The Alternative Guitar Christmas Playlist
These guitar-heavy tracks will get you in the mood for holiday fun – but they’re not the usual fare you’ll hear at this time of year.
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Hark! The herald Christmas songs blare! But don’t fret – though they may be dominated by blooming horns, tinkling bells and twinkling pianos, there are many festive offerings that feature our instrument in abundance. These guitar-led seasonal samples stretch far beyond Slade and Wizzard’s brilliant but ubiquitous Merry Xmas Everybody and I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday too. From 1920s country-blues and 1960s surf rock to modern-day metal, and from slide-guitar standards to post-rock odysseys, there are six-string season’s greetings to suit all tastes. Here, we’ve highlighted an advent calendar’s worth of alternative Christmas hits for when your ears tire of Band Aid and Bublé. Listen to the accompanying playlist – organised in roughly chronological order – and be sure to share your favourite seasonal guitar songs below.
The Wrong Way To Celebrate Christmas – Rev Edward W Clayborn
Little is known about Edward Clayborn, who billed himself as the Guitar Evangelist and backed up that claim with magnificent slide playing across a total of about 30 to 40 recordings made for Vocalion Records between 1926 and 1928. With the alternating basslines and treble-string refrains on his Spanish-tuned guitar rarely, if ever, coalescing into actual chords, Clayborn was a minimalist maestro. This 1928 track, in which the bluesman bemoans those who spend Christmas on the sauce, features an infectiously merry melody.
Christmas in Jail – Ain’t That A Pain – Leroy Carr
Following their enormously influential 1928 hit How Long, How Long Blues, Indianapolis-based pianist Leroy Carr again teamed up with South Carolina-born single-note shredder Francis ‘Scrapper’ Blackwell for this lighthearted and more laidback affair. Substituting the heartache of past recordings for tongue-in-cheek reverly, the 1929 track sees Carr complaining about prison food, while Blackwell backs up his piano with single-string lead lines.
Santa Claus – Bo Carter
A member and manager of country-blues act the Mississippi Sheiks, multi-instrumentalist Armenter Chatmon’s versatile playing and warm voice earned him many fans over the years, including Rory Gallagher, who would cover Carter’s All Around Man in 1975. Another seasonal blues song steeped in sexual innuendo, this late 1930s track released on Bluebird features cheeky lyrics and slick fingerwork.
Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry
Written by Johnny Marks and Marvin Brodie, this was first recorded by Berry for Chess Records in 1958 and has since been covered by everybody from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hanoi Rocks to Joe Perry and Keith Richards. Showcasing his typically riff-heavy style, the song boasts a short solo at the midway mark. For something more melancholic, check out Spending Christmas, on which Berry is backed up by Jules Blattner on guitar. Recorded for Chess in 1964, this one sees Berry in much more sentimental form.
Christmas Tears – Freddie King
Released on the Federal label in 1961 with I Hear Jingle Bells on the B-side, this smouldering waltz features full-tone bends, descending runs and more, and is as fine an example of Freddie’s vocal playing style as you’re likely to hear. Eric Clapton has played the song many times live, and included a recorded version on his 2018 album Happy Xmas.
Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins
Blues legend Samuel John Hopkins cut improvised one-take wonders for a slew of labels throughout his almost 40-year recording career, making for a knotty discography. Thankfully for lovers of tinsel and fingerstyle, some of these tracks were holiday-themed, including, Merry Christmas, Heavy Snow and Happy New Year. This one, also known as Christmas Blues and released as Christmas Time is Coming on Pickwick Records’ 1965 LP The King Of The Blues, turned up on Hopkins’ earlier Mojo Hand album, released on Bobby Robinson’s Fire label in 1962.
Pretty Paper – Willie Nelson
Penned by Wille Nelson in 1963 but first recorded by Roy Orbison and released the same year, it wouldn’t be until 1964 that Nelson would lay his own version to tape, with the help of producer Chet Atkins. Nelson re-recorded the song for his 1979 Christmas album of the same name, this time produced by Booker T Jones (whose own seasonal album with Booker T & The MG, In The Christmas Spirit, came in 1966). It’s a fine showcase for his tasteful jazz-influenced playing.
