Until recently, I’ve never bothered to learn a respectable arrangement of “Happy Birthday.” Here’s a song that I never plan on performing, and yet receive more requests for than any other. When you consider that most folks go out to a bar or restaurant with friends and family to celebrate their special day, I guess it should come as no surprise that there’s a birthday in the room almost every night. So after faking my way through a few times, I finally sat down to create a solo guitar arrangement for myself. If you enjoy the arrangement or have any questions please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!
Below you can download my arrangement in PDF format and listen to a recording of it. Please leave a comment below if you enjoy the arrangement.
Looking for an easier version?
Try Easy Happy Birthday Accompaniment for Guitar!
My goal was to create a simple, traditional sounding arrangement that would support vocals if anyone wanted to sing along. No fancy ornamentations or chord substitutions were used, although I am considering doing a jazz arrangement at some point.
Pay close attention to the left-hand fingerings indicated in the music. These will give the smoothest, most connected sound to your playing.
As always, the melody is paramount. Work to bring the melody notes out above the volume of the accompaniment. Be careful not to let one melody note sustain into the next. The most important example of this is in measure 6. When you place your second finger on the A on beat two, let the side of your finger touch the open B string to stop it from ringing. The same concept applies the melody notes in measures 2 and 4 and the bass run in measure 6 although you’ll need to explore ways of using both your left and right hand fingers to dampen any unwanted notes.
You can generally let the notes of the accompaniment sustain except where indicated by the quarter rests. Where the rests occur, let the melody sound alone and use this little reprieve to get your fingers set for the next measure. You’ll especially need the rest to transition between measures 2 and 3.
You never know what will happen on the gig, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
Play an Intro
If you want to make the song a little longer or if you think there’s any chance that people will actually sing along, it’d be a good idea to play a little introduction. Playing the last four bars of the piece with the pickup notes as I’ve done on my recording will do nicely.
Cajoling the Audience
Depending on the circumstances, I sometimes like to see if I can entice the servers and the rest of the room to join in with singing. You’ll have to be the judge of what’s appropriate based on the venue and the audience.
Once is Enough
Save yourself from having to play Happy Birthday a second time by always asking if there are any other birthdays in the house before you begin. You don’t want anyone to feel slighted, and a second time though is never quite as special!
Let it Breathe
You’ll notice I marked the piece rubato. I like to slow down a little at the end of every two-measure section to give singers a chance to breathe. Even if you play the piece as an instrumental, these changes in tempo will create an expressive performance that implies the familiar lyrics.
The Key is Key
If you plan on singing, or leading a sing-along of Happy Birthday, decide on a key ahead of time. My wife Melanie who has a strong background in choral music suggests that the key of Eb Major is probably a better key for the average singer considering the one-octave range of the piece. If you’d like to try it in Eb, just place a capo at the third fret to transpose. If that key doesn’t suit your voice, move the capo around until you’ve found comfortable key.
Have At It
Well, there’s one more request you’ll be prepared for. It may not be the hippest tune in your set, but people will really appreciate it! Have fun and let me know if you use it.