There’s a lot to be said for simplicity. As tempting as it can be to create a chord melody or fingerstyle arrangement of a song that is as intricate and complicated as the day is long, there are times when just sticking with the melody, paired with one harmony note and the occasional bass note, seems to be the right call.
Case in point: this particular arrangement of Blue Christmas, the holiday classic penned by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson. While most people will forever identify this song with Elvis (whose 1957 rendition is perhaps the best known cover), Blue Christmas was already a country holiday staple, thanks to Ernest Tubb, who made it a hit almost ten years earlier. Since then, it’s been recorded by more artists than you can shake a candy cane at – from the Beach Boys to Billy Idol, from Jon Bon Jovi to Brian Setzer, from Sheryl Crow to the Partridge Family, from Lawrence Welk to Collective Soul, from Fats Domino to the Ventures to Anne and Nancy Wilson of Heart. I guess it’s time to add your name to the list!
As we’ve discussed in other chord melody articles, there are many, many ways of coming up with arrangements. You (obviously) need chords and a melody, plus the occasional hit of inspiration. The arrangement for this lesson grew out of a gig I played last Christmas, where I was given the task of soloing over half a verse of Blue Christmas. After trying out a few ideas, I found myself coming back over and over again to the melody itself, mostly because it’s so wonderfully expressive, it doesn’t need a lot of frills. To give it a little more body, I used pairs of notes, much in the style of our lessons on Bookends or, to keep in the holiday spirit, O Tannenbaum. The simple addition of a few bass notes made the arrangement a little more complete.
The other aspect of this song arrangement that I enjoy is the use of sliding pairs of notes to fill in space. There’s a lot of space in this song and it’s silly to fill every lull with as many sixteenth and thirty-second notes that you can squeeze out. Especially when an elegantly placed slide will say things a lot more gracefully.
These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
We’ll be playing Blue Christmas in the key of C. I honestly don’t know what key it was originally written in! C seems to work well for what we want to do today. Structurally, the song is eight lines long, with the melody and chords of the first two lines repeated in Lines Five and Six. Line Seven follows most of Line Three (the last few notes and last chord are different). So it shouldn’t take us all that long to work all this out.
And right in the very first line, we’ll see how using slides as an option can make the melody a little more expressive:
In Example 1 (A), we play the first line straight, with no frills and sticking with open chords. Most people find it easiest to use their ring finger and pinky to fret the third pair of notes, but since you’re going for the open high E and G in the next pair, almost any fingering will do. The tricky part here is the G7 at the very end where you need to finger the F note at the third fret of the D string. But if you use that ring finger and pinky combo just mentioned (ring finger on the third fret of the D string and pinky on the third fret of the B), you should find yourself playing it cleanly and with no problems.
Now, though, let’s take those fingers of the third pair of notes and slide them up from the third fret of the B and D strings to the fifth frets, as shown in Example 1 (B). You want to hit this pair of notes on the third pickup beat and then hit them once again, at the first beat of the first full measure (the word “Blue”), before making the slide. Your index finger is now free to play the C note in the bass (third fret of the A string) in that measure. Repeat the slide at the first beat of the second full measure (on the first syllable of “Christmas”) if you’d like. Some of you might even find you like sliding back to the D and F notes on the second syllable. Be my guest! The object is to experiment with expressiveness, so have some fun!
One thing to note is that as the embellishments, the sliding notes in this particular case, get more involved, I try to take out a few things in order to keep the arrangement fairly simple. So instead of the three bass notes in the first full measure of Example 1 (A), there are only two in Example 1 (B). This gives you a little more breathing room to pull off the slides without getting your fingers all in a tangle!
We drop down to a single added bass note (the open G string) in Example 1 (C). Here, the timing is a little tricky, using a quarter note triplet at the end of that first full measure. You want those last three slides to be played evenly over the third and fourth beats of that measure. It takes a little practice, and it also sounds fine if you cheat a little here and there. At the end of the line, I tack on a final triplet of sliding pairs of notes (and they are slides, not hammer-ons and pull-offs, as mentioned in the MP3 – sorry about that), just to embellish things a little more. Overkill? Possibly. But then again, you can certainly just leave it out…
One of the main reasons behind these embellishments is that the song will repeat this line later on. Line One and Line Five are the same, so I’ll play Example 1 (B) for Line One and then use Example 1 (C) for Line Five when it comes around. You’ll hear this in the final MP3 example.
