Here is a nice bit of guitar trivia. “Silent Night,” the most beloved Christmas piece ever, was first performed on a guitar. It was December 24, 1818, at the St. Nicholas Church in the Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg. The local priest, Joseph Mohr, and the choirmaster, Franz Gruber, had composed the song. Christmas Eve was to be its maiden performance before the parishioners and the villagers.
Legend has it that the organ had frozen, so the guitar was the second choice for accompaniment. Not so. Father Mohr was an avid guitar player—at times to the chagrin of his more conservative senior priest—and he often carried his instrument with him as he went about his priestly duties.
Exactly 200 years later, on December 24, 2018, I traveled to Oberndorf to celebrate “Silent Night” with thousands of people from all around the world. We gathered outdoors in front of the reconstructed chapel and then, accompanied by a guitar that was a reproduction of Mohr’s instrument, a choir started singing. We all joined in on this historic moment.
Later on the trip I found myself salivating over Mohr’s actual guitar, which was on display behind a glass case in the Silent Night Museum, which focuses on the carol. Sensing my keen interest, the docent on duty signaled me over to a cabinet, opened a drawer, and showed me the original manuscript of the song that I have loved since my childhood.
My experiences in Austria inspired the arrangement that you see before you. “Silent Night” was originally done in the key of D major, and I kept it that way because open-D tuning makes it so easy to play as a solo guitar piece. The notes come out nicely in this tuning, with plenty of opportunities for them to linger over their successors—provided you take care to avoid touching neighboring strings and thereby shortening their lives.
I like to play the arrangement with a slide. That’s partly because the big G and A chords—which can be played across all six strings at the fifth and seventh frets, respectively—lend themselves nicely to bottleneck treatment, without sounding like a blues version of this tender Christmas song. But the arrangement works just as well when played fingerstyle.
Even if you are a slide player, learn the fingerstyle arrangement first. You will find that the simplicity of the arrangement does not compromise the delivery of this gorgeous and timeless melody. The arrangement is crafted to let the melody float clearly above the arpeggios and bass lines that cradle it. And that is perhaps exactly how Father Mohr used his guitar as he accompanied the church choir on that Christmas Eve over two centuries ago.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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