Looking for a way to level up your rock guitar skills while also adding an awesome crowd-pleasing song to your repertoire?
Well, this "House Of The Rising Sun" guitar lesson has got you covered.
If you're a fan of folk and blues music, then you've likely heard "House of the Rising Sun" at least once. This iconic song has been covered by countless artists over the years, but perhaps none have captured the haunting melody quite like The Animals.
As a guitarist, learning to play "House of the Rising Sun" can be a challenging task, but it's sure to capture the attention of your audience once you get it down.
In this post, I'll break down the song into simple steps, so you can start playing it on your own in no time. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced player, this guide will help you master this classic tune and add it to your repertoire. So grab your guitar, and let's jump in!
"The House of the Rising Sun" is a traditional folk song, and like many folk songs, its true author is unknown. Musicologists have suggested that it was based on a 16th-century ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," but there is no concrete evidence to support this claim. The song was also known as "Rising Sun Blues," and its lyrics tell the tale of an unfortunate person's misfortunes in the city of New Orleans.
The most commercially successful version of the song was recorded by the British rock band The Animals in 1964. However, it was first collected in Appalachia in the 1930s and likely has roots in traditional English folk music. Once The Animals recorded their version, it helped shape many of the versions that followed. Check out the video below, and see which version is your favorite.
Let's begin with the chord progression for the intro. This part reappears throughout the song as an interlude between the verse sections. It is an 8-bar chord progression in the key of Am. Each chord lasts for one bar and goes as follows: Am, C, D, F, and then Am, E, Am, E.
I suggest playing all of these chords as basic open-position chords, except for the F chord. For the F chord, I recommend playing a small F chord instead of the full bar chord. To play this chord, you can strum from the 4th string down.
To start, get comfortable with the chord changes by strumming each chord once and then counting to 6. This song is in a 6/8 time signature, so each measure will have 6 beats instead of the common 4/4 time.
The 6/8 time signature gives the song a waltz-like feel. I suggest emphasizing an anchor on beats 1 and 4 by slightly accenting them as you count, like this:
||: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 :||
The intro to "House Of The Rising Sun" begins with the signature riff strumming through the chord progression. However, many instructors teach this riff with a fingerstyle approach. While this song can be played that way, The Animals' version was done with a flat pick. In my opinion, this technique is one of the trickiest parts to master for this song.
Later in this post, I'll show you a great fingerstyle version as well.
The pick has to flow down through the strings in a dragging motion almost like a sweeping, or downstrumming pattern.
These are done with quick 16th-note bursts throughout the pattern and chord progression. Here is an example of how this would look on an Am chord:
Then on C, the pattern stays the same but the chord shape changes.
As you move through the progression each pattern starts with the root note of each chord. So Am and C have root notes on the 5th string, but D and F have root notes on the 4th string. Those two chords would be approached with the same idea but note the doubling up of playing the same string twice on the 1st string like this:
And on F like this:
Then the final chord you’ll want to know how to navigate is the E chord and this can be done like this:
Notice here on the E chord the extra 16-note in comparison to the other chords. Here we are actually using all 6 strings and note doubling up on any, just strumming down and then back up ending on the 3rd string.
QUICK TIPS: 2 things to keep in mind as you work this out:
Once you’ve got the classic 8-bar intro down then you’ll want to move on to the verse progression. The verse is a 14-bar chord progression that starts off the same way for the first 4 bars but then changes just slightly like this:
Am, C, D, F
Am, C, E, E
Again each chord here is going to last one bar except for now the E lasting two bars at the end of the phrase. From there you tie in the same progression as the first 6 bars of the intro so:
Am, C, D, F,
Am, E (to intro)
Then that is the end of the vocal melody and here you drop in the intro signature riff again for 8 bars and follow this progression again:
Am, C, D, F,
Am, E, Am, E
Between the intro and verse progressions that will cover you for the entire song until about 4 mins, and that is where the outro chord progression begins. Here we’ll bring in one new chord Dm, and that can be played like this:
The final progression for the outro just switches between an Am chord and a Dm chord in the same measure. Here I’ll often just strum the Am once for 3 beats and then 3 final strums on the Dm chord like this:
This repeats over and over until the organ swells and the song ends on the Am.
As mentioned this song is often played fingerstyle as well. Here is a fantastic version of Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler jamming this classic song together.
Notice how they changed the time signature from 6/8 to 4/4 and Atkins applied his super common “boom-chick” finger-picking pattern.
Once you've mastered the individual parts of "House of the Rising Sun" on guitar, it's time to put it all together and jam along to the song. Start by playing along with a recording and just strumming through the progression once per chord.
Then, as you become more comfortable, try adding in the more intricate strumming and riffs. Focus on keeping in time with the 6/8 rhythm and matching the dynamics of the original performance.
As you become more confident with the song, try playing it without the recording and experimenting with your own ideas. With practice, you can make this song your own with your unique style. And for another great rock song check out “You Really Got Me” next!
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