Freeway Music — Columbia, SC’s Premier Music School

October marks the 10 year anniversary for Freeway Music School—an incredible milestone and achievement. Freeway opened in 2011 and since then hasn’t stopped growing while still maintaining its core values, one of them being to help students reach their musical goals. “Freeway Music goes beyond your traditional music school,” says Don Russo, Freeway Music’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “We are a hub for building deep relationships between teachers, students and the community-while staying focused on being innovative and adapting to the world around us.”

From the start, Freeway Music has encouraged instructors and students to cultivate their musical talent, and also to showcase it in the studio as well as on stage. The combination of dynamic teaching, and the dedication of each instructor to their students’ progress creates a rich learning environment. Now that there are six locations in and around Columbia, this level of student focused instruction is available for many throughout South Carolina’s Midlands, and beyond. “Adapting to virtual lessons and other programming has opened many doors for our students and teachers,” says Tony Lee, Freeway Music’s co-founder. “It’s allowed us to expand our way of teaching, as well as introduce new technology that gives us the capacity to teach anywhere in the world.”

Both Tony Lee and Don Russo are committed to helping students, of any age (there are students in their upper 80’s taking lessons) achieve their musical goals. And you can see that same drive mirrored in the instructors there as well. In the past 10 years, Freeway Music instructors have taught upwards of 10,000 students nearly half a million lessons. Take these examples for instance,  Neoni –the alternative pop rock band with over a million monthly listeners on Spotify, or Jonathan Wyndham, who performed on The Voice in 2014 and is now an independent vocal artist. From their first lessons at Freeway Music, to now, the level of their success is exemplary. Sydney and Caitlin Powell, the sisters who together form Neoni, say of Freeway, “We could not be more proud to be Freeway Music alumni and to think it all began ten years ago in a lesson room to music becoming our entire career is truly amazing.” But, as praiseworthy as those accomplishments are, the other side, the one we don’t hear about that often, is as equally notable—throughout the years, Freeway has raised and donated more than $60,000 to local nonprofits, and also volunteered countless hours to the community. You’ll hear the phrase, “Freeway family” a lot around the studios. Family and community are both words that are often associated with the school’s fundamental values. “Supporting our community is part of who we are—it’s embedded in the fabric of our DNA,” says Russo. “We’ve seen music transcend barrier, transform lives and unify people of all walks of life.”

Other ways that Freeway Music has expanded their outreach to help the community are:

  • Co-partnership of the Freeway Music Festival—uniting local and regional musicians
  • Music scholarships to support youth who may not be able to afford music lessons
  • Participation in local fundraising and performances for nonprofits such as: Palmetto Children’s Hospital, Harvest Hope Food Bank, The Conner Foundation, The Woman’s Shelter, Pawmetto Lifeline, Trustus Theatre, Girls Rock Columbia, and many others
  • Supporting local schools with free lessons and performances including the following: Columbia College, Irmo High School, Bethel-Hanberry Elementary, St. John Newman, Heathwood Hall, Blythewood High School, St. Andrews Middle School
  • Helping with local events: The Festival of Trees, Rooftop Rhythms, St. Pat’s in Five Points Parade, Palmetto Christmas, the MG&C Long Run, the Heart and Sole Run, Get in the Pink Race, Vista Lights, First Thursdays on Main

Freeway Music is More than Just a Music School, that much is clear. Whether it’s through community outreach, supporting nonprofits, or helping anyone who aspires to become a musician achieve their dream, Freeway is in many ways an incredible “family”. The same level of enthusiasm and creative drive that instructors have in the studio classroom is also put into every (recital) student showcase. At the end of the day, it has always been about developing talent, and sometimes helping students find talent they never knew they had. All of the student showcases in October 2021 will celebrate, not only the amazing student performances, but also this milestone anniversary of 10 years of Freeway Music School.

Check out all the events for dates and venues: . These showcases are crucial to students’ development, honing and showing off their skills in “real life” settings and are essentially live music concerts.

