By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
For me, one of the best ways to get into the holiday spirit is playing traditional Christmas carols on guitar. In 2020, I shared instrumental arrangements of “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Silent Night,” and “O Holy Night,” and this year I added three more: “The First Noel,” “Joy to the World,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Complete transcriptions of all six carols can be found in the Silent Nights Guitar Collection ebook. As shown below, the three new arrangements use alternate tunings to create lush open-string sounds and free up the fretting fingers to move around the neck.
The First Noel
This classic carol was an easy fit for dropped-D tuning. In the key of D, you’ve got open-string root notes on the I chord (D, on the fourth or sixth string), IV chord (G, third string), and V chord (A, fifth string).
In the first section of the verse, the treble side is sparse—just the unembellished melody. Then in the second part, I fill in more around the melody with chord tones and other notes. At the end, I play in a pianistic style, picking three-note chords with my thumb, index, and middle fingers.
Joy to the World
I had some fun creating this flatpicking take on “Joy to the World.” The tuning is D G D G B E, or G6, which I also used in my version of “Silent Night.” The arrangement starts off in a more traditional and stately manner but then kicks into a sort of mini Christmas hoedown, with the melody shifted up an octave (to the first and second strings) over the ring of the open fifth, fourth, and third strings.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
This powerful minor-key carol fell right into place in DADGAD tuning, as used most famously in Celtic guitar styles. DADGAD works so nicely here because it offers not only open-string bass notes but drone notes on the treble side. Throughout the arrangement, I play the melody against a drone, often alternating the two note by note. In addition to being a fun arrangement to play, this makes for a great picking workout.