Easy Fingerpicking Lesson: How to Play “House of the Rising Sun”


Excerpted from The Acoustic Guitar Method | by David Hamburger

For members of a certain generation, it’s well nigh impossible to hear the phrase “house of the rising sun” without experiencing a sudden aural flash: those rippling electric arpeggios that kick off the Animals’ now-definitive version of the tune from 1964. The song still rocks (you can hear it on The Complete Animals) and it’s surprisingly easy and fun to play and sing.

By the time the British Invasion band got their hands on “House of the Rising Sun,” it had been around for a long, long time; originally it was sung from a woman’s point of view. It makes a whole lot more sense that way, since the Rising Sun of the song was essentially a brothel, something New Orleans had in great abundance until the Storyville red-light district was shut down in 1917.

That’s how Bob Dylan cut it on his first record, Bob Dylan (Columbia); his arrangement owed a lot to Dave Van Ronk, who later did it on Just Dave Van Ronk (Mercury). Tony Rice’s Unit of Measure (Rounder) includes a strong instrumental rendition.

FINGERS ON STRINGS

Fingerpicking involves your entire right hand (well almost – your pinky usually just tags along), and it can get pretty complicated, so pickers have generally agreed on a few basics. The first assigns the thumb and fingers to particupar strings and uses this idea to describe picking patterns. The pattern we’ll use for “House of the Rising Sun,” employs the index, middle, and ring finger along with the thumb. Here’s how these fingers are indicated in the notation:

p = thumb

i = index

m = middle

a = ring

“Come on, Dave,” I hear you say, “thumb starts a t, not a p. And ring starts with an r, not an a. What’s all this p, i, m, a stuff about?”

Well, it comes from classical guitar notation, where p stands for pulgar, i stands for indice, m stands for medio, and a stands for anular (the Spanish words for thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger). It takes a little getting used to, but this is how picking-hand fingerings are often indicated.

To start, rest your thumb on the sixth string, your index finger on the third string, your middle finger on the second string, and your ring finger on the first string.

Got that? Now, look at your fingers and thumb. You want to have your thumb about an inch closer to the fingerboard than your fingers, and your fingers should be somewhat curled up, without too big an arch to your wrist. If your fingers and thumb are all bunched together, try sliding your thumb along the strings toward the fingerboard as you slide your fingers back toward the bridge.

For now, your fingers are assigned to these strings: you’re always going to use your thumb for the sixth string, index for the third string, middle for the second string, and ring for the first string. To get used to this, lift your fingers from the strings as a group, then drop them back down onto the strings again.

OK, now that you’ve gotten your fingers identified with the strings they’re going to play, lift your hand up so your fingertips are hovering maybe a half an inch above the strings. That’s where you want to keep your hand when you play; if you leave your fingers resting on the strings, you’ll keep those strings from ringing out.

BASIC THUMB AND FINGER PATTERNS

To start learning the pattern for this song, you’re first going to fret an Em chord and then just go up the strings, picking each string once, as in Example 1. Just think of it as rolling up the strings: thumb, index, middle, then ring. There it is: the first part of the pattern. This is one of those things that just gets better (and easier) with simple and constant repetition. Do it slowly enough to get every note sounding even and clear.

Note: Unlike strumming, fingerpicking isolates every note of a chord, so it’s kind of like a lie detector test for your left hand. You find out just how clearly (or not) you’ve been fretting your chords.

Now let’s take a look at how to adapt this picking pattern to play “House of the Rising Sun,” which is in 3/4. We’ll stay with the Em chord and then work our way up to the complete song.

The first pattern we learned really lasts for only two beats if you just play it once: thumb, index, middle, ring. To make it work in waltz time, or 3/4, we need to add one more beat. We can get that by coming back down the strings at the end, repeating the second and third strings with the middle and index fingers, as in Example 2. Try playing this pattern two measures in a row (Example 3).

In Example 4, try it on a G chord. You can keep your picking hand on the same strings – sixth, third, second, and first. To play on an A chord (Example 5) or a C chord (Example 6), bring your thumb up to pick the fifth string, and keep your index, middle, and ring fingers on the top three strings. Example 7 shows this pattern on a B7 chord.

“HOUSE” RULES

“House of the Rising Sun” requires you to switch chords every bar, except in measures 7 and 8, when you hang on the B7 for two bars. Some of the changes are harder than others, so it’s a good idea to practice making one-bar switches back and forth between each pair of chords: Em to G and back, G to A and back, A to C and back, G to B7 and back, B7 to Em and back.

Below, you’ll find the entire tune. You may want to create an intro by alternating between Em and B7 a couple times before coming in with the song itself; to do so, play the full pattern, or one measure, for every chord change, or Em, B7, Em, B7. This strategy also creates some breathing room between verses, since there are quite a few of them.

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You can play the song in E minor without the capo, if that’s a good key for your voice. But if you want to sound like many of the recorded versions of “House of the Rising Sun,” place your capo at the fifth fret and keep everything else the same: play the exact same chords with the exact same picking pattern. This makes the arrangement in the key of E minor sound in the key of A minor.

This complete lesson on “House of the Rising Sun” is excerpted from The Acoustic Guitar Method.

Learn to play the techniques and songs of American roots music.

Whether you are studying with a teacher or on your own, let The Acoustic Guitar Method be your guide to the joys and pleasures of playing guitar. This comprehensive approach, with graded lessons and supplementary songs, is the one tool you need to get started. 

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“Every one from beginner to intermediate should be able to get something from this book. It can only enhance your playing as it has mine. It has even helped with some bad habits I have acquired over the years.” —Glen B.

“I want to thank David Hamburger for this book. I have for several years learned the hooks and riffs of lead guitar, and made several efforts, without success to not master, but just become proficient with rhythm guitar. By chapter 3, I find myself able to strum a stable rhythm, and have 4 different strumming patterns down! No one would hire me as rhythm guitarist for their band, but I am no longer ashamed to tell people who see my guitar, that I can’t play. I CAN play now … this book gave me the confidence to play. Thank you, David.” —Richard H.

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For more inspiration, check out some recordings of “House of the Rising Sun”:

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