To learn more about Freeway Music and register for classes with year-round enrollment at

About Freeway Music

Founded in 2011, Freeway Music in the Columbia, S.C., region’s premier music school with five locations in downtown Columbia, Lexington, Irmo, the Northeast, and within Sims Music. Freeway music offers lessons for all skill levels, styles, and ages on a wide range of instruments, including piano, voice, guitar, ukulele, drums, bass, strings, woodwinds, horns, mandolin, banjo, and more. Freeway Music’s mission is to equip students in music and life to make a positive impact in their community. Freeway Music is the exclusive music school partner of Sims Music, a locally owned and nationally recognized music store. For more information visit or call 844.537.7661.




Talent vs Work-The Fixed and Growth Mindsets

When you only compliment talent and intelligence, you may end up undermining motivation, and eventually performance. In musical achievement there’s a profound difference in whether you skate by on your ‘talent’ or excel to heights you never imagined through grit and hard work. This is a short post about two of the most common mindsets: fixed and growth mindset. After this short discussion you might consider changing from a limiting fixed mindset to one of continual growth and learning.

The Fixed Mindset – Like a Stone

Basically, a fixed mindset is when you believe that you are born with a certain amount of talent in any field and that it never changes. No matter how hard you work you’ll never be good enough because you weren’t already talented enough from the start. This mindset focusses on being smart or talented not cultivating learning and skill.

Doesn’t everyone seem to enjoy being called talented and smart? Yes, absolutely. If you play poorly, or can’t learn a phrase quickly after being told you’re talented you may believe you aren’t really that talented after all. Your confidence might deflate because of one small failure. Success means that you are always the smartest or best but messing up means, well, maybe you’re not really talented—maybe you’ll never be good enough. You always want your students, family and friends to know how much you appreciate and celebrate their successes. It’s when the praise is only for the successful result and the effort to reach it is forgotten, that there is a risk of creating a fixed mindset. One thing is certain with fixed and growth mindsets—you use both on a daily basis for all types of decisions. It’s rare that someone uses only one of the mindsets.

The Growth Mindset – Continual Expansion

If you have a Growth Mindset, you believe that you can succeed through personal effort, dedication, and motivation. You believe that your potential is yet to be charted, and that no one can know how much you might accomplish. People with a Growth mindset do not blindly believe they are the next Bach or Tesla, but to them there’s also no denying any possibility. You believe in a continual expansion and refinement of your skills and abilities.

Changing the meaning of failure is one of the main differences between fixed and growth mindsets. If you use a growth mindset you see a failure as a set back and not the crippling feeling that you’ll never be good enough. Instead of caving in, you step back and assess what went wrong and strive to succeed again. That old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” has the growth mindset at its core. Also, sayings like, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” a Chinese proverb attributed to Lao Tzu, mean that all great work is completed with one step at a time. It’s one thing to give you a catchy saying and call it a day, but these words of wisdom are not going to help anyone truly reach their potential. It takes an active participation in changing your own mindset towards growth, despite having some limiting beliefs.

Both mindsets operate within you and influence every decision and reaction you make. While you may be stronger with growth mindsets internally, you might not actually engender the same in others. Complimenting success and talent versus hard work can lead to creating the framework for a fixed mindset in someone. Imagine yourself in front of your instructor. You played the first part of the song you’re learning perfectly last week. This week you’re learning a technique you’ve never tried before. You can’t do it. You freeze. You hear the instructor try to explain the technique, and although they are being patient, you are having a very different experience of the situation. With the fixed mindset you might be thinking, “I thought I was talented so this should be simple”, your muscles rebel, you start to sweat, your confidence wavers.

Now picture the above scenario again. This time imagine that you find the new technique or music difficult. But this time you pause, realize that you’re here to learn, and that it’s okay being a novice. Your instructor’s patience isn’t because they don’t believe in your ability, but helpful and exactly what you need to progress—one slow and sure step at a time to reach your goals.

