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Away in a Manger - A Christmas guitar lesson

Guitar Lesson by Kirk Lorange
Difficulty Rating: Intermediate

I finally cleared up the mystery of why I wasn't recognizing 'Away in a Manger' from the tune I learned as a kid back in Canada: there are two versions! I grew up listening to the British version, but there's an American version as well. Both use the same lyrics but they have different melodies. I've done both in this lesson.

They're both waltzes, meaning of course that they're in 3/4 time, and both are in the key of C. I added a couple of bars of padding between them.

I start with the American version. I tried to play it as slowly and deliberately as possible to keep it all nice and clear. This version is very diatonic, meaning it all revolves around chords from the key of C. It's all based around the I-IV-V chords of C, apart from a couple of Dm chords (the ii chord) near the end. For those who are interested, the Roman numeral chord progression is:

| I - - | - - - | IV - - | I - - | V - - | - - - | IV - - | I - - |
| I - - | - - - | IV - - | I - - | ii - - | I - - | ii - V | I - - |

So nothing unusual going on there. From what I gather, it derives from a Johann Strauss waltz.

It's all fairly straight forward from a playing point of view. As always, the thumb is taking care of the bass notes, the index-middle-ring handling the rest. You'll see some chord plucks in there, where I play the bass note and chord at the same time, but you'll see and hear that I don't always pluck all notes at the same instant. For example, in bar 2, I pluck the first chord as a unit, but the second one I let roll of my finger tips. It's not an arpeggio, it's something else. I'm not sure if there's a term for it (there must be!) but it's something I do very often. It spreads the chord out over a few fractions of a second and adds a bit of texture to the overall sound, especially if you alternate between the other way ... the pluck-em'-all-at-once pluck.

You'll notice that even though there's an F chord in there, I didn't use the barre version. I got away with that by playing the bass note on the 4th string rather than the 6th. In one case (bar 8) I actually use a C bass note, which is a 'second inversion' of the chord, so again, no need for the barre. I'm like most guitarists: if I can avoid playing a barre chord, I will.

I add a little ascending bass line in bar 11, which is a repeat of bar 3. It's always good to build an arrangement up as it moves along, keep the listener listening.

Bar 16 is the only spot you might find a little tricky. Grabbing that low F bass note is a bit of a stretch if you're not used to it.

The filler bewteen the US and UK version: I move form a C to a F/G, otherwise known as 'F over G', a slash chord. It can also be called a G11, but F/G is a much easier way to think of it. If you're not familiar with slash chords, read up on them here.

The UK version starts at bar 21. This is the tune I'm familiar with and there'a bit more to it. A few more 'outside' chords come into play and as usual, they're just major versions of the minor chords you'd expect to find in the key of C. 'Majorizing' the minors is by far the most common way of moving out of the key and adding a bit of interest to a composition, and it's one that you begin to 'hear' quite easily after a while. Of course to be able to hear it, you must first do the most important thing of all when it comes to being a musician: LISTEN. Learning pieces through tab or notation is all well and good, but often we forget to actually listen to what's going on, the different flavors of chords, the harmonies ... To able to listen to a piece of music and know what's going on, which chords are which, where the progression has come from and where it's leading, is really what being a musician is all about. It's just a language. Imagine if we had to read from a printed page everything we wanted to say?

As I was saying ... the second version has few more tricky bits than the first, some harmony lines in sixths, a bit more moving around the fretboard, but it's all just a matter practice. I think you'll find once you do practice up all the bits and pieces and fit them together that you'll enjoy hearing yourself playing this version. I love the passage through bars 31 and 32 where the C7 tells you something new is coming and, sure enough, there's a momentary A7 chord there (a majorized vi) leading to the Dm ... fleeting, but satisfying.

Here is the Roman numeral progression for the UK version:

| I - - | - - - | - - - | ii - - | V - - | I - - | II - - | V - - |
| I - - | - - - | - - VI | ii - - | V - - | I - - | ii - V | I - - |

The blue chords are the outsiders. They would normally be minor in the key of C.

You'll hear that both versions end exactly the same way, that bars 16-17 are identical to bars 35-36.

The outro, starting at measure 36, is the same C to F/G that I use between the two versions.


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A big thanks in advance, Kirk Lorange