Several years ago, my friend invited me to a guitar show at Jamil Temple. As I was walking through I saw Jerry Sims playing guitar in the middle of the show. Jerry is a local legend, owner of Sims Music, and even has his own signature 7 string Ibanez guitar. After he finished playing I asked him my question I ask every great player: “What’s your best advice for improving as a player?”. Jerry thought for a moment and answered, “Learn Tunes. Honestly, to this day, I try to learn a tune a day.” I was hoping for some profound answer, instead I got, “Learn Tunes.” That has stuck with me since then and has proven to be a fact. Today, I want to share 5 ways learning tunes can improve your playing:
Every song is like a new puzzle or challenge with techniques of varying difficulty. Metallica taught me bends, hammers, and pulls. Dire Straits taught me hybrid picking and double stops. Van Halen taught me tapping. Stevie Ray taught me how to play single notes while muting others. I could go on for days. My technique is a conglomerate of all of the tunes I have learned. To this day, I am constantly challenged by the songs my students bring into the lesson room.
Some of the best riffs and songs I have written have come from learning other songs. There are so many great ideas buried in your favorite songs. The trick is to actually tear the song apart and research its innards. You can find lyrical wit, chord structure, melodies, rhythm patterns, sound effects, instrumentation, and so much more to create a pool of ideas to grab from.
3. Language and style
As I have mentioned before, music is a language. Just as Spanish, English, and German all have different characteristics and vocabulary, so do the various styles of music. Digging into songs can give you the vocabulary used in specific styles. I have delved into classical, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, metal, indie, grunge, and much more. Every style was a new exciting adventure for me, equipping me with a new set of vocabulary.
Your repertoire is directly proportionate to how many types of gigs you can play. If you can cover a large variety of styles and tunes, you will be able to play in a lot more situations. Also, it makes stepping into a gig easier if you have less to learn. This skill also transfers into original projects. Most music you play with others will have strains of songs that have been written before. The ideas you have garnered from your repertoire will help you in your creative process. More gigs equals more money. Having a large rep can definitely increase your worth.
I have found that my inspiration in music ebbs and flows. I do my best to keep it peaking. One of my favorite things to do is just listen to music, find something that moves me, and learn it. This almost always inspires me to play and also to write. I encourage you in your down spikes to explore and find new music that churns that inspiration back to the surface.
If you are practicing the same stuff everyday, it may be time to add something new and stretch yourself in a new direction. Try to challenge yourself into learning a new song everyday this week, but don’t just learn the song, learn from the song. Use it as a source of inspiration and a way to propel yourself to new territory and opportunities. Happy practicing!
Listening is half the battle
Everyone that is serious about playing an instrument has a music goal they are trying to reach. Oftentimes, it is to play in a particular style or like a player they love. One of the first things I ask my students is, “What are you listening to?” The music you listen to directly affects what comes out of you. Here are some good analogies:
Music is a language. You can write, read, and speak. You can create letters, words, phrases, sentences, and novels. Every language has unique qualities. The best way to learn a specific language is to immerse yourself in it. Move to the country where people speak the language. Force yourself to interact with others and put yourself in a situation where you have to use it. This might be more uncomfortable than taking a class, but it will definitely stick with you better. The same goes for music. Listen to the style you want to learn. Start consciously adding those words to your vocabulary. If you are really serious about a particular style, visit or move to a city where that style is alive and thriving. For example, if you love jazz, you should listen to jazz and consider visiting or moving to New York City or New Orleans. New York has an amazing jazz scene. If you love country, you may consider Nashville. No matter what your aspirations are, you need to be surrounded by it and challenged by those who are living it.
Just like what you eat directly affects your body, what you listen to directly affects your musicianship. It’s probably not a good idea to base your diet on commercials and what they try to convince the public is “good.” We may find ourselves stuffing our faces with cheeseburgers and fries everyday. Don’t let popular music or radio be all that you eat. Seek out things that help you grow musically and stretch your ability. I personally appreciate all styles. Every style I have studied has improved my playing in a unique way. I am so thankful that I was introduced to jazz or I wouldn’t be as accomplished an improviser or know as much about theory. Also, had I not learned classical, I wouldn’t be as nimble with my finger picking and reading.
I love the potential of art within music! You can create moods with sounds, pictures with words, movement with beats, and more. When you listen to music, you are constantly exposing yourself to new ideas that can help spark your own creativity. You can take an idea used before you and put your own spin on it. Sometimes, you can take an idea and spark a brand new idea that’s never been used before. Just as with language and nutrition, you need to carefully consider the kind of art you are trying to create. If you are struggling with lyrics in your writing, seek out some renown lyricists or poets and listen to what they have to say. You’ll be blown away by how quickly it will come out of your body.
