Easy Finger Grab Lesson: How to Play ‘House of the Rising Sun’


Extract of The acoustic guitar method | by David Hamburger

For members of a certain generation, it is almost impossible to hear the expression “house of the rising sun” without feeling a sudden auditory flash: these undulating electric arpeggios that kick off the now definitive version of Animals from 1964. The rock song again (you can hear it on Complete animals) and it’s surprisingly easy and fun to play and sing along.

By the time the British Invasion group got their hands on “House of the Rising Sun” it had been around for a long, long time; originally it was sung from a woman’s point of view. It makes a lot more sense that way, since the song’s Rising Sun was essentially a brothel, something New Orleans had in great abundance until the Storyville red light district closed in 1917.

That’s how Bob Dylan cut it on his first record, Bob dylan (Colombia); his arrangement owed much to Dave Van Ronk, who did so later on Just Dave Van Ronk (Mercury). Tony Rice Unit of measure (Rounder) includes a strong instrumental interpretation.


Fingerpicking involves your entire right hand (well almost – your pinky usually just follows), and it can get pretty complicated, so pickers have usually agreed on a few basics. The first assigns the thumb and fingers to particular strings and uses this idea to describe picking patterns. The model we will use for “House of the Rising Sun” uses the index, middle and ring fingers with the thumb. Here is how these fingers are indicated in the notation:

p = inch

I = index

m = middle

a = ring

“Come on, Dave,” I hear you say, “thumb start a t, not one p. And Ring starts with a r, not one a. What is all this p, i, m, a stuff about?

Well, that comes from classical guitar notation, where p means pulgar, I means index, m means medio, and a means anular (the Spanish words for thumb, index, middle and ring fingers). It takes a little getting used to, but this is how hand fingerings are often indicated.

To start, put your thumb on the sixth string, your index finger on the third string, your middle finger on the second string, and your ring finger on the first string.

It’s understood? Now look at your fingers and your thumb. You want your thumb to be about an inch closer to the key than your fingers, and your fingers should be curled up somewhat, without too much arch on your wrist. If your fingers and thumb are all grouped together, try sliding your thumb along the strings toward the fingerboard while sliding your fingers toward the bridge.

For now, your fingers are assigned to these strings: you’ll still be using your thumb for the sixth string, your index finger for the third string, the middle for the second string, and the ring for the first string. To get used to it, lift your fingers off the strings as a group, then drop them back onto the strings.

OK, now that you’ve identified your fingers with the strings they are going to play, raise your hand so that your fingers are perhaps hovering a half inch above the strings. This is where you want to keep your hand when playing; if you keep your fingers on the strings, you will prevent those strings from sounding.


To start learning the pattern of this song, you’ll first fret an Em chord, then wind up the strings, choosing each string once, as in Example 1. Just remember to wrap the strings: thumb, index finger, middle, then ring. Here it is: the first part of the pattern. It’s one of those things that gets better (and gets easier) with simple, constant repetition. Do this slowly enough that each note sounds even and clear.

Note: Unlike strumming, fingerpicking isolates each note of a chord, so it’s kind of like a lie detector test for your left hand. You discover how clearly (or not) you care about your chords.

Now let’s see how to adapt this selection model to play “House of the Rising Sun”, which is in 3/4. We’re going to stay with the Em chord and then work our way up to the full song.

The first pattern we learned really only lasts two beats if you only play it once: thumb, index, middle, ring. To make it work in waltz time, or 3/4, we need to add extra time. It can be obtained by going down the strings at the end, repeating the second and third strings with the middle and index fingers, as in Example 2. Try playing this pattern two measures in a row (Example 3).

In Example 4, try it on a G chord. You can keep your picking hand on the same strings – sixth, third, second and first. To play on an A chord (Example 5) or a C chord (Example 6), bring your thumb up to choose the fifth string, and keep your index, middle and ring fingers on the top three strings. Example 7 shows this pattern on a B7 chord.

Musical Examples 4-7 showing selection schemes for G major, A major, C major and B b7 written in both standard notation and tabulation


“House of the Rising Sun” forces you to change chords in every bar, except in bars 7 and 8, when you hold on to the B7 for two bars. Some of the changes are more difficult than others, so it’s a good idea to practice back and forth one bar between each pair of chords: Em to G and back, G to A. and back, A to C and back, G to B7 and back, B7 to Em and back.

Below you will find the entire melody. You may want to create an intro by alternating between Em and B7 a few times before entering with the song itself; to do this, play the entire pattern, or one measure, for each chord change, or Em, B7, Em, B7. This strategy also creates some wiggle room between verses, as there is quite a bit of it.

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You can play the song in E minor without the capo, if that is a good note for your voice. But if you want to sound like most of the recorded versions of “House of the Rising Sun”, place your capo on the fifth fret and keep everything else the same: play exactly the same chords with the exact same picking pattern. This makes the arrangement in the key of E minor ring in the key of A minor.

acoustic guitar fingerpicking sheet music for House of the Rising Sun

This complete lesson on “The House of the Rising Sun” is taken from The acoustic guitar method.

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For more inspiration, watch some recordings of “House of the Rising Sun”:

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