How to Play English Folk Music on the Guitar

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Looking to add some English folk music to your guitar repertoire? In this blog post, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to get started playing this great genre of music.


Whether you want to play English folk music for personal enjoyment or to perform for an audience, the key is practice and understanding the genre. English folk music is a type of folk music that originated in England. It is often played on acoustic guitars, and it includes a variety of styles, ranging from traditional ballads to more modern, experimental pieces. If you understand the basics of how to play this type of music on the guitar, you can begin learning songs and perfecting your skills.

What is English Folk Music?

English Folk music is a traditional style of music that originates from England. The music is often based on traditional songs and ballads, and uses a variety of instruments including the guitar, fiddle, banjo, and accordion. English Folk music has been around for centuries, and has been influenced by a number of different genres including Celtic and American Folk music.

The Origins of English Folk Music

Late medieval England was a melting pot of cultures. The ruling class was Norman French, but the common people were of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic stock, and the church was dominated by Latin. Music reflecting all of these influences can be found in the earliest extant English collections, such as the thirteenth-century Worcester Fragments and the fourteenth-century Tower Manuscripts. The latter, in particular, contain a wealth of material from the English court and Church, including conductus, carols, motets, mass Propers, and Magnificats.

By the mid-fifteenth century, however, a distinctly English style of music had begun to emerge. This was due in part to the increasing popularity of the native ballad, a narrative song typically involving love, death, or supernatural themes. Ballads were often passed down orally from generation to generation and were only committed to writing once they had been “fixed” in their current form. Many of the most famous ballads (“Barbara Allen,” “The Riddle Song,” “The Unquiet Grave”) date from this period.

In addition to ballads, another important source of English folk music is the broadside ballad. These were cheaply printed songs sold on street corners and in alehouses; they were often topical (dealing with current events) or satirical in nature. Because they were intended for a lower-class audience, they tended to be less complex than ballads proper and were more easily adaptable to dance tunes. Many of them found their way into oral tradition and are still sung today (“The Diel Is Coome A Cuckooing” is one example).

Not all English folk music is based on songs: there is also a rich tradition of instrumental tunes known as “tunes without words.” These include jigs (up-tempo pieces usually in 6/8 or 12/8 meter), reels (fast 4/4 dances), hornpipes (slow 4/4 dances), waltzes (3/4 dances), polkas (2/4 dances), marches (in 2 or 4 time), and airs (slow pieces in 3/4 time). Many of these tunes are hundreds of years old and have been passed down through families from generation to generation; others are more recent compositions that have become part of traditional repertoire.

The Instruments Used in English Folk Music

There are a wide variety of instruments used in English folk music, ranging from the very traditional (such as the fiddle, bagpipes, and accordion) to the more modern (such as the guitar, drums, and electric bass). In general, the music is quite simple and straightforward, making it relatively easy to play on the guitar.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when playing English folk music on the guitar is that it is meant to be enjoyed. There is no need to worry about being perfect; simply relax and have fun. With that said, there are a few tips that can help you get started:

Be familiar with the different tunings used in English folk music. The most common tuning is D-A-D-G-A-D, but you will also find tunes in other popular guitar tunings such as E-A-D-G-B-E and G-D-G-B-D-G.

Listen to as much English folk music as you can. Not only will this help you get a feel for the style, but it will also give you a better idea of which tunes are suitable for guitar. There are many excellent online resources for finding English folk music recordings, such as The Full English website.

Start slow and gradually build up speed. Many of the tunes in this genre are quite fast, so it can be tempting to try and play them at full speed from the outset. However, it is usually best to start slow and gradually increase the tempo as you become more comfortable with the tune.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. The great thing about playing folk music on the guitar is that there are no hard and fast rules; feel free to add your own personality and interpretation to the tunes.

How to Play English Folk Music on the Guitar

Whether you want to play for fun or perform professionally, learning how to play English folk music on the guitar can be a great way to broaden your musical repertoire. English folk music has a rich history dating back centuries, and its contemporary counterpart has been gaining popularity in recent years. If you’re new to the genre, or simply need a refresher, this article will teach you the basics of how to play English folk music on the guitar.

To start, let’s take a look at some of the most common chords used in English folk music. These chords will form the foundation of your playing, so it’s important to learn them well. The following chords are typically played with a pick:

A: x02220

B: x24442

C: x32010

D: xx0232

E: 022100

F: 133211

G: 320003

In addition to these chords, you’ll also need to know how to play some basic strumming patterns. The most common strumming pattern in English folk music is known as “the boom-chick,” which consists of downstrokes on beats 1 and 3, and upstrokes on beats 2 and 4. Other popular strumming patterns include “the bounce” (down-up-down-up) and “the waltz” (down-up-down). Experiment with different patterns and find what feels comfortable for you.

Now that you know some basic chords and strumming patterns, let’s put them together and learn a simple song. “The Water Is Wide” is a popular traditional folk song that uses only three chords—A, D, and E—making it a great choice for beginners. To play this song, simply follow the chord progression below while strumming in time with the music.

A D E A D E A D E A D E A D E A B C#m E A D E A

Once you’ve mastered “The Water Is Wide,” try learning some other popular folk songs like “Greensleeves” or “Scarborough Fair.” With practice, you’ll be playing like a pro in no time!


Now that you know the basics of how to play English folk music on the guitar, you can begin to explore this rich and varied genre on your own. As you become more familiar with the fingerpicking style and repertoire, you’ll be able to add your own personal touch to the music.

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