“High atop the glistening mountain, with Terrible Tune Eagles screeching from all directions around him, the Songsmith sat, and watched as the morning sun cut a laser ray overhead from the horizon, and bathed him in warmth.
This was why he came: to see how song was born…
… to understand its power…
… and take back with him its greatest gifts.”
This quote, from a fictional fantasy novel which I’m sure I’ll WRITE (right after I finish this post) sets us up nicely for today’s focus: how to continue learning this exceptionally wondrous, diverse and mesmeric instrument called the guitar, such that it’s the perfect companion for its top job these days – to accompany a singing voice for a SONG.
If you haven’t caught my previous two articles on how to play guitar for beginners, check part one out HERE, and part two HERE. Taking in the suggested thoughts, techniques and approaches of those is an excellent foundation to build upon with today’s topic.
Now… let’s rock!
In a hot apartment one afternoon in Los Angeles, I was brought to tears by a single melody performed by an oboe.
In that same hot apartment, the next year, I was on the floor, rolling in laughter, because of a new song my band of the time and I were writing that, uh… went in unexpected places.
And lastly, that exact apartment was also the nest for moments of real songwriting breakthroughs and an incredible senses of fulfillment, as I studied songs by the masters, and applied what I’d learned to my own material.
Thank you, Apt. 62 in Reseda! Your effect my life will never be forgotten.
Because you’ve probably experienced the power of a song before, those glimpses into my life as a musician are more than likely somewhat familiar to you. Music is a magical thing. It has a presence that stays with you, long after the song is over.
Today’s songs are almost exclusively driven by lyrics. Sure, there are instrumental stations for jazz, classical, atmospheric, etc., but their market shares are quite low compared to the spoken story songs that mostly fill the soundtracks of our lives.
Good lyrics are powerful; they can be deeply meaningful, and become almost like a mission statement for our souls. They can tell our story, or they can remind us of a relationship, or maybe they steer us in a way we really wanted to go, but didn’t quite have the strength or will to, until we heard that song.
If you’re learning guitar, one thing’s for sure: you will probably be an accompaniment to a voice singing lyrics most of the time. It might be your voice. It might be someone else’s voice. But, for sure, you’re going to be a musical bed for some voice at almost all your gigs.
But, in essence, you are really only serving one thing as a guitar player: the SONG. Let everything you do answer the question “How do I make this song sound the best it can be?” Do that, and your quest won’t be nearly as long as you might think!
Because you’ll be accompanying your voice or another’s voice usually, you should start from the get-go learning WHOLE SONGS with your guitar. Not parts. Not the best bits. Not just licks.
LEARN… THE… WHOLE… SONG.
If there’s any habit that most sets apart those who succeed at an instrument and those who don’t, it’s that. If you commit to learning a complete song, beginning to end, and being able to play all its constituent parts, you are pretty much guaranteed to become a good player.
There are thousands of noodling amateurs in the world who will never taste the victory of playing live for audiences, and it’s mostly because they don’t learn entire songs.
Let me put it in business terms: no one is going to hire you if you can’t play songs in their entirety. And even bands that pay NOTHING don’t want incomplete musicians. No matter how advanced or not you are, the point of concerts is to play whole songs for fans that like those songs.
Now the great thing is, if you learn entire tunes, not only is it going to be what everyone wants to hear – it also is going to make you a faaaaar superior musician, because you will start and continue to internalize what a good, well-written, moving, effective song is beginning to end. You won’t even know you’re learning it, but you will be.
If you ever want to write your own music, this will come in real handy!
So, got it? Learn whole songs.
You’ll thank me later. 😉
After you’ve spent all that time wood-shedding (that’s what musicians call long periods honing chops by solitary practicing) and you finally can play the song, beginning to end, with no mistakes…
… it’s time to understand what you’re playing.
This is where you write down the song form, and all the chord choices, and study it. Why? because it will, again, make you a far superior musician than most. You’ll stand out from the thousands of guitar players. You’ll get the gigs. You’ll make obviously better musical choices.
Because you not only can reproduce a song, you understand it.
Here are great questions I like to ask about songs I’m learning:
If you do none of the rest of this list, at LEAST do the Nashville Number system study of the chord progressions. All this means is you’ll be substituting a number where a new chord is given. The number will represent what part of the major scale the chords are built on.
