Learning to play happy birthday is something that every guitar player should do, regardless of their skill or experience level. Happy Birthday is a basic song, but it is important for guitar players to learn it because there will inevitably be a time when you are called on to play this song.
Happy Birthday can be played in many ways on the guitar. This song is simple and can be played in any key, but I usually played in the key of C Major. In this key, the song uses C Major, G Major, and F Major chords. Happy Birthday is played in 3/4 and makes use of an Anacrusis and a swing rhythm.
Be it for a colleague, family member, or friend, every guitar player will be asked to play happy birthday for someone. Knowing how to play this simple song is a great way to liven up this birthday tradition, and there are some interesting musical concepts to learn along the way as well. Let’s explore how to play happy birthday on the guitar.
Playing Happy Birthday: What You Need To Know First
Before learning to play the full happy birthday song on the guitar, it is very important to learn the necessary skills for playing the song.
This is not a particularly complicated song to learn to play, but Happy Birthday is such an iconic song that everyone who hears it expects it to be played well, or the song does not sound the way it should, especially if multiple people are singing the song simultaneously.
This means that learning to play happy birthday begins with learning the foundational elements of the song, including the key that the song is in, the chords that are used to play the song, the timing of the song, the time signature of the song, and any unusual musical elements used within the piece.
Let’s begin by taking the time to understand these fundamentals and then learn what you need to know to play the song itself.
The Key Of The Song
Happy Birthday is an iconic song internationally, but this song is not very complicated. Uncomplicated songs are easy to transpose, which means that happy birthday can be played in any key, so long as you understand how to move the song into that key.
The most commonly used key for happy birthday is the key of C Major. This key is ideal for the song because it is a key that does not utilize any accidentals (sharps and flats), which makes it significantly easier to read when playing the song from sheet music and keeps the chords very simple to use as well.
This song is always played in a major key, and every major key will work well for this song. Transposing happy birthday into a minor key will not sound good, and it will detract from the feel of the song.
When learning to play the song here, we will focus on the key of C Major as the basis of happy birthday.
The Chords Used For Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday is a simple, three-chord song. This song makes use of the string I-IV-V chord progression, which means that this song uses only the three major chords from the key that the song is played in.
In our case, in the key of C Major, the chords used for happy birthday are C Major, F Major, and G Major.
Most of the song is played only with the C Major and G Major chords, and the F Major is used only at the climax of the piece to give this section a stronger tone. Using only C Major and G Major for the majority of the song creates a sense of flow and dynamics that build to the strong F Major chord at the right moment.
Be sure that you can play all three of these chords well and change between them fluidly and comfortably before learning to play this song in its entirety.
The Timing And Time Signature For Happy Birthday
The time signature for happy birthday is another important element to understand. This song is in 3/4 time, which means there are three quaver or quarter-note beats per measure.
This means that is only a count of three beats in every bar of the song. This 3/4 time provides a swing feel that is integral to the sound of happy birthday and forms part of the foundation of the piece.
Playing in 3/4 time means that when strumming single measure chords, each chord will last for three beats. The single notes used in this song all fit into this time signature as well, and this forms the main melody of the piece.
The timing of this song can be difficult to understand at first, and it can seem challenging for such a simple song, but the way the beats are laid out in the song places a heavy emphasis on the last beat of each measure as these notes lead into each section of the melody.
The timing structure of this song is heavily focused on the first two beats of each measure being the longer notes and the final beat of each measure proving the space for the quicker notes in the melody.
This is a common melodic structure in 3/4 time, but it is the main use of timing in happy birthday.
The Anacrusis, or pickup bar, is another common trait of songs that are written in 3/4 time. An anacrusis is sometimes referred to as a pickup bar or a pickup note, as this is a section of music that is before the very first measure of the song and is usually a beat borrowed from the very last measure of the song.
In the case of happy birthday, the song begins with an Anacrusis that consists of two semiquavers, or two quarter notes, before the first bar of the song, where the rest of the melody and the first chord are played.