Reclaiming Possibility

A striking example of a musician with a growth mindset is Django Reinhardt. After a tragic accident, the ring and little finger on his left hand were burned so badly that he was unable to use them to fret the guitar anymore. This was before much of his success and innovation playing jazz. The doctors told him that he’d never play guitar again. Consider this situation for someone who was not in Django’s situation. What if your doctor told you that you would never be good enough because you weren’t good enough right now? Having, in my opinion, a strong growth mindset, Django re-learned guitar using only his first and index fingers to fret. If he’d given up because of a fixed mindset, and thought “I can’t play guitar with only two fingers” then we’d never hear tunes like “Nuages” or “Minor Swing” or his vibrant jazz style. There are countless stories of individuals who have triumphed over what seem like impossible situations, and most of them appear to succeed because of embodying a growth mindset. You’ve heard the phrase, “where there’s a Will there’s a way”, I believe that it’s more than just a strong Will that enables great achievement—the right mindset is essential.

Some of the most gratifying moments for music instructors, students or parents is in witnessing positive change and the accomplishment of musical goals. You probably live for that moment when, after months of working on a piece of music, you finally play it with such precision and skill that you know your hard work has paid off. You may also dread those times when after you feel so accomplished a challenge presents itself and you question your own ability. These are the times when the difference between the growth and fixed mindset will make or break your progress. Changing from a fixed mindset to one of growth may not be easy, but as with a lot of things, easy doesn’t always equal worthwhile.

Your mindset will frame your interpretation of events in your life. With a growth mindset, your setbacks will become temporary challenges that you intend to overcome. With a fixed mindset, any setback becomes the final judgment of your ability or talent, and may convince you to give up. Some ways to start changing to a growth mindset are as simple as asking different questions: Can I learn something from this? What can I do to improve my technique? Is there a way to slow this fast part down so I can play each note perfectly? How can I improve? The process may take some time, and you may notice that you start treating any “mistake” as an opportunity instead of a final judgement on your intelligence, ability, or talent. Remember this, criticism and praise do not represent who you are and what you’re actually capable of doing, and being. Compliments and judgements are observations of your current work or performance, not of the possible accomplishments you can achieve with a growth mindset.

If you are interested in joining our theater class, email

Are you looking for a reliable social and educational outlet for your little ones? Join Dawn Eargle in person with your babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to learn delightful songs, dances, and musical activities.

  • When: April (30-40 classes, once per week)
  • Where: Outside in Doko Park (Blythewood)
  • Price: $15/class (paid monthly)
  • Why? …because it’ll be so much fun!

If you’re interested in a fun outside activity that is also educational, please email or call 803-865-1151.

More information on Dawn Eargle and the class…

Dawn Eargle is a graduate of the University of South Carolina with a degree in Music Education. She is an enthusiastic teacher with 20 years of experience in preschool music. Dawn creates an innovative curriculum with students’ development in mind. Her students will learn the joy, excitement, and love of playing music.

Learn songs that focus on keeping a steady beat to enhance timing, coordination, listening, and language skills. Activities include instruments, puppets, stories, and colorful props such as mini trampolines, balls, parachutes, beanbags, scarves, and bubbles. The program enhances participation, language development, memory, and coordination. Preschoolers learn to express their creativity, develop their imagination, and the ability to focus, all through playing through music. Come out and play!

Electric Guitar

There are many brands you can start off with for electric guitars, and they are all similar in quality at the entry-level; however, three brands have stood the test of time, and you can’t really go wrong with any of these three brands: Fender, Gibson, and Ibanez. Like anything, you will have a good, better, and best option. For electrics, it comes down to where the instrument was made, hands-on craftsmanship, the quality of the wood, and pickups. There are definitely many other options, but these are the prominent features that affect the price. Here is a breakdown of which guitars I would get per level:

Entry Level ($150-400)

  1. Fender Squire Strat
  2. Gibson Epiphone
  3. Ibanez GRX70QA series

Mid Level ($400-800)

