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Gently Raise the Sacred Strain

What more can be done with a hymn that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has used as their “Music and the Spoken Word” opening theme song for the last 75 years?

Plenty, it turns out.

Every now and then, a hymn just demands to be arranged for the guitar, and when thus played, sounds like it was always meant to be a guitar song. This is one such hymn.

Moreover, it contains no barre chords, no difficult chords, no especially hard techniques, and no fast or difficult chord changes, yet it sounds fantastic. What more could a guitarist ask for?

It’s in the Public Domain, too.

Nevertheless, this is not a song for beginners. There is LOTS of expression, often in long strings of ligados, and in a few places, slides on two strings simultaneously.  It shouldn’t be too hard for any experienced guitarist to learn, but will require some practice.


This piece is based on a pattern pick, using two patterns, with modifications.
Measure [1] introduces Pattern A: treble - bass, treble - bass, treble - bass.
Measure [2] introduces Pattern B: treble - arpeggio - bass.

To avoid confusion, the right hand fingers are numbered, not named: the thumb is #1, the index = #2, the middle finger #3, and the ring finger = #4. The right pinkie is not numbered, because it is not used. (The left pinkie IS used. A lot.) Similarly, although the strings are normally distinguished by the numbers 1 - 6, to avoid confusion with the numbered fingers of the right hand, I shall call the strings by the notes they make when played open: e, B, G, D, A, and E respectively.

For these patterns, lead with the #4 finger on the initial treble note. #1 plays the bass notes of pattern A, and the first two or three notes of the arpeggio in pattern B.  #2 plays the next note of the arpeggio, and #3 and 4 play the other notes as appropriate. The second chord in measure [2] is a C/G (pronounced “C over G”), and is fretted exactly like a C chord, except that the pinkie frets the bass E string in the third space.

Measure [6] breaks the pattern slightly with a glissando (a slide) on the B string, using the left pinkie. Measure [7] appears to be Pattern A again, but there’s an easier way to play it. Since the left pinkie is already in the fifth space from the last note of the previous measure, the left Index finger is perfectly positioned to fret the e string in the third space, a technique referred to as “Third Position” and usually marked in guitar music with a small Roman numeral III above the staff. Third Position means that the hand is moved up the neck of the guitar, so the Index finger, which usually frets notes in the first space, now frets notes in the third space. In this system, the normal hand position is called, “First Position,” but is only marked with a Roman Numeral I above the staff when needed.

Measure [8] returns to First Position and Pattern B, continuing in Measures [9] and [10]. To fret the last note in [9], flatten the middle finger briefly across the G string. Measure [10] introduces a pull-off, a very slight variation on Pattern B, but significant, as eight of the next nine measures contain either pull-offs, hammer-ons, or slides.  You’ll have to fret the B string with the Index and Ring fingers simultaneously in the first and third spaces, then pull-off the Ring finger.

Measure [11] departs from the pattern altogether. There are two hammer-ons in this measure, shown two different ways. I use the same underscore for the hammer-on and for the pull-off. I realize that it may seem comfusing at first, but it’s really not possible to mix them up, as pull-offs always go down in tone, while hammer-ons always go up.

Measure [12] is actually a return to Pattern B, but doesn’t look it, due to all of the pull-offs. Fret the e string with the Index and Ring fingers simultaneously in the first and third spaces, to do the pull-off. Continue to hammer-on and pull off with the Index finger in the next measure, beginning with the C chord.

The next three measures, [13] through [16], completely  depart from Patterns A and B, in order to follow the melody closely. In [13] there’s a --pull-off -- hammer-on -- pull-off -- riff, repeated with a  --hammer-on -- pull-off -- riff in [14].  You may find it easiest to play this second riff with the pinkie.

The next measure [15], begins a series of double-glissandos, or slides done on two strings simultaneously.  Play the double slide on the D and B strings with the Middle and Ring fingers respectively, to set up for the change to F which follows.  You don’t actually need to do the two-string barre for the F chord at this time, as the e string is not played until the end of the next measure.

That F chord is vital, as it sets up the whole measure which follows. The word Mordent refers tp tje sound made by using a “Wa-Wa” pedal. If you are amplified and have a wa-wa pedal, use it here. If not, you’ll have to play it as two double-glissandos, as shown in the tab. Play the Mordent using the Middle and Ring fingers to fret the G and D strings respectively. Briefly lift the fingers off the fretbpoard without changing their positions, just long enough for the pinch on the open B and G strings, then replace the Index and Middle fingers on the B and G strings for the slide. Play the C chord which follows in the next measure as part of the same phrase that began in Measure [15].

Measure [16] will “make” the song in the minds of your audience if done right. Practice with a metronome until you can play it exactly on the beat, with no pause before or after the measure. Blows people away.

The next three measures, [17], [18] and [19], are a return to Pattern B, except that the previous 4th finger lead notes are now pinched chords. Play the slide in [18] on the e and B strings with the index and ring fingers respectively, starting in Third Position and sliding to First Position. This sets up your hand for the C chord which follows.

The final three measures are just chords.  Measure [20] contains the only “barred” chord in the piece-- the first three strings of a normal F chord.  Even if you can’t do full barre chords, there’s no reason you should have any difficulty with this simple, three-string chord.

Play the final two measures very slowly and deliberately.The second chord in [21] is actually a GaddD, but there’s no reason to fret the whole chord, when you’re only going to play three strings, and two of them are open! Just lift the fingers off the strings, maintaining the C-shape, and fret the third space on the B string with the pinkie. Quickly pinch the three strings with the #2, #3, and #4 fingers, then change right back to the C chord, using the pinkie to fret the bass E string in the third space, which changes the C into a C/G. (Pronounced, “C over G”.)

Contrary to my usual practice of including the lyrics of the first verse, I have included those of the fourth, because of the importance of its message: Repent and live! I hope you enjoy playing this song as much as I’ve enjoyed arranging it.


“Gently Raise the Sacred Strain” was included in the first LDS hymnal, compiled by Emma Smith shortly after her baptism, and published in 1835. The lyrics were written by William W. Phelps, who was boarding with the Smiths at the time. No one seems to know the original tune, but we do know it was not the current one, which was composed for the Tabernacle Choir by Thomas C. Griggs, who was not even born until 1845!

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