Moving on to the second line, let’s throw in some hammer-ons and pull-offs create our embellishments:
Here, I need to apologize a bit for the notation. The first bass note (G at the third fret of the low E (sixth) string) should come on the second beat. It’s not the easiest thing to read and again, I apologize that the software wouldn’t do what I wanted it to…
But getting beyond that, there’s not all that much here to give you any anxiety. Double hammer-ons (or single hammer-ons, for that matter) are not easy if you’ve not tried them before, so please don’t get discouraged! Many people find that exaggerating the hammer aspect of the hammer-on truly helps them get a good ringing note and it does help you get used to the amount of finger strength you’ll need (pardon the pun) to pull it off. Another thing to remember is that you really want to land the tips of your fingers on the strings and let them stay there. Some folks will make a fine initial hammer and then slack off on the notes for some reason. Don’t! Keeping your fingers in place for the full duration of the notes will help you to achieve full sounding hammer-ons.
Likewise with the pull-off in the second full measure of this example (the second syllable of “thinking”). Don’t be afraid to exaggerate the technique in order to get comfortable performing it. Once you can do it, then you can work on finesse. Ideally (and once you get more adept at these techniques), hammer-ons and pull-offs are subtle embellishments, but it’s kind of hard to concentrate on being subtle when you can’t hear yourself! So first things first – get the technique down and then fine tune it.
At the very end of this line, I toss in the first of a couple of walking bass lines that are there to simply fill in a little space. You’ll hear, again in the final MP3 example of this lesson, that instead of playing what’s written, I use Example 1 (C), which I play as Line Five, as a template for Line Six. That’s just one of many possible things you can do, so please give yourself some freedom and kick around as many ideas as you can handle.
It’s a good thing that we’ve done a bit of embellishment so far, because the chords of the third and fourth lines dictate a return to simplicity:
Some versions of Blue Christmas use a C7 chord throughout the first two full measures of this section. Since there’s not all that much difference, note wise, between Gm (G, Bb and D) and C7 (C, E, G and Bb), and even less between Gm and C9 (C, E, G, Bb and D), I use that knowledge to create a relatively simple game plan for my chord melody arrangement. Laying my ring finger across the third fret of the first three strings gives me the notes I need for melody and harmony line (I could even pluck the B string to fill it out a little more – try it for a really nice touch) and I can get the bass note with my index finger or even my thumb if I’m so inclined.
The D note (third fret of the B string) in the melody (on “green”) technically makes our F chord an “F6” if you want to be a stickler for details. You can also just think of it as a passing note. Notice again that using the ring and pinky method on “green” frees up your index finger for the F note in the bass (first fret of the low E (sixth) string). Some of you might find it easier to have your thumb play that note. Either way, it’s good to have options. In the measure of “tree,” you can use a descending chromatic walking bass line to go from F to the D root of the D7 chord that starts the next measure.
Speaking of that D7 chord, I’m going to borrow a trick we used way back in the Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, that being to make a C7 chord and slide it up two frets. In the “full song” MP3 file at the end of this lesson you’ll hear the slide of the bass note from C (third fret of the A string) to D (fifth fret of the A string) quite clearly. This fingering of the D7 (which is technically a D9 chord for those of you interested in such things) allows for a lot of ringing strings in these two measures (“…won’t be the same dear…”) that provides a bit of a contrast to the sliding around we’ve done on the first two lines.
We wrap all this up with an ascending chromatic walking bass line (“…if you’re not here with me…”), very similar to those we’ve looked at in our last lesson on walking bass lines, Connecting The Dots, Part 3. We’ve taken the typical G to C bass line and stuck in an additional step (A# and C#) between the A and B notes.
As we noted earlier, the last two lines start out exactly like Lines Three and Four:
The main difference here is the F#dim7 chord that is used on the word “white.” Fortunately, this chord can be played very easily up on the fourth and fifth frets (XX4545), which it great since the melody note is the A at the fifth fret of the high E (first) string. Because that note is held a bit in the melody line (the symbol that looks like a raised eyebrow (complete with eyeball) is called a “fermata” and it means to “hold” at your discretion), you can give this chord a bit of a slow strum for a nice, effective change of pace in your arrangement.
We’ll follow this up with a series of slides to echo our Line One and (especially) Line Five and then end with a short walking bass line that finishes up at a Cmaj9 chord. When you put it all together, you should have something like this:
As always, I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little exercise in chord melody arrangement and that you feel free to play it for the upcoming holidays. More importantly, I hope that the main idea of this lesson, embellishing a simple melody with occasional slides, proves to be a technique you use in other songs in your ever-expanding repertoire of songs and/or bag of tricks.
Until our next lesson…