Oh When the Saints (difficult fingerstyle)

Previously, I presented an easy fingerstyle guitar version of When the Saints Go Marching In. Now I’ll try and take it to the next level, by adding some syncopation, bass runs, and a slightly more complex chord progression. I make no claim to be a fingerpicking virtuoso, but I believe this demonstrates some useful techniques. I find it lots of fun to play, and to my ear it sounds pretty good.

If you haven’t learned the previous version, I suggest checking it out now, as this lesson builds on that. If you find this one to be too big of a jump from the last one, stay tuned, as I will be posting some more intermediate songs, or check out some of the books listed below.

Timing is everything

One of the things that make this song so interesting is the rhythmic structure. The song is in 4/4 time, but the musical phrases don’t seem to quite line up with the four-beat measure length. In one sheet music version, the first measure has only three beats, while the last measure only has one played beat. That’s one way around the trickiness. In my last arrangement, I started the melody on the third beat of the first measure. That’s another way. To my ear, neither of these approaches fits well with the alternating-bass style of guitar playing.

So this time, I decided to start the melody right on the first beat of the first measure. This leads to some tricky fast chord changes a little later on, but since this is the advanced version of the song, that’s just what we want. And the added syncopation makes it more fun to play and adds to the swinging feel.

Some things to note

Well, the first measure looks pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It’s not too different from the easy version, in fact, it may be even easier. But right away in the second measure you can see things are changed. The bass line there can be played all with the thumb, and works as the “repeat” part of a call-and-repeat motif. Try to keep your pinky on the first string, third fret to let that high G keep ringing out. I’ve notated that with a squiggly line ~ in the tablature.

Next the same melodic phrase is repeated two more times, but this time with a little more syncopation. Then the bass notes are changed up a bit for the second repetition of “saints go marching in.” This adds a nice harmonic element to the arrangement.

The next tricky spot is the transition to the F chord in measure 12. In fingerstyle guitar, the F chord is typically played with the left thumb hooked over the fretboard to fret the sixth string, first fret, while the index finger bars the first two strings on the first fret, the middle finger holds the third string, second fret, and the ring finger holds the fourth string third fret. The fifth string is left open and usually not played. This can take some practice to get right. You may be used to the classic barre-chord style F, but the thumb-hooked version provides a little more flexibility for fingerstyle because it leaves the your pinky finger free.

After that, it’s pretty straightforward. I hope you enjoy learning and playing this arrangement!

Hear them marching

You can hear me playing the more difficult arrangement of Oh When the Saints. I play this with my capo on the fourth fret, to give the guitar a nice ringing sound. You’ll also notice I don’t follow the tablature exactly. And neither do you have to. Don’t be afraid to skip notes or play extra notes or to hit more than one string at a time. As long as you finger the whole chords, it should sound fine. And that’s the spirit of fingerpickin’ guitar!

Download as mp3 file

And now, the tablature





                          C                                G



There are a lot of great books about fingerpicking guitar out there. Here are a couple of my favorites.

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