  1. Fender Player Series
  2. PRS SE Standard or Custom
  3. Epiphone Les Paul Standard

Pro Level ($800+)

  1. Fender American Vintera or Pro II Series
  2. Silver Sky PRS
  3. Gibson Les Paul

Now, after you get your electric guitar, one of the next things you’ll be asking yourself is “what kind of amp do I need?” I can tell you, hands down, the Fender Mustang series is the PERFECT practice amp. It’s literally all you need…so much so, that it is the official practice amp of the Freeway Music locations. One of the best ways to ensure that you get all you need is to purchase a package. So, let’s get that out of the way and talk about it. Here are some packages our friends have at Sims:

Acoustic Guitar

The good, better, best for acoustics is generally found in how much solid vs. laminate wood is involved. Entry level guitars tend to have a laminate top and back and sides. Mid-level acoustics have solid tops. The reason they do the top is because that’s where most of your sound resonates. So, if you have a solid top, it makes a difference. Pro-level guitars are generally solid all the way around with solid tops, sides, and backs. For the most part, you’ll run into the usual suspects for guitars. Here are some recommendations for various guitars at each level:

Entry Level ($150-400)

  1. Fender FA-15 (3/4 size guitar great for a smaller student)
  2. Fender (pretty much any)
  3. Ibanez (pretty much any)

Midlevel ($400-800)

Normally, I’d tout Martin and Taylor pretty hard in this range…especially the Taylor GS mini as it’s literally the perfect 3/4 guitar, but they are low in stock. So, I’d check out the Ibanez Artwood Series. They are great mid-level guitars.

Pro level

Can’t go wrong with Martin, Taylor, Gibson. They are king.


Ukes make for AMAZING holiday gifts because they are portable, easy to learn and play, and very affordable. Ukes tend to range between $50—$300, but float around that $50-150 mark for decent ones. Here are some brands to check out:

  1. Kala
  2. Cordoba
  3. Ortega *This is a newer brand that Sims recently started carrying. They look, sound, and play amazing. I just bought one for Sara Ann for Christmas. Don’t tell her ;)…She’s not reading this is she? :/


So, if you’re looking for a serious acoustic piano, check out our friends at Rice Music House. They’ve got a great selection of acoustic pianos and will be of great help to you. The acoustic pianos at Freeway Music are from Rice. You can buy or rent. 

If you are in the market for a Digital Piano, I like the Casio and Yamaha brands. You can’t go wrong either way. We stock the Casios at Freeway for our voice lessons. 

There are also a slew of portable keyboard options available.


Okay, I JUST started playing drums…so, give me a little grace in this department. It’s okay, I spoke with Justin at Sims, and he is an expert…so we will be alright! Here are some opinions of ours:

Entry Level

Ludwig Accent: Drive(full size for 12+) and Fuse (smaller for a younger kid 8-11)


Tama Imperial Star


PDP, DW, Ludwig, Pearl, and Tama are all gonna have solid options. You might want to consider some nicer cymbals at this point from brands like Zildjian and Sabian.

**Side Note: The cajon has been a popular instrument for drummers as of late for acoustic sets. Check out the LP Americana cajon… it was designed by our very own Justin Sims! 🙂


So, you wanna ease into recording. The best way to get started is by grabbing one of the Scarlet Focusrite Packages They have two different ones. Both come with a mic, mic cable, headphones, and an intro version of Protools. The only difference is one is solo and has one channel ($219), and the other is a duo with two channels ($269). 

Stocking Stuffers

There are a ton of accessories such as capos, tuners, string winders, polish, cables, slides, pedals, shakers, tambourines, sticks, picks, and most importantly…Music Lessons! 😉

Whew…That was a lot of information. I hope this was helpful and Happy Holidays from the Freeway Family! 🙂

We are constantly trying to improve our experience at Freeway Music. Anytune Pro has been an amazing tool for our instructors and students in private lessons. Here are some of our favorite features.

