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Do you have a favourite Christmas album? Perhaps you need some Merry Axemas in your life. The first one, in particular.
I used to have an annual tradition of making a Christmas mix CD. I dropped it because after a while I ran out of good Christmas tracks. Something from Merry Axemas used to make the list every year. Not only are there great traditional songs, but also the finest guitar slingers in the world. For an album of (mostly) instrumentals, this one really rings the bells.
Louisiana blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd gets things started with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Anyone on board with the blues should enjoy the solid jamming going on here! This isn’t for grandma. This is for guitar maniacs! Progressive stylist Eric Johnson has a beautiful “First Nowell”, on a classical and electric guitars with accompaniment. Grandma won’t mind this one at all, in fact she might want a copy for herself. The wizard of the wires, Jeff Beck, then presents his slide guitar version of “Amazing Grace” complete with choir. A different mix of elements, but not too hard to digest.
Not the version from this CD, which is instrumental
The Brian Setzer Orchestra comes out swingin’ with their instrumental “Jingle Bells”. If you ever needed reminding how awesome the former Stray Cat is on six strings, then check this out. Brian keeps it all accessible while simultaneously blowing off your nuts. The big band is icing on the cake. Joe Satriani is next up to the plate with an adventurous “Silent Night/Holy Night Jam”. This one is strictly for guitar-heads and players, as it’s more a Joe showpiece than anything else. Picture Joe circa Flying in a Blue Dream and you’re in the right place, but not very Christmas-y. This is the only song that has never made one of my annual Christmas mix CDs. Steve Morse’s “Joy to the World” is far more successful as far as the Christmas theme goes. Steve does do it his way, but at least you can tell which carol you’re listening to. If anyone can capture angelic Christmas guitar tones, it is Steve Morse.
How big can these names get? Try Steve Vai on for size. You might recall “Christmas Time is Here” from the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special. Vince Guaraldi made it popular for all ages, and Steve does a playful take on it, using his guitar like a voice. And the names keep getting bigger. Heard of Joe Perry before? The Aerosmith guitar hero does Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” as a Hawiian guitar instrumental which suddenly goes surf rock. Rush’s Alex Lifeson then brings “The Little Drummer Boy”, with a low-key and quiet instrumental.
“‘O Holy Night”, performed by Richie Sambora formerly of Bon Jovi, swings and just barely misses. It just doesn’t have that Christmas feel. The Japanese guitarist Hotei has the final track, John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which is actually a traditional that Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote lyrics to. He goes a little over the edge partway through, but it mostly maintains the right feel.
Here’s the great thing about Merry Axemas. Even if you don’t care for Christmas music, there is usually a need for it around, once a year. Merry Axemas, with some modest editing, could suit your needs. Don’t celebrate Christmas? No problem — if you’re a fan of these players (particularly Morse, Vai, Perry, and Johnson) then you’ll want to hear what they did with these tracks.