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Ding-Dong, Merrily on High (easier)

It's HARD to play this song at the proper speed. Doing so requires paying strict attention to correct fingering of both the left and right hands. What works best for me may not work best for you, so don't hesitate to change these instructions if your fingers like a different pattern better! The chords called out in the chord charts require some odd fingerings to allow for fast chord changes, so I have specified which finger to use in the charts. The number 1 = the index finger, 2 = the middle finger, etc. You may find some of these fingerings counter-intuitive, but they are the ones I have found work the best in this particular song.

Meanwhile, back at the first verse:

Strum the initial C chord with the thumb, then play the second note with the ring finger of the right hand. This leaves the stronger middle finger to initiate the pull-off series on the second string. You'll probably have to release the C chord-shape with the left hand to play that series. Play the last note, on the third string, with the right index finger.

In the second measure, play all the third string notes with the right middle finger, and the bass string with the right thumb. This sets you up to play the F chord in the third measure as a thumb strum. The next three notes, all on the second string, can be played rapidly by using a different right hand finger for each one: ring-middle-index. If you know classical guitar terminology, use alternating rest-strokes. In the final measure, use a thumb strum, and pluck the final note with the middle finger (that's a free-stroke in classical guitar).

The Chorus

The Chorus is the fastest part of the song, and thus the hardest to play. Practice each measure until you can do it without thinking about it, then go on to the next. All three Choruses are the same, except for the last line of the final Chorus.

Pluck the first note of the first measure with the right ring finger, then strum the next two notes. Release the chord shape with the left hand, and play the fourth note with the ring finger. Then pluck the next-to-last note with the right middle finger, pulling-off the last note with the left hand. All the notes are eighth-notes, and should have equal length and emphasis.

The second measure of the Chorus has a slightly different pattern. All the notes on the first string are plucked with the right middle finger, the bass note with the thumb, and all the rest with the right index finger. Releasing the chord-shape after the first two notes will make this measure much easier on your left hand. The third measure has the same pattern.

The pattern for the fourth and fifth measures is actually the same, except shifted down one string. The second string notes are all plucked with the right middle finger, bass notes with the thumb, and all others with the index finger. There are no notes on the first string.

The sixth measure is different. Keep the chord shape with the left hand throughout the measure. All second string notes are plucked with the right ring finger, all third string notes with the middle finger, all fourth string notes with the index finger, and the bass with the thumb. The same pattern holds for the final two measures of the Chorus, except for the strummed chord at the beginning of the seventh measure. I like to repeat the Chorus, but it's not required except after the last verse.

The Second Verse

This same pattern is continued into the second verse, except for the second measure, where it shifts down another string, so the chord is strummed by the thumb, then the third string is plucked by the right ring finger, the fourth by the middle finger, the fifth by the index, and the bass by the thumb. At the end of this measure, shift back to the previous pattern, and keep it up until the end of the verse. Repeat the verse, then go right into the Chorus.

The Third Verse

The Third Verse does not follow the melody-- it just sounds really neat! If you want to follow the melody, just repeat the First Verse. But if you want to play the Third Verse the way I've arranged it, here's how.

After the initial strum, release the chord-shape with the left hand. The rest of the measure consists essentially of scales, descending from treble to bass, then ascending again. If you have trouble performing two pull-offs or hammer-ons in a row, you'll have trouble with this verse, but if you can do them, it makes the verse extremely easy, as it's the same pattern, just on different strings.

The only “odd” note comes in the third measure, where you have to fret the fifth string in the fourth space with your left pinkie. If your pinkie is not up to this, you can move your hand around and hit the note in the same place with your ring finger, but it's a lot of finger-dancing for one note. I use my pinkie, and figure if it doesn't sound too good, nobody is likely to notice, as it's a “grace note.”

Repeat the verse, going immediately into the beginning of the repetition without a pause. Even though you are doing exactly the same thing, most of your audience will think you somehow have shifted the guitar down an octave, and will wonder how you did it!

Final Chorus:

The last Chorus is played exactly like all the others, except for the last two measures. You can slow down for this “finale”, but it's way more impressive if you don't. The next-to-last measure is actually easier than in the previous Choruses, to allow a bit more time for you to move your hand up the neck to the eighth fret, for the full-barre C chord.

Just strum the two bass strings quickly, so they sound more or less together, then “slow strum” the other four strings, so each one can be heard independently. (But don't slow down!) Hold the final note as long as you can. If you don't break the rhythm, and you play it as fast as it's written (or even close), your applause will be thunderous!

Ding Dong Merrily on High

Yes, it really is supposed to be played that fast! Here’s what it’s supposed to sound like, if you don’t know the song, or copy and paste this: into your browser, if the link doesn't work. The original was a French dance tune without words, called “le branle de l'Official”. It was first published in the late 1580s by French cleric and dance historian Jehan Tabourot, under the pen name Thoinot Arbeau, which is an anagram of his real name. No one now knows if he composed the tune, or merely collected it. I have not been able to locate any French lyrics, either ancient or even a modern translation from the English. Such a translation would have to be decidedly modern, as the English lyrics were not written until 1924!

The lyrics were written by George Ratliffe Woodward, who adapted the somewhat worldly dance tune for use as a Christmas carol. Their archaic flavor stems from the author’s delight in archaic verse and language, and references to his hobby of church-bell ringing. His deliberate archaisms include the words sungen, swungen, matins, evetime and Io, io, io, as well as his deliberate use of the Latin chorus: gloria, hosanna in excelsis. This is a quotation from the Latin Bible, and means, “Glory and praise in the highest,” the phrase which the people shouted to Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in recognition of his Messiahship. It is often mispronounced hose Anna in excel sis. In reality, it has nothing to do with spraying Anna with water or exceeding your sister, and should be pronounced hoe sauna e’en ex shell cease (e’en though it has nothing to do with gardening in a sauna or stopping an artillery barrage!)
Io, io, io is pronounced, "ee-oh, ee-oh, ee-oh," NOT "eye-oh, eye-oh, eye-oh,." At speed, it sounds rather like a piglet squealing. Oh well!

I first encountered this delightful tune in the movie, "Little Women," and was devastated to learn that Jo and the girls could not really have sung it, as the lyrics would not be written for more than sixty years! It’s still my favorite version of the song. The harmonies (also from 1924) were composed by Charles Wood. In any event, the tune is in the public domain, so there’s no problem with publishing it.

This is really not a hard song to play-- slowly. The difficulty comes when you try to play it at speed. Don’t try this until you have the song completely memorized! Even then, start at half speed or slower and work up gradually, or you’ll never get it right. This may take some time, so start working on it early. Remember, it’s much better to play it too slowly than to mess up the rhythm. If you play too slow, the audience may think you’re doing it on purpose, if they even notice. After all, this is a guitar solo; there’s no one singing or dancing! If you lose the rhythm, though, it’ll show.