Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.
Learn to Play "Greensleeves" on Acoustic Guitar
Here's not one but two versions of "Greensleeves" arranged for acoustic guitar. The first is beginners' level and is in a straightforward classical guitar style. The second is an improvised folk fingerstyle version with the melody set over a flowing rhythm.
The videos consist of an audio track plus notation and tab staffs displayed line by line in time with the music. The static tab and notation staffs below each video are exactly the same as the ones in the video. Use those in preference to the video score if you want to study and learn the arrangements, or download the PDF file, which you can view offline or print out.
Both are recorded in 1080 HD, so watch them full screen at that quality if possible to ensure that the notes are clear and easy to read. The quality settings buttons are the cog-shaped icons at the bottom-right of the video screens that appear after clicking PLAY.
The Simple Version of "Greensleeves"
Here's the simple version. It's mostly just melody and bass with a couple of fill-in chords. It's a common and simple classical guitar style (although played here on a steel string guitar). Try to emphasise the melody notes so that they can be clearly heard above the bass and inner harmony notes of the chords.
Classical guitarists achieve this by the use of 'rest stroke'—a picking hand technique where the string is plucked and comes to rest on the string above. The extra force required to do that increases the volume of that note. It's more effective on nylon strings than steel strings, though.
Fingerstyle Guitar Arrangement of "Greensleeves"
This version has much more of an improvised feel. You can play the notes as written or you can make your own improvisation of the song based on the melody and chords. You can take liberties with the melody and play different chord tones at different times or explore different rhythms by leaving out or adding in some harmony (fill-in) notes. If you like, you can add ornaments and grace notes wherever you feel they're appropriate and worth putting in. Nothing is ever permanent with this style. Next time you play it, it'll probably be different again.
Note the use of ties between some final melody notes of the bar to the first note of the following bar. This is a way of anticipating the first note before the beat to give the melody more of a lilting vocal effect.
This version is technically a bit more difficult but less strict to follow.
Read More From Spinditty
Dating from the late 16th century, "Greensleeves" predates the major-minor key system by around a century. It's a modal song, i.e., based on one of the ancient modal scales that were the note sources in the days before we had musical keys. The mode that "Greensleeves" was written in is called the Dorian mode, which is similar, but not identical, to the minor key.
- The scale of A natural minor > A B C D E F G A
- The 'A Dorian' mode > A B C D E F# G A
That F# is what distinguishes Dorian mode music from music in a minor key and gives a different feel to the music. The key of A minor can also have F sharp notes, but they usually proceed to G#. Here they don't, except at the cadences (ends of sections).
"Greensleeves" has undergone many transformations since it was written, and as it entered the tonal age of key-based music, it adapted to changing tastes by adopting minor key elements. The two F sharp notes in the verse can be played as F natural—it's very commonly heard that way, too, and that brings it even closer to the key of A minor. The F sharp notes in the chorus are always played as F sharp, though, at least in the vast majority of arrangements of the song.
Here, I've written both versions in three-four time for easier comparison, but the first version is quite often written with a six-eight time signature. That generally provides a more driving feel and is used with a slightly faster tempo - fast enough to hear the two main beats per bar clearly, (six-eight time consists of two dotted quarter-note beats per bar), but no so fast that it's out of character with the lyrics; it's meant to be quite a sad song, after all.
Who Wrote "Greensleeves"?
"Greensleeves" was first published in 1580 in London as a "Newe Northern Dittye of the Lady Greensleeves". The composer of the song is unknown. Henry VIII is often mentioned as the composer, and the phrase in the lyrics about being "cast off discourteously" may be a reference to his lack of lustful success with Anne Boleyn (whom he later married and beheaded).
It's extremely unlikely that he composed "Greensleeves," though, as he died more than 30 years before the song was first published. Henry did compose songs, and some still survive, but it's almost certain that he didn't write this one.
© 2014 Chas Mac
Chas Mac (author) from UK on April 19, 2017:
You're welcome - glad you found it useful
steve on April 19, 2017:
Thanks a lot for the lesson. It's very helpful. Really appreciate your effort.