Aah, Christmas. That magical time of year. Searing hot temperatures, backyard cricket, screaming guitars… okay, I'm in Australia where pretty much everything is flipped around, so perhaps my experiences of the first two things are different to most of those reading this. But if there's one thing we southern hemispherians can agree on with you northerners and your enviable white Christmases and your reduced risk of Christmas Day heatstroke, surely it's that Christmas carols are much more fun when they're screaming out of a guitar. And in my house in the lead-up to Christmas, two particular Christmas albums find themselves in heavy rotation: the two Merry Axemas albums curated by Steve Vai in the ‘90s. Vai gathered a bunch of his guitarist buddies together to recreate their favorite Christmas songs in their own styles, and aside from being a fun little tradition to drag out at Christmas time (alas, we have to settle for traditions like this instead of bad Christmas sweaters down here when the mercury climbs past 100 degrees), both albums are also great insights into the playing styles of the various guitarists therein.
Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas
This is the one that started it all in 1997, and Vai has assembled a great collection of players of the era. Kenny Wayne Shepherd turns in a busy, rocked-up, slightly Hendrixian take on "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," Eric Johnson delivers a gentle, delicate "The First Noel", and Jeff Beck keeps the mood quiet and peaceful with his rendition of "Amazing Grace," performed in typical Beck style with careful whammy bar phrasing, volume swells and microtonal bends. Of course, the mood can't stay quiet forever, and The Brian Setzer Orchestra kicks it into overdrive with a stomping "Jingle Bells" awash in slapback delay and Bigsby wobbles. Vai's former guitar teacher and regular jam buddy Joe Satriani offers up a characteristically Satchian take on "Silent Night" which includes an almost fusion-like jam section and clocks in at over seven minutes of shreddy goodness.
Steve Morse takes the opportunity to treat his guitar as an orchestra on "Joy To The World," crafting a multilayered, multi-tracked guitar army that you really should experience with headphones so you can really take in the little fine details.
On Vai's own albums the Shredmaster Supreme likes to reserve the seventh track for 'the big ballad' - indeed he once released a compilation album bringing all of his seventh tracks together - and on Merry Axemas he nabs track seven for himself with a gentle, jazzy version of "Christmas Time Is Here" from 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's one of Vai's more 'Technicolor' performances and a great opportunity to hear him outside of his regular rock-based context.
Joe Perry offers up a laid back, almost country-like slide guitar take on "Blue Christmas," a song made legendary by Elvis Presley almost a decade after it was originally released, and Rush's Alex Lifeson gives a fairly relaxed, breezy rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" which has a slight 'California in the 70s" vibe about it. Just the thing for those blistering hot Christmas days, right? Richie Sambora delivers an epic, reverb-drenched "Cantique de Noel (O' Holy Night)" which has a bit of a Pink Floyd "Sorrow" vibe without the sorrow. And the album is capped off with a prancing, Rudolph-approved "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" by Radwan Hoteit.
Merry Axemas, Vol. 2: More Guitars For Christmas
For the second Merry Axemas album a year later, Vai drafted an entirely new cast of guitarists (and a bass player). Steve Lukather kicks things off with an epic hard rock version of "The Christmas Song," and his version is probably the only Christmas carol I find myself listening to at random points throughout the year just because it sounds so damn cool, with its syncopated drums, multi-layered guitars and Luke's huge guitar tone. Journey's Neal Schon's "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel" is a restrained and gentle take with a slight David Gilmour vibe (what is it about Gilmour's style that lends itself to guitar versions of Christmas carols?) and it's followed by Steve Stevens' "Do You Hear What I Hear," an acoustic guitar version so beautifully orchestrated and rendered that it almost makes me forget that the movie Gremlins ruined the song for me forever.
Bass great Stu Hamm offers up a bouncy, groovy, jazzy take on "Sleigh Ride" which is, along with Luke's track, one of the clear highlights of the album, while Trevor Rabin reigns things back in with the delicate melodies of "O Come All Ye Faithful" before the track morphs into a more majestic, film-like orchestration.
It's always great to listen to our good buddy Zakk Wylde playing acoustic guitar, and he performs a beautiful nylon-string acoustic take on "White Christmas" while still managing to slip in some speedy Al di Meola-like licks. Whitesnake/Blue Murder legend John Sykes gives the album another epic track in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" with his unmistakable singing guitar tone, before Robin Trower brings us back down to "post-Christmas-lunch nap time" with a light, gentle "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" which is second only to the version sung by South Park's Cartman in my personal list of favorite versions of the song.
As if sensing that Zakk was paying tribute to his influence, Al di Meola shows up for a masterclass in rhythmic and melodic exploration on "Carol Of The Bells," another of the album's highlights. And Ted Nugent puts a bow on it with a charging, high-energy "Deck The Halls" which has a little bit of 70s glam about it as well as plenty of 80s pick slides and some cool pinch harmonics.
It's interesting to compare the two albums: Volume 1 sounds more overtly 'Christmassy,' with a lot of the more fun, playful carols, while Volume 2 is generally geared towards more solemn carols (with a few awesomely shredtastic exceptions). Of course, mash them both together in a playlist and hit 'Random' and such distinctions melt away like a snowman made of freezer frost on a hot Australian Christmas morning.