The moral of the story is what you put in the pot directly affects what your end product is. Make sure that you take the time to dive into the style you are trying to reach, stretch yourself musically, and equip yourself fully so that your inner artist can come out. Best of luck! Remember, when listening, choose wisely.
“Good players play off of scales; great players play off of licks.” ~ Robert Newton
Have you ever walked into a music store and perused the sheet music section? If you have, odds are that you have seen the Signature Lick series of books for various guitar players, bass players, drummers, etc. There is no way around it: writing licks is imperative to becoming a great player. Here are some reasons you need to get to writing some licks today.
Bag of Tricks
It’s great to have a deep bag of tricks to pull from. Have licks assembled for various scenarios. You can construct licks around certain chord progressions, styles, feels, effects, and more. It’s the equivalent to having more colors on your palette if you are a painter. If you are going to take a solo in a song, make sure you know the song inside and out. Then, create licks that you can access.
Having licks or riffs written in advance gives you a different point of reference. You can almost create your own “scales” and patterns. The licks you create will spawn other licks and ideas. I assign my guitar students at Freeway Music to create licks with each concept we learn. Make sure you begin the ritual of creating licks and keeping a record of them.
As you continue to create licks, your style will rise to the surface and give your playing a unique signature. It’s great to learn and transcribe other people’s solos and “steal” or “borrow” ideas; however, you don’t want to be a clone of another player. People will call you out and say things like, “He’s just copying Stevie Ray Vaughn.” Take what you learn and put your own spin on it. Focus hard on your own creativity and style and people will take notice.
Once you have created a pool of licks, you will have unique starting points. This will help define who YOU are as a player. So, don’t take it lightly. Start by writing 5 licks per day around a specific concept and don’t stop writing licks ever! Best of luck in your musical journey!
One of the best things you can do for your musical career is to become more versatile. It opens up a lot of doors, helps you discover yourself as a musician, and creates more sources of income. Here are a few ways to make yourself more versatile:
My dad was giving me one of those “life” speeches and advice about my musical career. He said, “Son, if you ever want to make it as a musician, you need to play as many styles of music as you can.” Of course, I pretended to not hear him, as he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. This statement, however, has rung true throughout my career. I have played in a rock band, jazz group, original band, bluegrass group, classical gigs, reggae, etc. I have dabbled in almost every style. I found that each style has certain techniques and skill sets that are unique to that style. Blues is good for basic improv; jazz is good for applying theory; country guitar uses open strings and hybrid picking, etc. The other aspect of having versatility in style is that you can pick up many more gigs. You typically don’t rock in a nice restaurant, play blues in a prelude for a wedding, or play reggae covers in a listening room; however, if you can do them all, you will have your pick of gigs.
Learning various styles may sometimes lead into learning various instruments. Playing in a bluegrass trio caused me to get more into playing mandolin. Becoming a competent mandolin player has allowed me to pick up gigs, studio work, and different kinds of students. Learning a new instrument is great for reinforcing what you have already learned and allows you to approach music from a different angle. A lot of players that tour and play in the studio now are “utility players,” which simply means they can play several instruments. If you can play multiple instruments, you make yourself more valuable to hire. Don’t forget your voice is an instrument, and a very valuable one. If you can play an instrument and sing harmonies, that will add a level of value to you as a player. Sometimes people actually begin to flourish on an instrument other than their first one. My friend Ryan Monroe (name drop…ahem), keyboard player for Band of Horses, started as a drummer. I have several students that are successful bass players that started as guitar students. Be open minded and challenge yourself.
Sometimes you just don’t know what you like until you try it. The same holds true for the various branches of profession within music. There are so many ways to make money with occupations that are related to music. Here are just some options: touring musician, studio musician, private teacher, school teacher, college professor, songwriter, recording engineer, producer, luthier, booking agent, record label employee, marketing consultant, social media specialist, and much more. I started teaching with no intentions of making a future out of it. I wanted to be a touring musician, recording artist, or writer. Fortunately, I have been able to do all three of those things, but I have fallen in love with teaching over the years…to the point where I opened Freeway Music. Teaching has become a viable career for me. I still get to play gigs, record, write, and even book gigs. Trying many jobs as a musician is similar to trying many styles. Each one has a different skill set and makes you grow as an artist and a professional. Each thing you try will give you a more concrete idea of which aspect of music you are passionate about and enjoy. Also, similar to learning styles, you will be more successful and have more sources of income.
The bottom line is that versatility equals more opportunity for success in your musical career. Experiment with various styles, instruments, and jobs to stretch yourself and discover what generates happiness and a viable career for you. If you are spinning your wheels in your career, maybe you need to shake things up a bit. Good luck on your musical journey!