This sentiment is probably the number one reason that most people who pick up a guitar never make it past a very minimal level of musicianship. It is not that wanting to learn beloved, personally inspiring songs is wrong in itself. Contrarily, learning specific songs is a great motivator, a useful learning tool, and is often the ultimate purpose of many aspiring guitarists. There is not a thing wrong with that. I enjoy coaching clients through the process of mastering songs they love. It is very gratifying and affirming for me to see them work through the process to the end and be able to enjoy playing their favorite songs. Like any teacher who is in it mostly for the love of teaching, students’ successes are the primary reason I do this.
As a teacher of completely voluntary students one of the roles I must reluctantly embrace is that I occasionally have to inform clients of things that they are not necessarily happy to hear, such as the amount of time and effort involved in learning their favorite songs. Sometimes it inspires the necessary results in their approach and all is well, and that is of course what I always hope for. In some cases it results in a client becoming discouraged over things that seem out of reach.
Of course I never wish to discourage my clients, but there is no other way than straight through to get results for a client who is caught up in one of these common self-defeating thought/feeling traps. I have to persistently confront the erroneous thinking as diplomatically as possible and hopefully persuade them to set it aside so we can get on with realistic approaches that actually work.
It is part two of the opening sentiment – “… now!” – that provokes many aspiring guitarists to pull their aim off target and instead shoot themselves in the foot. There is an implication in that latter sentiment that betrays a certain self-defeating misunderstanding. Despite my ongoing efforts to steer people out of this trap, it persists in hindering the motivation and robbing the hard won gains of many otherwise promising students of music.
Let us then pull that lurking bit of thought poison out of the shadowy recesses and hold it up to the illuminating light of informed scrutiny. We will do so by adding the underlying implications into the original sentiment so that it is more apparent what it really means. Here is the revised statement, “I want to play songs just like they sound on the original artists’ recordings, and I thought the whole point of lessons was to show me how to make the songs fall right out of my fingers.”
If you are thinking in this way then consider these facts about the process of learning songs:
1. Based on my own 40 years of playing guitar, 15 years of teaching, and the collective wisdom of the musician community compiled since the days of ancient Greece: if you are in marginal or better health with a mind sound enough to read this and reasonably functional hands, and you cannot play a song that you wish to play, there is one and only one root cause for it: you have not yet applied yourself adequately to the work required to remember and execute the motions required to reproduce the song. Yes, it is that simple.
2. Simple does not necessarily mean easy. So it further boils down to the idea conveyed in this Southern colloquialism: you either gonna do it or you ain’t. If you’re in the middle of the process, then you are doing it. Keep up the good work and be patient. The results you seek are inevitable.
3. Once you get the first one done, the next one will still be challenging, but that sense of hopelessness will be greatly diminished and will continue to dissipate with each new success.
4. Regarding solos, you do not have to have it sound exactly like the original artist’s studio recorded version of a song for it to sound good. You would need to have the original artist’s gear, fingers, musical personality, and the studio enhancements to make it sound exactly like the original. In many cases the original artists do not even play the exact same thing live that they played on the studio recordings. They don’t even try, because they know it is going to be impossible to remember every single note from their entire catalog. There are exceptions … artists who play really simple songs, or else practice for seven hours a day seven days a week. They are notable because they are exceptions. For hobbyists in particular it is counterproductive to tie up huge amounts of time trying to learn and maintain exact replicas of songs.
5. Learning songs involves a number elements that can present challenges. If you haven’t done the preliminary work in knowledge and technique, forget playing songs. Before even beginning to approach this, you need to know the required chords and scales, be able to finger them instantly, have a well-developed picking/strumming technique that is well-coordinated with your fretting hand, and have a sufficiently developed sense of rhythm and timing to be able to keep up with the song. Then you must study the song in order to learn and remember the chords, melodies, where they fall in the song, the rhythm, and if you want to learn the solo that adds another especially significant challenge to memory and technique. Study means just that: study! Listen, analyze, decipher. Then start performing repetitions. Eliminate mistakes. Repeat until you can play the song.
So the bottom line is, learning songs is not easy, not automatic, and there is no trick, method, or program that is going to make it happen without substantial effort.
The good news is that it is not nearly as hard as some folks allow it to be by allowing frustration to rage out of control. I read recently of a Civil War commander who continued to lead a battle from a horse after taking a shot in the leg. Then he got half a foot shot off, and continued to lead the battle until he took a body shot, fell off his horse, and slowly bled to death. That’s hard. Sitting comfortably in a quiet climate controlled room and rewinding to a chord change for the fifteenth time so you can figure out the chord and exactly where it is changing … not hard enough to be worth mentioning.
Are there any short cuts? Yes, much more so now than at any time in the history of music. Teachers, transcriptions, slow-down software, and free Internet videos. It is easier now than it has ever been to take a big bite out of the analysis and deciphering parts of the process by having either a person or a piece of paper show you what is being played. Nonetheless, you cannot get around study completely since you will still need to hear/feel the chord changes, melodies, and rhythm for yourself, and you will still need to listen, perform repetitions, eliminate mistakes, and repeat parts until you have the song memorized and physically under control. It is just plain work, and no person, method, or gimmick can do that part of the work for you.
I decided to tackle the solos for Sweet Home Alabama in my college days. At that time I was mostly self-taught as far as popular music styles such as Southern Rock. I was working full time in addition to school, so I had very little time to practice. The classical training that I had been through at that time did not help me with this type of song. I picked up a copy of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tablature anthology and started working on the parts. My fingers were up to it, but I did not have the musical context to see the scales, so I had to memorize the solos the hard way: one note at a time, stacking up one phrase after another until I had them memorized. This took me about a year to learn these solos to the point that I could get through them reasonably accurately and then I had to continue polishing the technique and timing details.
Since I had started learning at the age of six with a full size acoustic guitar that I could barely hold, I don’t have any memories of ever having any perspective about playing guitar other than that progress follows work. I found out only after I started teaching that many folks have terrific misunderstandings about the process of learning music, namely that it is supposed to be easy. Of course I would have liked to pick those solos up faster and moved on to other things, but it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it taking longer than I would have preferred. Yes, I did come up with some “creative improvisational lyrics” that I often inserted into those solos while repeating them over and over trying to get them to stick in my memory. Yes, I was often frustrated that I had to do schoolwork or chores rather than spend more time on my solos. But I kept working on them until I could play them. It never occurred to me to give up because it was challenging. And it was worth the effort.
Learning songs will never be effortless, but you can ultimately make it much easier and faster by buckling down in the beginning of your musical studies and mastering the basics of music theory and technique, so that the elements of a given song are not completely new to your ears, understanding, and fingers. This is why I refuse to teach songs outside the context of an overall approach to mastery in the basics. With the decades of experience I have at this I can pick up rhythms almost instantly, and chords/signature licks for most popular music take only a few minutes. I couldn’t pick them up that fast when I started playing guitar, nor even for many years after. If it is a really complex song like a lot of progressive rock, or a style I am not accustomed to, then I may have to spend more time with it, and certainly if there are long or high speed solos then it will take some time to decipher, memorize, and embed in muscle memory through repetition. That’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you are failing at music or suffering some unusual lack of talent. That’s just how being a musician works. There is a great deal of enjoyment, but there is also a lot of work and that’s just the way it is. It is worth it. The sooner you get the basics under control the sooner you can get on to playing your favorite songs, and the more time you spend transcribing songs yourself the better you get at it, just like everything else in life.
In the words of that illustrious philosopher Larry the Cable Guy, like much in life it comes down to this: “Git ‘er Done!”