“Amazing Grace,” a song describing a transcendent religious experience, is among the most beloved of all hymns—and in terms of history, it’s also one of the most complex. The song is closely associated with slavery in America, but it was in fact written by an English slave trader-turned abolitionist, John Newton (1725–1807), who reportedly had a spiritual awakening following a harrowing storm at sea.
During the American civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, “Amazing Grace” became a vehicle for political expression and was also famously covered by folk singers such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez. Audiences at the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969 were treated to Arlo Guthrie’s languid folk-country version, the inspiration behind the arrangement shown here. (For more on the guitarists at Woodstock, see Blair Jackson’s feature.)
Guthrie played “Amazing Grace” in the key of C major, using a handful of familiar first-position chords—C, C7, F, Am, and G, in order of appearance. Any basic waltz strumming pattern should suffice, but for the simplest approach try playing a chord’s root (the lowest note) on beat 1 of each measure, followed by downward strums on beats 2 and 3, and if you’d like, upward strums on the “ands” of 2 and 3.
In the Woodstock performance, Guthrie’s co-guitarist, John Pilla, plays his excellent acoustic fills behind the vocals. I’ve provided a representative sampling in this arrangement. Some of the fills are based on harmonic sixths (bars 1 and 2, etc.) and others around the open chord shapes (bar 4, etc.), but all serve the same purpose—to suit the song and its lovely melody.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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