May 15, 2019 by Klaus Crow
Photo by Brian
Being able to perform anytime, anywhere in any situation is one the greatest tools for a musician to acquire, maintain and to carry around in the backpocket.
A lot of guitar players have a hard time when it comes to playing or performing an entire song (let alone a couple of songs) on the spot if someone will ask them spontaneously.
They could show you some cool riffs or a nice intro, but to perform an entire song out of the blue is for many guitar players something they are not prepared for.
Some might actually be able to play an entire song but only with the backup of a band because they are used to perform like that. But dude, you got to be ready as a solo musician as well.
I’ve been there. Having played guitar for years and then people would ask me out to play and sing on the spot and I’d go like ‘Uhh what do you want me to play?, ‘I don’t know that song’ or ‘I can’t come up with anything right now.’ or some other lousy excuse. It’s just because I wasn’t prepared.
But you know what, you should be prepared. It rocks! Being prepared makes you feel confident and in control. It allows you to show who you are and what you sound like as a musician. It’s the way of being a professional.
One of my obstacles was to memorize song lyrics and it still isn’t my strongest asset. But I overcame this hurdle by playing, singing and memorizing songs on a daily basis.
And not just songs that I had to rehearse for a band practice or some other project, but songs that I really really loved playing myself. Songs that I wanted to play and sing over and over again, because I loved them so freakin’ much. That did the trick!
I don’t say you need to sing, though it’s great if you can or if you’re willing to try. But at least learn to play entire songs by heart, make them interesting, alive and kicking for people to listen to!
Now let’s get prepared and make you sound like a pro:
– Make a list of 5 of your favorite songs. Write it down in your Moleskine (offline) or in Evernote (online).
– Choose songs you really love playing even if nobody’s knows them. (popular songs can always come later)
– Start by learning and memorizing the first song on your list.
– Play the song at least every other day.
– Feel the song, feel the melody and really listen to the lyrics while you sing ‘m everytime again.
– Improve the way you play the song and be the best you possibly can.
– Focus on technique: dynamics, timing and accuracy.
– Once you feel you memorized a song go on to the next.
– Expand your repertoire song by song. (It feels great everytime you add a new song to your list.)
– Keep playing your songs every or every other day, not because you have to but because you love to.
– Find passion and fun in memorizing and improving your repertoire!
– Keep up for 30 days to make it a habit. Put reminders on your desktop and calender.
– Start performing your songs in front of friends and family to gain confidence.
– Over time expand your repertoire up to 45 minutes, an hour or more.
– Be able to perform anytime anywhere!
“Guitarists should be able to pick up the guitar and play music on it for an hour, without a rhythm section or anything.” – Joe Pass
Having a personal repertoire of songs that you can play all the way through is the mark of a polished guitarist. I’d argue that learning songs is the absolute BEST way to become a better guitarist even if you don’t have a teacher. The songs themselves teach you.
I like the methods you have listed for building repertoire and wanted to add a song learning method I’ve gleamed from the Jamey Aebersold jazz learning series of books.
This method delves further into the songs and makes them second nature so much that you can improvise off the melody. I’ve used this and have noticed that it’s made my singing better and I’m a guitarist not a singer!
It’s a little advanced since it’s for jazz improve, but beginners can still take something away from it.
1. Listen to the song on record – over and over
2. Memorize the melody in your mind. Be able to sing it.
3. Listen carefully to the bass line and the harmony in general. Get and overall sense of how the song is put together.
4. Try playing the melody from memory, slowly at first.
5. The, play the melody along with the recording. Copy inflections, articulations, slurs, phrasing, dynamics, etc.
6. Learn the scales and the chords in the order as they appear in the song. Make sure you’ve got the right changes (chord progression). Get them from a reliable source. (lead sheet online, etc.)
7. Improvise over the harmony, keeping in mind the original melody as a frame of reference.
8. Emphasize the 3rd’s and 7th’s of scales in your soloing.
9. Memorize both melody and chord/scales if you haven’t already. Know where the chord tones are ON YOUR INSTRUMENT (guitar)
10. Improvise your original melodies based on what your mind HEARS. Let your mind guide your choices of notes, phrasing, rhythms, articulations, etc.
11. Listen constantly to the original recording into your solos.
12. Learn the lyrics if the song has any. Mentally sing the lyrics while playing the melody.
13. Fall in love with the melodies to songs. Play them like YOU wrote them.
Mike C says
I would like to add that transcribing your favorite song(s) also seems to help. The work you put in gives you a real sense of accomplishment. Slow them down and figure out what notes and chords are being played and groove along with the recording. Then when you feel like you’ve really got it memorized, play it until you perfect it. I’m an old fingerstyle guitarist who’s been away from the guitar for a good while now but when I was really active, I could play a list of songs completely that would span two hours. It felt great!