  1. Changing Tempo: AnyTune Pro allows you to input a song from your music library and slow it down or speed it up by increments of 1%. This is an amazing feature when a song’s tempo is too challenging. Students can measure their progress by gradually increasing the tempo 5% at a time.
  2. Changing Pitch: Once a song is imported, you can alter the pitch. You can click up or down on the # or flat button if you want to move by 1/2 steps, or you can go to as small as .01 movements as you dial in the perfect pitch for the song with which you are working. This is helpful a few ways. One, you can change a song that is pitched down (such as a guitar being tuned down 1/2 step) to make it easier to learn without retuning the instrument. Secondly, you can change the key of a song to fit a singer. Lastly, you can dial in a song that is slightly out of pitch. Some songs are a 1/4 step or even less out of tune due to capos and tape speeds, etc. **Once a song is altered by pitch or tempo, it can be exported that way for a student**
  3. Time Stamps: As you are going through the song, you can stamp each section with markers. You can use either section markers such as intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Or, you can use number markers. That way the teacher and student can easily navigate through the song and reference points in the song that need practice. For example, the teacher can say, “practice Verse 2 at x tempo” or “work on marker 2.”
  4. Looping: You can select a beginning point “A” and an end point “B” to create a loop section. This way you can easily work on a part of a song or solo over and over again. The speed features come in very handy while using the looper. The placement of the points is super easy with the “A” and “B” buttons.
  5. Reframing: This is perhaps my favorite feature of Anytune Pro. You can draw a square or rectangle directly on to the sound spectrum to isolate a specific sound such as guitar left, bass guitar, voice, or a kick drum, etc. This is such an amazing tool if you are having a hard time hearing notes because all of the other instruments are getting in the way. You can also invert it to cancel out the instrument so that your student can play along with the track, effectively creating an accompanying track.
  6. Practice Tool: So, I mentioned earlier that you can change keys and tempos. Well, you can also set this to occur on each repeat such that the key or tempo changes each time. This is perfect if you want to work on slowly speeding up a lick each time through, or if you are trying to work on being able to play something in various keys, showing that you truly have it down regardless of the key.

These are just some of the features I love about Anytune Pro. There are definitely others, but these are the core uses for me. If you want to exercise your ears, work on transcribing, or need help transposing, this software is clutch. Make sure to check it out and thank me later! 🙂

I still remember the night it happened. I was at Sakitumi, a local sushi restaurant in Columbia, SC. I’d come out to watch a jazz trio play and decided I would sit in and attempt the song “Donna Lee” by Charlie Parker. I had been practicing the song on my own for months, learning the melody, mastering the chords, and working the arpeggios to be able to solo over the changes. The group consisted of a bassist, a drummer, and a keyboard player. In between a couple of numbers, I approached the bass player and asked if I could sit in and play “Donna Lee,” to which he said, “sure,” as is the tradition in the jazz community. So, I watched a couple of tunes and then he called my name. I grabbed my guitar, plugged into my amp, and what happened next changed my life forever…

The bassist turned to me with a fierce look in his eyes and counted, “one, two, ah one-two-three-four, and we were off to the races…at BLAZING SPEED! Yikes! I had never played this song anywhere near this speed. My hands were sweaty, my muscles in my arms tight, as I barely hung on to a semblance of the melody. All the while, the bassist was glaring at me with a look, as though he was testing me with his eyes. Once through the head of the song, he says, “go ahead,” cueing me to take a solo. So, I begin the solo. The changes are flying past like cars on the interstate, and then it happened. I was completely lost. I had NO idea where I was in the song. The bass player then steps up to me and begins barking changes in my ear. I still can’t keep up. The last half of my solo began to dismantle until I finally stopped in the middle of it. The bassist, seemingly unhappy, began to take his solo effortlessly over the changes as I stood there. Then, he walked up to me and said, “Back to the top.” I couldn’t find where I was, so HE began to play the melody (an extremely difficult melody) on the bass. Then, I jumped back in and started playing with him. We wrapped the song, I packed up, and I walked away with my pride hurt a bit.