The fact that these two notes are played as an Anacrusis means that they are counted as beat 3 +, and they do not have to amount to a full measure of timing, as the other two beats of the measure are found at the end of the song.
All of this means that happy birthday begins with two notes of the melody counted as 3 + before the first chord, and this these continue throughout the piece to form the swing rhythm that this song uses so well.
The very last bar of the song is only two beats long, as the last beat is played in the Anacrusis.
How To Play Happy Birthday On Guitar
Now that we have learned the foundational elements of the song, it is time to begin learning to play the song itself.
Happy Birthday is an iconic song that must be played well to be recognized, and without executing the various elements of the song to a high level, it will not sound like a happy birthday at all.
Learning this song requires learning how to play the chords of the song, the melody of the song, and potentially combining both aspects of the piece into one cohesive song.
Learning these elements separately will allow you to play and sing the song, but learning to combine them will bring the song to a new level and provide the perfect platform for celebrating a birthday.
This video is an excellent option when learning to play this song, as it teaches you how to play the chords and the melody simultaneously to get the most from this song when playing it on guitar.
Learning The Chords
Learning to play the chord section of happy birthday is among the simplest aspects of playing the song.
Let’s first highlight the fact that the very first chord does not fall on the first note in the melody. This means that if you are playing and singing happy birthday simultaneously, the first chord does not come in with the first word.
This is due to the Anacrusis that we learned earlier, and it means that the first chord of the song comes in on the word ‘birthday’ when singing the song, which is the first beat after the pickup bar.
The first chord in the song is a C Major. This chord is played on the first beat of the second measure. The second chord is G Major, played on beat one for measure two. The G Major is repeated for another measure, and measure four has a C Major on beat one.
C Major is repeated for another measure, but measure six is played with a C Major on beat one and an F Major chord on beat two that finishes the rest of the measure.
We move back to C Major for measure seven, where the chord is played on beat one and held over the second beat, and G Major is played for the last beat before changing quickly back to C Major to be played on the first beat of the last measure and held to the end of the song.
These chords are played with a single strum each. This provides room to sing along with the chords or to play the melody along with the chords as you progress through the piece.
Learning The Melody
The melody of this song is simple to play, but learning the timing can be a challenge for new players. It is critical to sing the song along with your melody while you play it when learning the song, as this will ensure that you play all of the notes in the right place.
This method makes learning the song easier and allows guitar players who cannot read musical notation to get the timing of the piece correct every time.
The melody is a simple use of the notes from the C Major scale played in the open position. Using these notes to play the song means that the entire melody is played within the first four frets on the guitar and utilizes the open strings frequently throughout the piece.
Always use your first finger for the first fret, your second finger for the second fret, and your third finger for the third fret when learning to play the melody for happy birthday.
This will ensure that you always use the correct fingers for the notes, but also that you will be able to learn to play the melody in conjunction with the chords with little modification to the way you play the song.
Put The Chords And Melody Together
Once you have learned to play the melody and the chords for happy birthday separately and you are very comfortable playing them on your own, it is time to begin combining the two parts into one song.
This process is less challenging than you may expect, and so long as you know both sections very well and you used the correct fingers to learn the melody, then combining them is simple.
All it takes is playing the chords on the correct beats when playing through the melody. This means that you play the melody as usual, but when the chords are required, you play chords rather than the note that the melody requires.
The note that the melody uses is found within the chord, so replacing it will the chord will always sound good.
Learning to combine the two sections in this way will create a full-sounding, complete song that is ideal for playing while people sing along. Learn to play the song this way, and it will always be a favorite when birthdays come around.
Learning to play happy birthday on guitar is an ideal song for beginners, and it is necessary for advanced players as well. This song is a favorite at every birthday party, and if you can play it on the guitar, you will bring some new life to this tired song.
Take the time to learn this piece for the next birthday party that you attend, and singing happy birthday will become an enjoyable event rather than a tiresome one. Every guitarist should learn this song, and it is well worth the practice.