“The Skye Boat Song” for Dropped-D Fingerstyle Guitar

Celtic ballads just seem to be written for acoustic guitars in alternative tunings, and “The Skye Boat Song” is a perfect example of a tune that lies perfectly in dropped-D. The song’s title refers to the vessel that transported Bonnie Prince Charlie (who was being pursued by the English government for rebellious activities) to and from the Isle of Skye, where he maintained his hideout. The melody evokes a gentle, “Godspeed to you, Prince” quality, almost like a lullaby.

The song’s form follows an AABBAA scheme. Play the A section with the first and second endings, then the B section with the first and second endings. At the B section’s second ending, go back to the top of the song (D.C. means da capo, or “from the top”), play the first ending, repeat, then stop after you play beat one of the second ending (Fine means “end”). Ritard, or slow the song slightly, on the last two or three bars as you reach the end, and let the final chord ring out for a while.

The lilting melody is a mix of open and fretted strings that produce the legato, harp-like effect necessary to sustain the flowing feel (see the E, F#, E passage in bar 3). The rhythm almost always has bass notes on beats one and two, which helps propel the song along, as do the changing chords on every bar.

The double-stop hammer-on in bar 5, and the double-stop pull-off in bar 6 are probably the most difficult techniques to execute in this piece. For the hammer-ons, make sure your fretting-hand 1st and 2nd fingers come down swiftly and keel-straight on the first and second strings and “stick” there to allow the hammered notes to sound clearly. The double-stop pull-off is a little easier to play, especially if you “peel off” your fingers laterally, toward the first string, producing a slight fretting-hand “pluck” to sound the pulled-off open strings. The Bm chords in the first two bars of the B section and the F#7 are most easily played using a barre (your fretting-hand 1st finger covering the 2nd fret from the first to the fifth or sixth string). To hear the audio version of this arrangement, visit http://jonchappell.com/skyeboatsong.