Paul liked to use guitar chords common in jazz standards.
Maybe John Lennon had a problem with jazz standards because they were harder to play!
The Synthesizer Makes it Stand Out
Paul wrote this song during the rise of the synth at the end of the 1970’s. He used a Yamaha CS-80 which you may have also heard on songs like “Africa” and even “Thriller.” It was one of the defining synths of the 1980’s and now costs more than famous vintage guitars, if you ever get to play a CS-80, consider yourself lucky!
That synth had a delay effect turned on which gives us the unique intro to “Wonderful Christmastime.” You can find modern software synths that emulate the CS-80, or you can play staccato notes on your guitar to copy the delay and echo effect. Either way it is important to realize you must translate some of those synth abilities to the guitar.
The Chords of “Wonderful Christmastime”
John Lennon was known for calling Paul’s compositions “granny music,” this was because Paul liked to use guitar chords common in jazz standards. If you look at the bulk of Paul McCartney’s work you will see that he doesn’t just stick to pure rock chords and rhythms, he loves to add in extended chords and more movement. And while John may have not always been a fan, it clearly makes for popular music!
“Wonderful Christmastime” is in the key of B, but we play our chord shapes in A with a capo on the 2nd fret. So the first shape we start on is Amaj7, but with the capo, that makes it a Bmaj7. This aspect can sometimes get confusing so make sure you understand the chord you are playing. The intro uses the Amaj7 shape and then moves to an A6 and E/A, which means an A note in the bass of an E chord.
It is the chorus that will really give you some trouble. Even for an intermediate guitarist these changes are big jumps and fast; Bm7-E7-C#m7-F#m9 and then the words ‘wonderful Christmastime’ is made up of D-G(add9)-A. Even if you take the extensions off and simplify the chords the first part is tough! It can make things easier if you use a guitar chord chart while learning this tune.
The next part when he sings ‘the choir’ is a much easier A-Bm7-E-A and then we move to the ‘ding dong’ part with the chords A7-A6 and D-D7-A. Our goal here is to get the sound of the children’s choir. And then we move into that hard chorus again, which happens to be the same progression that is used to solo over. At the end of the song we have Amaj7-Bm/A-A-Bm/A before completing with E-Amaj7 and finally an Amaj7 with a 13th added!
How to Play “Wonderful Christmastime”
While it sounds simple, this song would not be categorized with other easy guitar songs. The chords are not very easy, along with extensions they also require the occasional muting of strings. It is frankly difficult to play a keyboard song on the guitar, as you can see here we have to make some interesting jumps and big chords. And most of all we must get that delay sound right. Start by turning the song on and using a staccato like strum on the Amaj7.
Strum the root note downward harder on the first hit and then get quieter, this helps simulate an echo. And the delay occurs in 4/4 time so try and hit the initial chord changes in that pattern. Move to the A6 and play it normally before adding your pinky on the 6th fret of the high E string. We can then play the E/A as a 0021XX or higher up the fretboard as 576X5XX, using the thumb on the low bass string.
Now on the chorus a chord changes for each syllable so it moves very fast from Bm7-E7-C#m7-F#m9. Luckily the Bm and C#m are similar fingerings just on different frets. And if the F#m9 is too hard, and F#m7 works ok as well. It is fine to use the bare minimum of these chords when you start. The song will not be perfect but will sound fine. And similarly when we play the D-G(add9)-A we can simplify it to D-G-A.
If you made it through the chorus the choir section should be much easier with the A-Bm7-E. The ding dong part can be played by switching from A7 to A6 or just playing the 6th and 7th interval back and forth. This is another section that is easy on piano, but hard on guitar, so it has room for experimentation.
The ‘oohs’ can fluctuate between the D and D7 before going back to an A and then moving back into the start with Amaj7 again. And then essentially repeating the process. If you are playing this song on just guitar you may not wish to include the solo as it won’t fit without the backing instruments. However it is easy to play as it follows the chorus progression and is quick.
Other Ways to Play the Song
This is not the only way to play the song, some people like to play it up higher on the neck without the capo and using the correct key of B. Other players like to simplify it even further and transpose it to the key of G. You will find various keys to play it in, because guitarists have tried different methods of playing a piano song on a guitar.
However regardless of the key you will still have to deal with barre chords, big jumps, and extensions. Maybe John Lennon had a problem with jazz standards because they were harder to play! If you want an easier song try “Happy Xmas War Is Over” but that is not as uplifting and happy of a song. Because it doesn’t use a lot of happy and bright jazz chords!
Playing the song “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney on the guitar is not easy. Whether you use capos or different keys it can take some time and a lot of repeated plays to get the chord changes on time. But it is an excellent lesson in how songs work differently depending on where they are played. And once you have this Christmas classic down you will feel confident in tackling much harder material for the guitar!