Learn Bryan Sutton’s Take on the Holiday Classic “The Little Drummer Boy”
In an online search for a flatpicking Christmas arrangement that would be both accessible and satisfying to play, I came across a video of the top-shelf picker Bryan Sutton playing “Silent Night.” On a whim I cold-called the guitarist to ask if he had any similar arrangements up his sleeve. “Lemme sit with a guitar this morning and make something,” he said via email. Not long after, a video of a freshly minted interpretation of “The Little Drummer Boy” appeared in my inbox.
Originally known as “Carol of the Drum,” “The Little Drummer Boy” was based on a traditional Czech song and was written in 1941 by the American composer and pianist Katherine Kennicott Davis. Sutton makes it his own with this straightforward version, in the guitar-friendly key of C major.
In working through the notation, Sutton recommends being particularly attuned to rhythm, tone, and dynamics—what he calls the “flatpicking flow.” He explains, “We’re traveling through a piece of music, and we want the steps to feel trustworthy, predictable, and connected.”
The fretting fingers play an equally important role. It’s important to hold down each note for as long as possible, while letting the open strings ring freely in timbral contrast. “To get these notes and phrases to really flow is all about note connection to an extreme,” Sutton says. “The timing of the fretting-hand components is also part of the settled and connected feel that helps define the quality for this type of playing. Notice the hammers and pulls that align with the general eighth-note stream.”
When crosspicking a familiar tune like this, a guitarist typically chooses whether to adjust the melody to suit the technique—or the other way around. In this arrangement, Sutton opted to stick closely to the original melody. “A more guitaristic version would have certainly been possible, but I would argue that the song becomes more about the player at that point,” Sutton says. “It seems like, especially during holidays, we’re all better off making more music that brings people together.”