Now, I know, a lot of you right probably think that sounds horrible, like your worst nightmare. I get it. It does sound painful; however, it was probably one of the best learning experiences that I have ever had. I learned several things that day.

  1. Practice Songs in Different Ways – Two people will play a song different from one another. I had been practicing the song on my own, my way, at the same tempo. I learned that if I practice songs in different tempos, keys, and styles that I actually learn the song more completely and it prepares me for almost any situation.
  2. Listening is Key – When I was lost, I tried to think my way out and figure out where I was. I discovered, after a few of these failures, that I just need to take a deep breath, close my eyes, listen, and react. Music is about what you hear, not what you know. Once I discovered that. I could start playing notes that sounded good to me, regardless of the key changes. I could also find my place in the song WAY quicker.
  3. I Will Fail, and I Must Try Again – As I mentioned before, I had several instances where I failed. I could have easily have thrown in the towel, called the bassist a jerk, or conceded to doing something easier. I instead churned those emotions into positive energy which made me practice and try again, getting better each attempt, to the point where I could feel relaxed in those situations.
  4. Jump Into the Fire – To say I was nervous that night would be an understatement. I tended to, and I watched my students, procrastinate and not get out there and just play. In my experience, no one is ever 100% “ready” to do something challenging. Set a goal. It can be an open mic, open jam, showcase, recital, recording date, video, social media post, whatever. Just set a goal and do it. You WILL have failures, you WILL have successes, you WILL grow if you just jump into the fire.

Students often ask what areas of guitar should they should focus on. So, I took the time and compiled a list. It is not exhaustive, but certainly a great start. Here are 11 Areas of guitar focus that every guitar player should look into.

Chords/Chord Building – Great rhythm players make for great lead players. Chords aid songwriters, lead players, hobbyists, and every other kind of musician you can imagine. My suggestion is to take the time to learn the basic triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished. Then, make sure you get at least these seventh chords down: major7, 7, min7, and half-diminished. There are tons more, but those are a good start. Systems like the CAGED System are crucial for helping students grasp chord voicings and how they fit up and down the neck.

Scales – Scales and arpeggios get a bad reputation for being shredder tools. Yes, scales are one of the main ways for soloing over a song, but there is much more to learning scales. Scales can create riffs and melodies for singers, etc. Start with learning Pentatonic and your Diatonic (major and minor) scales. Then, you can expand into Harmonic and Melodic Minor. Make sure you know how and where to use them.

Arpeggios – Arpeggios, like scales, are often associated with shredder guitar players. We have all seen Shreddicus Maximus showing his guitar prowess by ripping through arpeggios as fast as possible. Though there is a place for shredding, is not the only purpose for arpeggios. Perhaps one of the most tasteful approaches to soloing is “chasing chords.” “Chasing Chords” essentially means, following the arpeggios of each chord in a given chord progression, highlighting the notes within each chord. This is great for improvising, writing melodies, etc. Start with the basic chord types mentioned above in the chord-building section and learn those arpeggios in all positions on the neck.

Music Theory – Music Theory was the most confusing concept for me when I started playing guitar. Every time someone said it out loud, they could never quite explain it to me. It is often the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The Wikipedia definition of Music Theory is this: “Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music.” That is a never-ending rabbit hole if I ever heard of one. Start with these questions: what are the 12 keys, what notes are in each key, what triad chords are in each key, what 7th chords are in each key, how are those chords determined, how does harmony work, how do melodies work over chords, etc.

Rhythm – Rhythm is the foundation of music. Victor Wooten once said, “People feel music before they hear it” in his book, The Music Lesson. If you want to be a great lead player, learn how to be a great rhythm player first. MANY things go into being a great rhythm guitar player from subdivisions, to muting and resting, to string sets. I wrote a blog series to cover several of these components a while back. Check it out.

