It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas… so here's a lesson on how to play Deck the Halls, arranged for classical guitar

Declan Zapala
(Image credit: Future)

This lesson is taken from the new issue of Guitar Techniques, which features six Christmas carols in six modern styles, available now from Magazines Direct.

This classical piece comes in the form of the Christmas carol Deck the Halls, also known by its alternative title ‘Tis The Season. The melody of the carol is from the traditional Welsh winter song Nos Galan (New Year’s Eve) which dates back to the Renaissance and was first published in 1794. 

It later became synonymous with Christmas when English lyrics were written to the melody by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant in 1862. The first of the three verses, which makes reference to Christmas, goes as thus: 

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

‘Tis the season to be jolly:

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Troul the ancient Christmas carol.

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

The entire melody of the carol fits into this single verse and is then repeated note-for-note throughout the following two verses. While the human singing voice has the luxury of being able to change words to create variation between verses, the humble guitar has no such luxuries afforded it, since we can only play the notes. 

To keep things interesting for us I have used this carol as an opportunity to explore the Theme and Variations compositional approach using a melody and accompaniment texture.

I have treated the above Verse 1 as the ‘Theme’ and have then composed three variations of increasing density. The main theme can be played by a beginner since it is a stripped -back two-part harmony but we move into a more intermediate setting with Variation 1 as it brings in some ‘chunkier’ chords and adds more movement in the accompaniment voice.

Variation 2 involves some advanced plucking control as the accompaniment voice is made up entirely of 12th-fret picking hand harmonics. This technique is explained at the start of the accompanying video so be sure to check that out first. 

The final variation sees a harmonised melody with an ever-moving accompanying voice, with a third ‘inner’ voice creeping into the texture towards the end. As mentioned previously, there are only actually three verses in the carol so this fourth iteration of the melody in Variation 3 should be considered an ‘optional advanced extra’; a Christmas gift to the more advanced players out there. Enjoy and be merry!  

Technique focus: a tale of two voices

As a general rule when starting out learning this arrangement I recommend plucking any single-note lower voice notes with the thumb. No matter how much we try the thumb always has a slight difference in timbre to the fingers, so dedicating the thumb to a single voice will create a greater sense of clarity in its separation from the upper melody which gets plucked by the fingers. 

The same rule should apply during the second variation that starts at bar 33 where the lower voice contains plucked harmonics – an effective technique here is to pluck all melody notes with the ‘a’ finger, and for the harmonics in the lower voice we touch the node of each harmonic at fret 12 with the tip of the ‘i’ finger and pluck with the thumb.

Performance notes

Play the melody legato, but try the same approach to the lower accompanying voice, cutting with the thumb where you see any rests. Playing the lower voice in isolation to get a feel for how it should sound will help achieve two clearly defined voicings. 

In bar 11, when we shift from the 2nd to the 7th fret we play the notes with the same fretting fingers for both positions – for a clean execution ensure that the same area of your fretting hand remains in contact with the strings during and after shifting. In bar 23 hold the high B at the 7th fret with the fourth finger so that shifting down to the A at the 5th fret is nice and smooth.

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