Scrooge – The Ventures
Blending Christmas standards with their own original riffs and newly surf-styled licks of the era, including The Beatles’ I Feel Fine, Johnny Rivers’ version of Memphis, and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ Wooly Bully, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ 1965 instrumental Christmas album is a veritable feast of reverb-heavy 1960s guitar cool. Don Wilson and Nokie Edwards’ playing runs the gamut from clean picking and palm-muting to deep vibrato and beyond. The record’s sole original composition, this track features a fuzzed-out minor-key riff and makes playful use of Danish-US composer Jens Bodewalt Lampe’s Mysterioso Pizzicato, otherwise known as The Villain’s Theme – you’ll know it when you hear it.
Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto – James Brown
Characterised by lead guitarist Jimmy Nolen’s chicken-scratch picking and treble-heavy sound, James Brown’s seasonal LPs are packed with original funk tracks with grooves as good as his greatest hits. The opener of 1968 album A Soulful Christmas is nailed down by Nolen’s tight playing, over which Brown delivers a relatively restrained and oh-so-merry vocal.
Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ – Albert King
Released as a seven-inch Stax single with The Emotions’ What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas, this powerfully groovy 1974 track features King’s quintessential big bends and behind-the-beat feel. With multiple expressive solos backed by toothsome muted rhythms, this is as good as Christmas guitar gets. For more, listen to King’s Christmas Comes But Once a Year, released in 1982 with Rufus Thomas’s I’ll Be Your Santa, Baby.
Father Christmas – The Kinks
Driven by sharp riffs and fat chords, The Kinks’ working-class anthem tells the story of a department-store Santa mugged by a gang of poor children, who demand that he give them money for Christmas and save the “silly” toys for the little rich boys. The 1977 song has been covered by Green Day, Cheap Trick and others. Watch its accompanying video to see Dave Davies dressed as the titular merry man, spitting out fake snow and wailing away on his Les Paul Black Beauty.
Angel Eyes – Emmylou Harris
Alongside Emmylou’s acoustic playing and unimpeachable vocals, her 1979 album Light of the Stable features stellar acoustic, electric and pedal steel work by members of her Hot Band, including Brian Ahern, James Burton, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito and Frank Reckard. Every track is stacked with top-tier playing but if we’re to pick one, we’ll take Angel Eyes, an original composition credited to Crowell, for its chorus-soaked solo. The 2004 version of Light Of The Stable features new tracks recorded with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, whose own Christmas album The McGarrigle Christmas Hour was released the following year.
Christmas Time Is Here – Ron Escheté
Seven-string jazz player Ron Escheté was one of the first to record a cover of this Vince Guaraldi tune, composed for the 1965 Peanuts animated TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Featured on his 1982 album Christmas Impressions, Escheté’s interpretation is slightly slower, drawing out the song’s essential melancholy.
Christmas With The Devil – Spinal Tap
One in a long line of songs that trades on the ol’ Santa-Satan mix-up (an easy mistake to make), this Spinal Tap spoof was released as a single in 1984 and later featured on 1992 album Break Like The Wind, as well as on the 2000 edition of This Is Spinal Tap. As with most Tap tracks, it’s better than it needs to be and features top-form Michael McKean and Christopher Guest (sorry, David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel) trading hard-rocking licks throughout.
No Presents For Christmas – King Diamond
The only King on this list known more for his outrageous falsetto than his expressive licks, Denmark’s devilish King Diamond formed his own eponymous band following his departure from black-metal harbingers Mercyful Fate in 1985. Released the same year, the band’s first single was this speed-metal novelty featuring fine fretwork from former Fate man Michael Denner and new recruit Andy LaRocque. The track was later featured on 1988 EP The Dark Sides.
Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight) – Ramones
First issued as a B-side to I Wanna Live in 1987, this song also made the cut of Ramones’ 1989 album Brain Drain. Its classic I-IV-V chord progression and Johnny’s chunky tone form a strong backdrop to Joey’s sensitive lyrics.
