How to play the Holly and the Ivy on acoustic guitar

Steeleye Span
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty images)

The festive season is upon us, a potential time of dread for any guitarist as the family gathers round and delivers the line every picker dreads: “Play something for us!” Luckily, Guitar Techniques is here to help, and this year I’ve created an arrangement of the old staple The Holly and the Ivy

Usually, I like to explore altered tunings for their unique colour and timbre. However, when the domestic requests for music start it’s generally better to avoid protracted re-tuning and jump straight into the playing. 

Standard tuning is full of possibilities for arranging, but many fingerpickers dive into altered tunings without discovering the myriad options that standard tuning offers. I’ve used E major for this arrangement to take advantage of the open sixth string and the easy access to the IV and V chords, A major and B major. In the case of the former, the open fifth string is often all you need to imply a move to the IV chord. 

When building arrangements of well-known pieces, it can be useful to approach things with a ‘frame’ in mind. This means that the bass strings are going to create the low foundation, the top strings are where the melody sits, and the inner strings – the fourth and third – are where harmony and counter-melodies can be created. The end result is usually an arrangement where the tune is obvious but colour and depth come from the low and middle strings. 

Using chords to arrange is a useful tool but can result in clunky or difficult-to-play arrangements, so sometimes moving away from chord shapes and letting the open strings and sparse harmony do the job is a better result. Open strings in particular are useful tools as they facilitate position shifts – a ringing open string lets the fretting hand shift position easily, without creating awkward silences. 

It’s also important to remember the role of dynamics – the melody is on the thinner, quieter top strings and the bass foundation is on the lowest two strings. The thumb hits the bottom strings with a downstroke while the melody is plucked with an upstroke from the ‘a’, ‘m’ and ‘i’ fingers, so ensure that you balance the volume between the bass notes and the all-important melody. 

Finally, this is a waltz in 3/4 so don’t forget to count accordingly. I hope you enjoy this arrangement, but make sure you allow plenty of time to get it under your fingers before performance day. Good luck! 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 3, Bass 7, Middle 6, Treble 7, Reverb 2

There are no great requirements for the type of acoustic guitar you use here, though personally I gravitate to larger-bodied instruments for their volume and depth. But smaller guitars will give a faster response when playing solo and the OM offers a great balance between the small and larger sizes. For this arrangement I used an Alvarez Masterworks MDR70ESB guitar.

Performance Notes

[Bars 1-17] I would take more of a classical based approach to playing this arrangement so this means adopting a ‘pima’ picking hand pattern where the thumb ‘p’ takes care of the bass strings (sixth, fifth, fourth) but can also pluck the third string at times. 

When you have more than one melody note on the same string, as in bar 11, make sure you alternate two more picking-hand fingers, say i and m or i, m, a. This will make for a smoother playing experience and sound. 

[Bars 18-45] At points, the melody is placed on the lower strings, as in bar 28, so make sure the picking-hand thumb works to bring these melody notes out against the higher strings.

You can also use more (or less) legato when playing the melody notes on the top strings. Some people prefer to use hammer-ons and pull-offs while others will lean more into the picking-hand ‘pima’ finger combinations described earlier.

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Stuart Ryan

Stuart Ryan is best known for his acoustic guitar playing, from Celtic fingerpicking and traditional folk to modern percussive phrasing and fresh interpretations of popular pieces. He has released several solo albums, written pieces for UK examination boards and created nine tutorial books ranging from acoustic guitar arrangements to Americana styles.