Technique – Techniques are like muscle on guitar. You want to work them out, not so you can flex necessarily, but so that you have the strength to pull off what you need to, and do so comfortably. For example, when you work out the muscles of your body, it makes it easier to lift lighter weights and perform certain tasks, making you feel more relaxed. Being relaxed on guitar allows you to have better feel, better creativity, and overall, just enjoy playing more. Examples of techniques are hammer/pull exercises, speed drills, endurance exercises, pattern exercises, string skipping, string crossing, sweeping, etc. Basically, whatever technique you suck at, get better by isolating it into an exercise, starting slowly and increasing the tempo over time. The metronome will be your “weights.”

Ear-Training – Too many guitar players depend on tabs, YouTube videos, and, sometimes, their instructors to learn tunes. Others read music and never take time to pick out music by ear. All of this can be very crippling to a musician. After all, music is what we listen to…so using your ears is pretty dang important. Just like techniques, your ears are going to gain strength the more you work them out. I’m blown away with how my ears have progressed over the years. My suggestion to my students is to start with something easy and build your way up. Perhaps pick out a simple melody like “Happy Birthday,” or holiday tune. Then, try a video game melody, singing melody, or TV show melody. Start with single notes. Then try picking out some simple solos. After that, try picking out bass notes of chords in songs. Perhaps try to pick out a two-note solo. Next, graduate to picking out chords in songs. You get the idea. Build your ear muscle.

Improvising – This is scary territory for many. This is where what you have learned and listened to collides with spontaneity. The only way to get better is just do it and be vulnerable. With practice you will get better; however, there are some things you can do to help the process. Try these tips: learn about phrasing and its importance, listen to a LOT of solos, transcribe solos and learn those licks, create licks that work over certain chords and progressions, etc. Just try grabbing your guitar sometimes and just play whatever comes out. I’ve written a blog series on how to solo as well for extra tips and help. Check it out.

Creativity – I believe that humans are creative by nature. Expression and creating songs or riffs is one of the most rewarding parts of music for me. It’s extremely energizing and brings much joy to my musical journey. Perhaps start by listening to some of your favorite songs, riffs, etc and study what they do. At first, you can try to emulate what they are doing, or even copy it, and make a version similar but slightly different. Remember that listening is always half the battle. Listen to a LOT of music. Try writing a chord progression, a simple melody, a short riff, a few lines of lyrics, co-write with others, or even try a new guitar tuning. Do whatever it takes to make that spark and run with it. For you songwriters out there, “Writing Better Lyrics” by Pat Pattison is AMAZING!

Performance – Studying, creating, and working hard is awesome, but nothing is more rewarding than sharing that with others. I know, you may be reserved at first. My friend Tom Conlon told me a story once when he asked his grandmother to play the piano for him. She said, “Absolutely! Remember Tom, if someone asks you to play, say yes. It is your civic duty to do so.” I always found that fascinating. There is an exchange that happens when you perform for someone (IF they are actually listening and paying attention). They experience the joy that comes from listening to you play and YOU gift them with that. You get the affirmation and gratitude of the listener and the joy that you shared something with them that, more than likely, affected them in a positive way. It’s a win-win. Start out with an open mic, showcase, playing for a significant other, family member, or a friend. Maybe even begin by making a video or record in the studio. You’ll find an outlet to share that makes you comfortable.

Repertoire – I once asked my good friend Jerry Sims, owner of nationally renowned Sims Music and accomplished guitarist, what was his number one tip to getting better on the guitar. He thought for a moment and said, “Learn a song a day.” I was kinda shocked. I was expecting him to say that something like “go learn your scales” or “practice your arpeggios more, etc.” It makes so much sense though. What’s the point of learning all of this stuff if you cannot enjoy it and use it to help you better understand your favorite music? New songs and artists keep me inspired and give me a goal or a project to complete. Also, every song I ever learned taught me something. Go listen to music, find some heroes, find what inspires you, create a list of songs, solos, etc. that you want to learn, and learn them. More importantly, learn from them.

