Vai For the Holidays

One of Steve Vai’s most admirable and endearing musical attributes is his ability to meld astonishingly impeccable technique with heartfelt passion and a mischievious sense of humor. As the latter two elements are integral to any blues guitarist worth his or her salt, it’s curious that Vai has long considered his own style to be far removed from the genre. Sure, he regularly incorporates scales and techniques that are inexorably linked to the blues in much of his music, but, over the years, Vai has managed to recast them into a truly unique instrumental voice of nearly alien proportions.

You’ll find this voice in its various stages of development smeared all over key albums by Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth, Public Image Ltd., and Whitesnake, as well as throughout Vai’s own extensive solo catalog—from Flex-able and the highly-acclaimed Passion and Warfare to Real Illusions: Reflections and his recent string of archival releases—but you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the essence of Steve Vai’s mastery of head, hands, and heart than his arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” from 1997’s Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas compilation. That’s right—the Peanuts’ song from the perennial A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, a warm and fuzzy favorite that has aired annually since 1965. (Come on, admit it—you still tune in every year!)

One of the first things you may notice is an abundance of rests in sections of the score. These are important! Rather than employ a common shortcut by notating all short notes with staccato phrasing—which, in my opinion, indicates a specific, percussive technique and should not be used to replace written rests—I prefer to give each note and rest its full value. This may make the rhythms a bit trickier to read, but the payoff is a more accurate picture of the music at hand. If you do encounter a staccato dot in the score, that’s exactly what it means: a percussive attack with an immediate and abrupt cutoff.

The chord grids that precede the transcription provide all the voicings you’ll need to comp through the intro, verse, and bridge sections. Check them out, then record an accompaniment track for the entire song form. Getting to know the chord progression and song form before attempting to play the lead melody or solos will attune your ear to the changes, and help you understand how Vai plays through them. No question about it, this is a tough one, and it should be digested in bite-sized chunks. But keep in mind that once you can visualize and hear yourself playing a riff away from your instrument—yes, in the air, on your forearm, or wherever—it’s yours for keeps.

In the spirit of the holiday season, we offer a rehearsal-letter-by-letter look at this heartwarming, stellar performance. No gear talk here—this lesson is all about musical excellence, and how to get some of it to rub off. It’s all in the transcription, so curl up by the fire with your favorite 6-string, and take it all in slowly (as in one bar at a time). Be kind to yourself in the process, and you just may have an epihanic 2007!