144:9). And even a cursory reading of the history of Israel reveals that stringed instruments were important in their worship. So our current use of guitar in worship is founded solidly on biblical precedent.

Many congregations now use the guitar to lead part of the congregational singing. Others would like to but are uncertain of how to adapt some of their favorite hymns to guitar chords. In our Western tradition of four-part strophic hymnody, we sometimes forget that many hymns we now call "traditional" had their origins in folk melody and accompanying folk instruments—instruments comparable to the guitar. This evolution happened in a variety of ways, but one of the most common transitions occurred when the words of a folk song were replaced by a liturgical text and presented in the style of church music popular at that time. Keeping this in mind can be helpful in adapting hymns for use with guitar and other folk-style instruments.

Creating Guitar Arrangements of Traditional Hymns

Not all hymns are suited for guitar accompaniment, but many are, especially those that evolved from folk music. The musical source listed with the printed music is a good indication of whether a traditional hymn can be adapted to a folk style of accompaniment. Those that are marked Irish melody, English folk melody, American folk hymn, and so on, can usually be adapted. So can music from one of the many collections that do not specify authorship, such as Southern Harmony, Christian Harmony, and The Dancing Master.

The most important factor to understand in creating a guitar arrangement is that the melody should be the only guide in determining which chords are appropriate. Four-part hymnody has its own unique harmonic structure, and these harmonies should not be used as guidelines for determining what the guitar should play. The most common mistake musicians make when creating a guitar arrangement is to analyze the vertical chord structure of a four-part hymn and assign a chord whenever there is a change of harmony in the printed notes. Many of these changes are a reflection of the harmony "implied" by a passing voice and are not basic harmonic changes in relationship to the melody.

For the most part the folk-guitar idiom produces chords in root position, and frequent chord changes in relation to the melody can feel erratic and give the impression that the harmony is "jumping around," which it probably is! Frequent chord changes also tend to make an issue of the rhythm, which is positive if you are working with syncopation, but not the norm for a lot of traditional hymnody.

A keyboard accompaniment to a unison hymn is not the best guideline for determining guitar chords either. Idiomatic voice-leading often creates inversions that are quite nice on the keyboard, but make for clumsy harmonic structure when converted to the basic root position so characteristic of the folk guitar. In a successful guitar arrangement harmonic changes will happen less frequently than in four-part music and should provide a stable undergirding of the melody.

Combining Keyboard and Guitar

The guitar is a useful instrument for building bridges in a congregation's experience of blending traditional and contemporary music because it can be comfortable in both genres. As a portable instrument, the guitar is often available in situations with limited (or no) instrumental resources and can thus be used as the primary accompanying instrument for a variety of styles. It can also be used in conjunction with the piano or organ when the opportunity arises.

When playing along with the guitar, keyboard players should play the harmony indicated by the guitar chords and not the four-part harmony or keyboard accompaniment. Some musicians find it helpful to make their own "lead sheet" (only melody and guitar chords), separate from the familiar four-part version. This is not necessary, but may be useful in avoiding the confusion of seeing one thing and playing another.

The following are general adaptation guidelines for keyboard players when playing with guitar:

Organ: Using the guitar chords as harmonic guidelines, play sustained chords, with or without the melody, and let the guitar provide rhythmic thrust.

Piano: Using the guitar chords as harmonic guidelines, play simple broken chords, with or without the melody, to fill out the texture.

For variety: Have the keyboard player play only the melody in octaves or on a solo stop and let the guitar provide harmony and rhythm.

It is possible to experience both the folk idiom and four-part harmony within the same hymn by selecting certain stanzas to be sung in four parts (no guitar) and others to be sung in unison (accompanied by the guitar and the keyboard playing guitar chord harmony). This format is another type of reharmonization using simpler harmonies rather than the morecomplex harmonies usually found with keyboard reharmonizations. In both instances the congregation sings unison melody. (You are not limited to unison singing when the guitar is playing, but the part singing must be based on the guitar chords.)

It may be helpful at this point to take a brief look at how the guitar can play in virtually any key while using the chord structure of just a few keys that are particularly idiomatic to the guitar. The capo is an attachment that raises the sounding pitch of the strings by one-half step with each fret. So the guitarist can attach the capo at the first fret, play the fingering for the key of "E," and the sounding key will be "F." This makes light work of transposition! (See LLANG-LOFFAN example opposite and capo chart below.)

The rhythmic nature of the guitar requires some adaptation when ending a verse and beginning another. The pulse of the meter is constant when playing the guitar and should also be kept between stanzas. Therefore one or two extra measures may need to be added to maintain rhythmic integrity and allow for a break in the singing before going on to the next stanza. When moving from one style (four-part/keyboard) to another (guitar), the idea of a relay race is a useful image. The "handoff" should be graceful and not abrupt. For example, the guitar might come in on the final chord of a parts stanza and establish the basic rhythm of the next stanza, which is to be played with guitar harmony. Or the guitar might play through to the downbeat of a four-part keyboard stanza and then drop out, helping to create a seamless quality to the musical arrangement.

As we look for ways to experience the richness of our worship tradition, I would encourage congregations to stay in touch with the variety of music that has been passed on through the generations and make use of that delightful stringed instrument, the guitar.

Pianists may find "flat" keys easier to play than "sharp" keys. But the opposite is true for guitarists. Using a capo to clamp the strings allows a guitarist to transpose to a more convenient key. Shortening the strings by one fret (capo I) will raise the pitch a half step; clamping on the third fret (capo 3) will raise the pitch three half steps.

The chart to the left shows how a capo can be used to play in more convenient keys. For example, by using capo 3 a song in the key of F (with one flat) can be played as if in the key of D. The resulting sound from the shortened strings will actually be in F. All major and minor chords are listed.

Mimi Farra is a member of the Community of Celebration, pastoral musician for All Saints' Episcopal Church in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and consultant in music and liturgy at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.