Any list is subjective, but when it comes to a list of songs or artists, the opinions can vary even greater. After teaching guitar for 20 years, I’ve learned to appreciate almost every style. So, I included tunes that have affected my playing the most and have been super fun to play. Each of these tunes, for different reasons, had me sitting and playing my guitar for hours. So, let’s dive into 8 fun challenging guitar songs.

“Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan

We start our journey off in the styles of the late great guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. This song is deceptively hard. If you are looking to improve your right-hand rhythm technique, this song is a must. This is the basis of Texas Swing. The hardest part about this song is mastering the art of muting adjacent strings while isolating a note or grouping of notes. Not to mention, this song is chock full of staple blues riffs. Make sure to check out several versions of this song, as Stevie plays it the same twice.

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses

Second on our list is a hairband classic. I underappreciated Slash as a guitarist until I started teaching guitar. One of my students asked me to learn this tune, so we learned it together, and immediately I understood why Slash was such a popular guitarist. This song is a great study for phrasing and having a common theme to build your solo around. The run in the middle of the solo climbing up to the climactic second half of the main solo is a classic and difficult run. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is a good study of using the harmonic scale well.

“Satch Boogie” by Joe Satriani

Satriani is one of the original guitar heroes. From a rocking main riff to tapping mayhem, this song is loaded with fun guitar riffs. The solo section in this song is a lesson on how to be tasty. You will need a good understanding of how to use a whammy bar to get the true sounds happening. The tapping section at the end is basically an exercise and is super fun to play once you get it. (honorable mention “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen)

“Gitarre 2000” by Doyle Dykes

This is one of the more obscure tunes on the list, and quite frankly, I would not have discovered this song without the request of my student. Perhaps my favorite riff in this tune is the harmonic riff in the beginning. It’s amazingly fun to play and it has been an impressive party trick for my musician friends to this day. The rest of the song is quite difficult, beautiful, and well worth the effort that is required to master this tune.

“Dolemite” by Scott Henderson

If you are looking for a foundation for jazz fusion. Look no further than Scott Henderson. You’ll find a smoking riff, blistering runs, and amazing outside melody lines. This song taught me how to create tension and release, how to play outside lines well, and how to construct a solo in a way to build the dynamic and keep it interesting. This is not a song for the faint of heart.

“Hot Wired” by Brent Mason

Now, we step over into the hot country world. Brent Mason is a legend. He has literally played on EVERY famous country artist’s albums. If you don’t believe me check out his tracklist. On his solo effort, he cuts loose and lets some blazing licks fly. This song will kick you in the rear with chicken picking, flat-picking, bends, and a lick library of hot country guitar licks. For an extra challenge, try to play it like Brent with a thumb pick and alternating between your thumb and middle finger on your right hand.

“Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson

This very well may be one of the most famous instrumental guitar songs of all time. Heck, my wife even likes to listen to this one. That’s because Eric’s chorus melody is extremely catchy, and it’s super fun to play. It’s quite addictive. However, around said melody are several brutal licks that will require a LOT of time to execute well. This song is a test of technical prowess. One of my favorite techniques I learned from EJ is to mix up the patterns I play and to incorporate scalar patterns of 6, 5, 4, etc. If you decide to embark on this journey, set aside a good bit of time.

“Capricho Árabe” by Francisco Tárrega

I wanted to throw you a curveball for the end of our list. Tárrega is the OG guitar hero and grandfather of classical guitar. He was a rock star in his day, playing in small parlors and entertaining crowds. Almost all of his tunes are fun to play, but this one is a massive undertaking. I did not start as a classical or fingerstyle player. So, I had to backtrack, learn proper finger technique, and dedicated countless hours on this tune. The left-hand technique and stretches can be as challenging as the right-hand techniques required for this song.

There you have it. This is my list of some of my favorite and most influential tunes I have learned and/or taught over the years. I hope you enjoy them and best of luck to you, should you decide to give any of these a shot.

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