Recently I received a question from a frustrated guitar player who was having a hard time playing hymns on guitar. He explained that the old hymnals didn’t have chord symbols for guitar, just standard musical notation. He was unable to figure out the chords and changes from the sheet music. And he was also having a hard time trying to play along with the piano player by ear. He wondered how a guitar player should approach this type of music. My response is below.
Church hymns are usually played by piano or organ players and can be very difficult for guitar players to accompany. Usually hymns have changes on every beat, sometimes every half beat! Additionally, hymns arranged for piano and organ are full arrangements featuring the melody, chordal accompaniment, and even fills. These arrangements are intended to be played solo, that is, without any accompanying instrumentation. This just doesn’t give any room for guitarists to add parts. And doubling the piano doesn’t sound good either (you end up interfering too much with each other). Bottom line, hymns are composed in a manner where the piano/organ plays alone and takes up all the space. In fact, when we play a traditional hymn at my church, the other instrumentalists usually sit it out. I only play on hymns if there is enough space for me to fill. In this case I don’t play the chord changes, I just fill by ear. And I don’t play much.
Piano and guitar are similar in that they’re both chordal instruments capable of playing both chords and melody. In ensemble situations, both instruments need to simplify and leave room for one another. But solo piano and organ music is not written this way, so it’s up to you and the pianist to work something out. Unfortunately, piano players who are used to reading music are not always good at playing anything other than what’s written on the page. In other words, they don’t know how to play any differently and they may not be able to change their parts to allow you space to play along.
As far as how to read the standard musical notation, well, if you don’t know how to read music, then you’re not going to be able to read the music. You’ll need to play by ear or follow a chord chart (or learn how to ready music).
The only time a guitar player can really play a hymn arrangement in its full form is when he’s playing solo. Below is an example of me playing the Christian hymn Holy, Holy, Holy in a chord melody, fingerstyle manner arranged specifically for solo guitar. Notice that I didn’t leave room for a piano player.
Church Hymns Guitar Tab
I arranged this version myself by ear with a little help from a chord chart. You can view the holy holy holy guitar tab here. This is a fingerstyle chord melody version for intermediate and advanced guitar players with finger picking experience. It’s a great lesson on how to use shapes and inversions based on the CAGED Guitar Chord system.