Mistress For Christmas – AC/DC
Though it fits in with the grand blues tradition of brazen boys looking for a little more than presents for Christmas, Angus Young told Guitar World in 1991 that the track is actually about Donald Trump, big news even in 1990, when AC/DC released The Razors Edge. Listen in to hear Angus painting solos atop brother Malcolm’s walls of rhythmic riffs.
Those Soulful Jingle Bells – Mark Whitfield
Featured on Verve Records’ 1996 album Jazz For Joy: A Verve Christmas Album, New York jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield’s rendition of this typically childish track elevates it to another level. Backed by brushed drums, brass and double bass, Whitfield expands the song’s familiar vocal melody into a series of rapturous lead lines and fast flurries up and down the fretboard, while his tone remains sumptuous throughout.
Xmas Steps – Mogwai
Given that their name comes from Joe Dante’s 1984 dark Christmas comedy Gremlins, it’s perhaps no surprise that Scotland’s premiere post-rock act would eventually turn their tools towards the holiday too. First appearing on 1998 EP No Education = No Future (Fuck The Curfew) and later re-recorded and featured on multiple other releases, this 11-minute instrumental is populated by counter-melodies, minor-chord crescendos and roaring distorted solos courtesy of Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings. For more, turn to Christmas Song, first featured on 1999’s EP.
Christmas Love – BB King
Taken from his 2001 album of blues and roots-based festive songs A Christmas Celebration Of Hope, this instrumental track, one of two composed by King – the other being the non-instrumental Christmas Celebration – sees the guitar god in typically emotive form. Top up your sherry, listen to the effortless soloing over this track’s laidback beat, and prepare to be whisked away.
Sister Winter – Sufjan Stevens
Stuffed with classy acoustic and banjo fingerpickin’, Pixies-esque grunge and more across traditional hymns and carols and original compositions, Songs For Christmas, a compilation boxset of five EPs recorded between 2001 and 2006, is the Detroit-born multi-instrumentalist at his optimistic and sensitive best, and his arrangement skills are showcased splendidly on this oddly mournful number.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Jerry Douglas
Though it’s replete with blissful bluegrass reimaginings of seasonal staples, Jerry Douglas’s 2009 album Jerry Christmas hits its peak at track two. Nowhere are the legendary player’s chops better showcased than on this masterful interpretation, which demonstrates the range of his abilities across about four minutes of free-flowing fretwork. For a more grandiose approach to the same material, listen to the leaden version on 2008 compilation album We Wish You A Metal Xmas And A Headbanging New Year, for which Tony Iommi’s titanic riffs form the bedrock for Dio’s operatic vocals.
The Little Drummer Boy – Christopher Lee
Iconic screen actor, World War II veteran and metal cognoscente Christopher Lee was a nonagenarian in 2012, when he released the first of his three playful Christmas-themed EPs, A Heavy Metal Christmas. With Lee’s go-to guitarist Hedras Ramos tackling six-string duties, the commanding baritone that made Lee such a force on the silver screen is given centre stage. The EP received a sequel, A Heavy Metal Christmas Too, the following year, and Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing arrived in 2014.
Christmas Boogie (One Little Kiss) – Joe Bonamassa
Modern blues icon Bonamassa has donned the Santa and beard hat on multiple occasions, recording festive tracks in 2016, 2017 and 2019, including standards such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and more than a few originals. This one, from 2016 LP Rockin’ Christmas Blues, boasts some blazing picking and scratchy soloing atop a toe-tappin’ boogie groove.
A Dreamer’s Holiday – Julien Baker
The Tennessee native and Telecaster lover recently took on Perry Como and The Fontane Sisters’ 1949 hit A Dreamer’s Holiday for the Spotify Singles: Holiday Collection playlist, citing the song’s timelessness, complicated chord structure and open-ended themes as her inspiration. Also covered by Willie Nelson in 1983, Baker’s interpretation is both effected and affecting, her reverb-coated Tele tones creating space for a twinkling piano solo.
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