If you write out a chart for the song using this system, you’ll be performing exactly what every Nashville session player does every day as they lay down hit after hit on their bad axes. The number system makes music SO easy when you understand it. It’s worth investing the time to get your head around it.
If you have no clue about this, no worries… I’ll be writing a new post on it soon. For now, go read THIS POST for a quick beginner’s understanding to chord building.
Just as our voice is amplified and echoed into the world when we shout down a well, or cry out at cliffs or mountains, so we must get our music propelling outwards… by getting out and playing for people!
Wherever and whenever possible, perform the songs you’ve learned. Even if it’s just in your home, for guests that happen to be visiting, perform for those humans. They’ll love it and you’ll get used to the feeling of being in the spotlight for music.
If you find you’re making some mistakes when you play for others, the answer is simple: just spend ten or fifteen minutes a day continuing to practice that song. Focus not on the whole thing, but only on those few measures, or licks, or chords, where you make the mistakes. In a week or two, you won’t be ABLE to make a mistake, the right way will be so ingrained in your muscle memory.
In music, like in anything, you will get out of it what you put into it… and then some!
Now… nervousness. Some of you will never get over it. It can be a lifelong struggle. My wife is a fantastic musician, but she has always hated the feeling of being the center of attention that performance brings, and for that reason mostly plays at home, for herself or us, without all the spotlight glare.
Such anxiety is shared by Eddie Van Halen, Adele, Brian Wilson, Barbara Streisand, and even… Ozzy Osbourne!
It does get easier though, if it doesn’t totally disappear. But it will only lessen if you choose to get out there and play whole songs, back-to-back, beginning to end, with (hopefully) no mistakes, or as few mistakes as possible. The more you do it, the more “normal” it becomes. And if you’ve practiced enough, you won’t have to worry about mistakes because of the entrenched muscle memory I mentioned.
You can do it. And the benefits are awesome.
Just remember this: you will be your worst critic. Most people won’t even notice you made a mistake. Know why?
They’re too busy… singing along!
An interesting thing happens when you learn a whole song, study to understand it fully, and then perform it time and time again for adoring fans: you start to discover that elusive, whispered-about entity that eludes so many that do not do those things – you start to discover your own style!
You will find that you gravitate towards certain artists. That’s okay; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Let your heroes teach you! In time, you will probably want to explore other avenues, other styles, other artists. Just live in the now and learn what you enjoy.
I remember when I was first learning, I absolutely could not learn enough songs by Paul Simon… and Van Halen! Both satisfied different kinds of internal cravings (obviously!), and I ate ’em up like Thanksgiving dinner.
As you intentionally, thoroughly learn specific artists and styles, their thinking patterns and musical instincts start to become your own, but with a twist – the mix of them is what starts to create what is singularly YOU. No one else will learn exactly the same songs, styles, riffs and progressions as you will. Those unique decisions become the road to your own distinct sound. It’s something that you won’t have to work on… it’ll just happen! If you put the time and effort in.
So keep learning, one by one, your favorite songs. You’ll not only be able to recreate timeless classics – you’ll start becoming one yourself!
Every hero’s quest ends with the protagonist coming back to a place he or she was before. But this time, they’re a new person, someone who has seen, experienced, and taken in epic things that have changed them from the inside out, and taught them much they did not know.
Their senses are now fuller, deeper, more acutely aware of things that, before, would have passed by unnoticed. They have learned what the majority never even suspect, because the majority never try hard enough to break through walls, set out in faith to face the unknown, and spend the simple time it takes to unwrap the mysteries of their life until light springs up from the lifted layers of exploration.
Your musical journey will take you many places, but the total itinerary will be one that is all your own – a singular path that will shape you into a singular artist.
You must keep climbing, sometimes over many peaks, before you arrive at the playing peak you’ve been working towards. Some would say it’s an arduous road, even futile, and you might be tempted to think they have a point.
But remember: they do not know how exciting, thrilling, inspiring and fulfilling this journey is. No one who has not worked hard on an instrument to attain certain skill levels will ever understand.
But you do. So keep pressing on. Keep climbing. Reach for the top by practicing smart, and hard, and never, ever, ever lose what drew you to it in the first place – the pure, lovely enjoyment of making music. Keep that up… and you’ll be a juke box hero in no time!
Now, go… make… sounds!!