It's likely that, out of all of the songs worldwide, "Happy Birthday" may be the most commonly known one.
We've all sung it at one point, probably around some cake and loved ones --- but what if you wanted to bring your guitar into the celebration? Whether you're learning your first song, playing at a birthday party, or looking for an easy guitar lesson, "Happy Birthday" can be played in various fun ways.
We'll explore six different stylings to play the Happy Birthday song on a guitar, including using basic chords, classical techniques, jazz chords, and more. You can make this cheerful tune your own with these step-by-step tips and tricks in your bag.
1. The Standard Arrangement
Playing a basic version of "Happy Birthday" is perfect for beginners or anyone just looking to join the candles at the last minute, as it requires just three simple guitar chords.
To play it, start strumming an A major chord. Switch to an E major chord when you get to the first, "you," then play the E major chord until you change to the A major chord as you hit the second, "you."
On the third go around, you'll play the A major chord again, but this time play the D major chord when you sing the person's name. Finish the song by playing the A major chord with a little bit of flare on the last "birthday" to the end!
When you're done, you'll have successfully made "Happy Birthday" an easy song using only three chords --- and it works well on electric or acoustic guitar. This version is great for jumping into a celebration without too much planning, and it doesn't require many guitar skills --- meaning it's an easy guitar tutorial for beginners.
2. Classical Guitar
Playing fingerstyle is a fantastic way to give "Happy Birthday" a unique flavor. Start with the basic E, A, and D chords, but use a fingerpicking pattern instead of strumming.
Once you've mastered the three chords, you can have some fun exploring different arrangements. For example, you can pluck the lowest sounding note with your thumb, followed by plucking higher strings with your index, middle, and ring fingers.
You can also try experimenting with arpeggiating the chords for a particularly classical feel. Arpeggiating means taking the chord and splitting it up into individual notes to be played in an ascending or descending pattern or even a mix.
Focus your thumb on the lowest note of each chord and use your index, middle, and ring fingers to pluck two strings at a time, moving rhythmically up and down the strings while holding down the chord.
3. Jazz It Up
If you're a guitar pro and want a more sophisticated sound, you might try using jazz chords when playing "Happy Birthday" on guitar. Start again with the basic E, A, and D chords, but substitute the major seventh chords for the A and D chords.
Leaving the E major chord as it helps balance out the jazzy chords instead of letting them get too jazzy (think of adding salt to caramel instead of just overly sweet candy.)
Also, when you get to the D major 7th chord, transition to the D minor chord as you reach the person's name. This is an excellent addition to the chord progression as the vocal melody has just enough dissonance with the chord to sound, as they say, jazzy.
Why Do Guitar Players Use Jazz Chords?
A jazz chord is when you start with a typical chord, such as A or Bm, then add extra notes that provide color and expressive nuance. These extra notes are shown with numbers, such as A9 or Bm11.
Plus, jazz chords often sound richer than traditional chords.
4. Bluesy Slide Guitar-Style Playing
Did you know that the slide guitar is thought to have been invented in Hawaii instead of in the South, where the blues were born?
You can use slide guitar techniques to make "Happy Birthday" a bluesy guitar song. Essentially, you put a metal bar over some of the strings and slide it up and down the fretboard to create different sounds.
This will give your version of "Happy Birthday" a unique, soulful sound --- almost like The Derek Trucks Bandis serenading the birthday celebrant!
To get started, you'll want to tune your guitar to Open D. This tuning is specifically designed for playing the slide because no matter where you play a bar chord across the neck, it's a beautiful, resonant sound! Once you've done this, it's as easy as the standard, playing the A, an E, and D chords, but instead of playing with your hand, you'll be able to slide from one to the other!
Quick Tips for Using a Slide
Playing with a slide may sound (and look) easy-peasy if you've never done it. While it's relatively straightforward, sounding good with a slide requires practice. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Use light, smooth strokes when sliding up and down the strings.
Practice sliding to your chord and landing right where you want to be, just above (towards the headstock) the fret itself. It's easy to slide to a chord and begin to drift; holding your hand steady is the key.
Remember to use vibrato to add extra saucy flavor!
Don't push down too hard. If you come into contact with the frets, you'll end up with an intense buzzing noise, especially if you're playing an electric guitar.
5. Heavy Metal
For those of you who are more interested in the heavier genres of music, these traditional arrangements of "Happy Birthday" may seem a little weak. We've got you covered.
If you want to play a super sludgy version of "Happy Birthday," you've got two different options that will both work great: You can either abandon the chords and play the vocal melody on the low E string with your guitar absolutely smashed with distortion, or play the power chord versions of E, A, and D, and just chug as fast as you can.
Whether you prefer fast or slow metal will determine which styling you choose, but you really can't go wrong with either as long as you've cranked up your overdrive.
6. Folk Jam
While playing "Happy Birthday" in a folk jam style, similar to a band like Mumford and Sons, may not be much different musically from the standard arrangement, there are a few adjustments you can make to make your performance stand out.
For starters, what's known as "stomp-clap" folk music tends to have a particular strumming pattern that you can use to bring some energy into the song.
Start by striking the low strings of your chord first, then popping up onto the rest of the chord with your nails for a bright and loud strum. Let the whole chord ring for a moment before quickly strumming up-down-up-down and repeating the whole motion --- this should be repeated twice every measure of the song.
Second, if you want your song to sound more folksy, try using a capo to raise up the key of the song. Bands in this genre tend to play anywhere from the 3rd fret all the way up to the 9th or even 12th fret. Putting a capo on your guitar this high raises the pitch of all of your notes, but it also increases the tension and, therefore, the brightness of everything you play, making your guitar sound more "twangy" and banjo-like.
The Bottom Line
Who knew there were so many ways to play "Happy Birthday" on guitar? Even if you're just learning guitar, your basic chords will work wonderfully for a group of friends just as much as jazz chords or slide guitar will make you sound like a virtuoso at your next party.
Don't worry if you've heard the story that "Happy Birthday" was copyrighted - while this used to be true, the copyright was lifted, and the song was made public domain in 2016! So play away, friends.
With different styling, a capo, a little bit of overdrive, and Rocksmith+ to take your skills even further, there's no limit to how you can play "Happy Birthday" and make it truly memorable. Here's to easy strumming!