Every year I love making up guitar renditions of Christmas carols, just sitting by the tree. Here are three favorites, all available in a songbook called Silent Nights. My approach to these arrangements is to keep things simple and sparse, and let the melodies shine. I’ll try a melody in various keys and positions until I find where it sits best, often with bass notes on open strings, and then add in touches of the chords.
Angels We Have Heard on High
I use dropped-D tuning all the time—and not just for the key of D. Playing in the key of G in dropped-D tuning, as in this arrangement, works great, because when you go to the V chord (D), you’ve got a low root on the open sixth string (plus the octave on the fourth string). I was happy to discover I could play parts of the melody with natural harmonics, too, as in the intro.
Although there’s a long distance between Austria, where composer Franz Gruber lived, and Hawaii, there’s a touch of slack-key guitar in this arrangement—that relaxed feel with lots of ringing open strings. I use G6 tuning (D G D G B E) and play in the key of G. Having open string bass notes for the I (G) and V (D) chords gives me lots of freedom to play the melody up the neck.
O Holy Night
This sublime piece fell so naturally in dropped-D tuning, in the key of D. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides make a big difference in giving character to the melody. The music builds into these big, dramatic moments, where in church the organ and choir would be booming; with the much quieter sound of one guitar, I hint at that intensity by slapping some chords with my thumb.