It’s so much easier now

The information superhighway’s construction has benefited me in ways I’ve only been made conscious of this weekend.

I’ve had a lot of time to myself this weekend, and decided to spend a few solid 1-hour blocks playing guitar. Oh, I still play around the house here and there, but usually if I can get in 20 minutes I feel privileged. Learning more kids songs is helping :)

But this weekend I wanted to learn a couple of songs in particular. I wanted to learn “Why Georgia” and “My Stupid Mouth” from John Mayer’s “Room for Squares” album. Although since that album’s release Mr. Mayer has gone on to do more produced and (to a guitarist) less interesting things on his commercial albums, Room for Squares contained really wonderful textures and sounds while somehow keeping the guitar front-and-center.

John also uses a lot of cool chords and fingerpicking techniques that I knew I’d have fun with if I ever had the time to sit down with the songs and my guitar at the same time. I’ve been playing for almost 25 years, and knew a lot of the chords and techniques, but it’d be great to be able to use them in songs that people under 30 recognize rather than having to explain (for example) who James Taylor is.

How I Learn Songs: First Phase

I learn songs by first listening to them either with headphones on, or at a relatively high volume, about 20 times. I want to become intimate, at a subconscious level, with every detail of the song. I want to feel the tension build, recognize cues from all of the instruments, and understand how they’re playing off each other. This is wildly important to a one-man musician, because often I try to embellish the final piece to try to put hints of the entire song into the final piece — not just the guitar part.

Of course, I *start* with the guitar part, because it’s a bridge to the rest of the song. I learn it as close to note-for-note as possible (where there are solos, the same goes for the solo. I’m sick that way).

Once I can play the song through along with the recording and not hear anything going awry, I practice it that way several times. Maybe 10 times.

Then the fun begins.

Having Fun Learning: Second Phase

When I was a kid, my mom and her sisters liked to go to flea markets. I was not a big fan of these huge collections of what looked like garage sales, until I came across a group of tables with what must’ve been 1000 cassette tapes (that was the popular audio medium of the day). When I scanned the collection, I noticed an unusually large collection of Jimi Hendrix tapes. I figured they were compilations, but after picking one up, I realized it was actually a random collection of live and unreleased recordings.

Over the course of months I collected as many of these as I could, because Hendrix was an artist that always sent me running to the guitar. All told I had about 6-8 versions of Red House, a classic 12-bar blues jam. I had 3-4 versions of Foxy Lady, another 3 of Purple Haze, and lots more. Going through and picking out differences between the live and recorded versions was a great primer on how you can alter and embellish while staying within the same basic framework of a song without totally destroying it.

From then on, whenever I learned new songs or started studying a particular guitarist, I tried to get as many different versions of different songs as I could, to see how the guitarist thought about the piece. Guitarists on the road forced to play the same songs night after night get bored, and often try to make things interesting by altering different parts of the song, or even by changing the guitar’s role in different parts of the song. Fascinating stuff.

Making it Your Own: Third Phase

I would learn lots of this stuff, again, note-for-note to the best of my ability. I was blessed with a fantastic ear and good sense of rhythm, and that along with practice and constant exercising of those talents made me able to pick out and play even some rather complex stuff in no time. By the time I was 14, I was able to play simple things like Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” in about an hour (not counting the solo), and most of the stuff on the radio I could begin playing along with accurately before the song was even over.

Even better, there were plenty of “solo acoustic” variants of songs, or songs where the live recording happened to pick up the guitar and drums more than the bass and keyboards, or it emphasized the bass and drums more than the guitar. These imperfections are absolute gems for learning more about what’s going in the song… or what *could* be going on when you play it!

Once I learn a song and work in some of the original artist’s own embellishments, some of my own embellishments, and some of my musical personality and influences, it more or less becomes “my own”. I can still play a variant faithful to the recording, but it seems boring when you’ve heard all that can be done with it.

What’s Better Now?

Well, it’s not like I used to pick a song, spend a weekend with it, and all of a sudden it was my own. While I could easily learn decently solid renditions of songs in a weekend, it would take me months to find different recordings of a particular song, to read magazine articles and sometimes books about guitarists, scouring the words for descriptions of how they played things and thought about them. It would be an ongoing process that sometimes also involved figuring out the players’ influences and tracking down *their* recordings… ugh.

Today?

*Literally* today, I decided to learn “Why Georgia” by John Mayer (I learned a decently solid version of “My Stupid Mouth” yesterday). While I was listening to the song in iTunes, I also checked out YouTube and searched for the song there. Boom! 5000 hits. In about an hour, I had heard (AND SEEN!!!) about 10 different performances by John Mayer himself, and I spent about another 20 minutes browsing videos others have posted either covering the song, or providing a tutorial on how to play the song!

Of course, some of the covers and tutorials are horribly wrong, but it’s easier to pick out stuff that’s not going to help you on YouTube than it is actually having to play through badly written tablature to figure out it’s wrong (and the internet, I promise you, is absolutely flooded with bad tablature).

The point is, I was able to learn this song, and work in Mayer’s embellishments as I went. Watching him play it in live performances, I was able to rely in visual cues and his body language to help me figure out how he thought about the song as he was playing it. Seeing him play in solo acoustic settings vs. live with a whole band was enlightening. In the end, I have learned a version of the piece, in one day, that would probably have taken me months to put together in the 80’s.

Thanks, Internet!