How to Play "Hava Nagila"

(Image: © Cindy Moorhead)

If you’ve ever been to a Bar Mitzvah or Jewish wedding, you’ve probably heard "Hava Nagila." It is the consummate Jewish celebratory song.

The history of the song’s origin is a subject of debate, but most scholars agree that it was composed in 1915 in what was then Ottoman Palestine. One story has a professor by the name of Abraham Zevi Idelsohn at Hebrew University cataloging all known Jewish music and, during his studies, creating the classic. Another has Idelsohn teaching a music composition class and assigning one of his students, Moshe Nathanson, the challenge of adding rhythm and words to an already existing chant to create a “modern Hebrew song.” Regardless of who actually wrote "Hava Nagila," the song became an immediate hit.

While the lyrics, which translate from Hebrew to “Let’s rejoice,” were written in the early 20th century, the melody itself is based on a Hassidic Nigun (a melody used to chant a Bible verse)—and may be much older. Indeed, the melody is derived from the Phrygian dominant scale, which has pretty much been around since mankind was making scalar music.

Enough history. Let’s get to jamming. To play this as a solo piece on guitar, you’re going to need to pluck multiple strings at once, otherwise you’re going to only be picking the melody and it's going to sound tinny with no bass. The good news is—the song being in Phrygian (and in this case played in the key of E)—all you’ll really have to do is keep plucking that low E or A string depending on where you are in the song.

You'll use your thumb from the bass notes and your index and middle fingers to pluck the melody line. It’s a bit more complicated than that but definitely learnable. Watch the video and I’ll break it down for you.