Watch Sarah Maisel Perform Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”


When the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen released the hymn-like “Hallelujah” on the B side of his 1984 album Various Positions, it was barely noticed. But the song gained traction after Bob Dylan started playing it live and founding Velvet Underground member John Cale recorded a version for the 1991 collection I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Following Jeff Buckley’s emotional interpretation on his 1994 album Grace, “Hallelujah” became a secular standard, recorded by Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright, and many others, and often repurposed for church and synagogue services as well. 

Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah,” the basis of this arrangement, is in the key of C major. It’s built from a handful of chords—in order of appearance, C (I), Am (vi), F (IV), G (V), and E7 (III)—that are friendly to beginning ukulele players, making it easy for anyone to learn. (In the first verse, notice how the F, G, and Am chords neatly coincide with the lyrics “fourth,” and “fifth,” and “minor,” respectively.) 

Check out more music to play here

You can use this chord chart to play along with Cohen’s recording or any of the versions mentioned in this piece. Note that the Cale and Wainwright arrangements swap out the E7 chord for Em, a common voicing which is included here in the notation. 


“Hallelujah” is in 12/8 time—that’s four dotted quarter/12 eighth notes per bar—a meter used regularly in classic soul and blues. I’ve provided two different basic accompaniment patterns that will work well for the song. To play the fingerpicking pattern, pick the notes on string 4 with your thumb and those on strings 3, 2, and 1 with your index, middle, and ring fingers, respectively. Or, if it feels more natural, pick the notes on strings 4 and 3 with your thumb and those on 2 and 1 with your index and middle fingers. Letting all of the notes ring throughout, pinch strings 1 and 4 together on each downbeat, followed by single notes on the inner strings. 

If you’d prefer to strum—whether with your index finger or a plectrum—try doing so in steady eighth-note downstrokes, with a lilting feel. Strum gently, so as not to overpower the lyrics. For rhythmic value, add the occasional upstroke, as shown in the song’s  notation.     

Something else to consider is the song’s harmonic rhythm—the rate at which the chords change. Most of the chords take up two or four beats, giving you plenty of time to switch between grips. However, in the verses’ F–G move, each chord occupies just one beat. Make sure that you can switch cleanly and in time between these two chords, which have no common notes—it’s important to play the song smoothly and with grace.

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the Fall 2020 issue, you will find the music on page 64.