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"Silent Night": Fingerstyle Guitar Arrangement in Tablature, Standard Notation and Audio

Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

Learn how to play "Silent Night" on guitar.

Learn how to play "Silent Night" on guitar.

Learn to Play the Xmas Carol "Silent Night"

For anyone interested in fingerstyle guitar (or even anyone who just enjoys hearing Xmas carols played on guitar), here's an arrangement that I made of the famous Christmas carol, "Silent Night." This acoustic guitar arrangement is in the key of C major and played in the first position (no higher than the 3rd fret). It's not beginner level but is closer to lower-intermediate level of difficulty.

There are no awkward chord shapes to handle (other than a couple of cut-down F major shapes); however, keeping the chord tones flowing while playing the melody at the same time needs a certain level of skill, as well as a good amount of practice and focus until it feels natural. Emphasise the melody to keep it clear and audible above the arpeggiated chord tones underneath.

How to Improvise With This Arrangement

You can hear in the video below that some chords are spread (rolled). They're not marked in the score because you can choose whether or not to play them that way, and you can also decide by yourself which ones to spread. It will probably change each time you play it. I often make changes when playing pieces composed in this improvised style, so don't be surprised if you hear differences between the score and the audio track on the video.

As long as you follow the chords, you can rearrange the chord tones in any tasteful order and change the patterns each time you play it by improvising. The melody is most important. Take care of that first, and then focus on filling in with the chord tones.

Modifying Chords

You can also modify the chords if you feel it enhances the harmonic flow. For example, the chord in bar 8, which is C major, could be C7 instead. In practical terms, that would require including the note B flat as one of the inner harmony notes. The chord's function would then change from being the stable key chord of the song to a so-called 'secondary dominant 7th' of the key of the next chord, F major.

That's just a long, drawn-out way of saying it would provide extra drive to the F major chord in bar 9. A jazz version of "Silent Night" would probably modify every chord and throw in a few more for good measure.

Using the Classical Guitar Approach

Alternatively, you can take the classical guitar approach and just play it as written if you're not comfortable with improvising. For this type of song, though, as opposed to an actual classical guitar piece, improvising the harmony and embellishing the melody works really well.

How to Change the Key With a Capo

Being in the key of C major and played in the first position of the guitar means that the melody as a whole won't be very high in pitch. The highest note in the whole melody is the first note of bar 18, which is F on string 1 fret 1.

By using a capo around the 3rd or 4th fret, the pitch will be lifted to a more expressive level, without making the song any more difficult to play. Reading the notation or tab with a capo attached will be exactly the same as without one. It just means that everything will be seen relative to the capo instead of relative to the nut.

Listen to "Silent Night"

The video below contains the score and an audio track. The score is displayed page by page in time with the audio track. Once mastered, try to play along with the track by reading the score on the video, or, alternatively, you can read the static score printed below the video. To see the whole score without scrolling, download it as a free PDF file for online or offline viewing.

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"Silent Night" Score


Score Info

  • Stem Direction: Upward-pointing note stems in the notation staves refer to melody notes. Downward-pointing stems indicate chord tones and bass notes. Melody notes should be played with enough emphasis so that they can be brought out and heard clearly above the chord tones underneath.
  • Rit (Ritardando): The 'rit' sign at the end means slow down.
  • Tied Notes: Tied notes in the notation are shown as grayed-out notes in the guitar tablature.

Singing Along With "Silent Night"

If you or others are going to be singing along, then it's better not to play the melody; just strum the chords instead. They're shown on the score, so just use a 'triple-time' strum pattern, such as 1, 2 & 3 played as 'down—down-up—down' strokes with a pick.

Alternatively, you could use a triple-time fingerstyle accompaniment pattern, following the beat as: 1 & 2 & 3 &. Start each bar or measure with a bass note (preferably the root) of the chord played by your thumb and follow through with your fingers playing other strings while holding the chord.

Note on Roots

The root of a chord is the note that it's named after. So if you're holding a C chord, make your bass note C on string 5, fret 3. Playing from the root is the safest option as chords in root position sound more stable and balanced. Notes other than the root can also function as bass notes and can sound interesting and more dynamic in the right context, but stick to the safe option until you're able to hear when inverted (non-root position) chords sound better.

Fingerstyle vs. Strumming

If you're singing alone, then either strumming or playing a fingerstyle accompaniment pattern will work fine. If there are several people singing along with you, however, then only strumming will provide an accompaniment that is loud enough. A fingerstyle accompaniment won't be loud enough unless your guitar is amplified.

About "Silent Night"

The Christmas carol "Silent Night"—or "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" in its original German—is an Austrian carol written near Salzburg. Now in the public domain, the music was composed on Christmas Eve, 1818, by organist Franz Gruber at the request of Father Joseph Mor, who had previously written the lyrics.

It has become one of the most recorded songs ever.

© 2012 Chas Mac

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