I’m a little confused by your response :/
I meant that learning songs “is” the best way to become a better guitarist. This method, though gleamed from jazz instruction, isn’t limited to learning jazz. Just take out the improvisational (soloing) elements.
I’m not sure if your readers are mostly beginners, but this information is good for serious guitarists.
And like Mike said, transcribing your favorite song by ear helps too. It develops your ear at a much faster rate, but again is probably not something beginners want to do :)
Klaus Crow says
Right on! Transcribing and analyzing makes the song really a part of you and that way it will be stored in your long term memory.
I bet if you would play those songs from your old repertoire a few times you’d be surprised how quickly those songs come back to you. You’ll be back in shape in no time!
Klaus Crow says
Sorry, I misread part of your comment. Next time I’ll put on my glasses. :)
My readers are mixed from beginners to advanced, so they will appreciate the method you wrote down.
Thanks for responding.
Great post man!
I wish that I had read it a couple years ago :) It would’ve saved me allot of stress and headaches.
Every time I go to a cook out or family event somebody is always asking me to bring my guitar along. And every time I am stumped for things to play.
“Here’s the solos from Comfortably Numb,” or “Let’s play Purple Haze, Aunt Margret you’re singing it, Let’s ROCK!” just never seem to satisfy.
It wasn’t until I decided to start singing a bit and memorizing some lyrics that these low-key performances became enjoyable for everybody.
I was inspired to make this change by my cousin. Though he isn’t as accomplished on guitar as I am, he had a whole stable of songs that he can whip out at anytime and rock the house. I would usually accompany him on lead but it was obvious to me that singing and performing were skills I should really try to develop.
I started the same way you mentioned by picking tunes I loved rather then tunes everybody would know and it was easier to remember the words. Memorizing lyrics is not my strong suit either.
Now I can confidently stroll into any situation knowing that I can entertain the crowd. Which makes me feel good.
Klaus Crow says
I think many guitar players will recognize themselves in your story.
It’s funny, kind of the same thing happened to me what you were tellin’ about your cousin.
I just to hang out in a guitar store in my hometown and there was this guy who came along once in a while.
He just knew a few chords but when he entered the store he sat down and began to play and sing his heart out. While I was working on stuff like Satriani and Stevie Ray Vaughan I was totally blew away by something so easy, so simple but so beautiful.
Why didn’t I just do that. Still i took another 10 years before I started memorizing lyrics to the songs…
I was spending three days on a catamaran sailing the great barrier reef (australia) with a bunch of people from around the world who by accident came to know that I could play the guitar.
So one night they asked me to play something (they had a guitar on board) and okay I could play a lot of instrumental stuff and also the riffs and solos everyone wanted to hear, but I couldn’t sing any lyrics to the songs and that bothered me. Luckily I had my wife with me, she’s a singer and she sang a lot of songs that night. Phew!
But still… I think it was a major shortcoming. And from that moment I made a pledge to myself to start learning to play and SING complete songs from beginning to end.
I’m so happy now!
When I started learning Guitar, once I had the basic chords and 5 or 6 songs I could play end to end, I started learning to sing along with them, to me this is the Key to remembering songs to play when asked imprompteu. I also always have a tuning fork in my wallet and picks in my pocket, this way when I am at a persons house ( san’s Guitar ) and they find out i play, when they say “hey I have a guitar, can you play something?” I can tune it and play it!
Knowing the lyrics ( even if your not really proficient at singing ) help you recall the arrangement, so if you can get them singing along and just have to fill in the blanks vocally, you can let your playing carry the weight and Voila everyones happy.Singing also has helped me to become a better backup vocalist as well. In my case I can sing fairly well so when I get the chance to play I do and it usually leads to more paying playing :) It’s a very effective advertising / marketing tool. Perform at the drop of a hat, do it well and you will get more work for yourself, your band, or possibly even get an introduction to more players that could end up forming another or a better performiong unit.
So don’t be shy, and get on with learning the vocals as well as the guitar parts and remember IT’S ALL ABOUT HAVING FUN when your asked to play like this, so don’t stress it, just be prepared and enjoy it, If you do, they will :) Cheers!
hello:) i had a strange request for you, i run a music appreciation page on facebook and i love your site it’s very insightful. so i was curious if you would do a weekly post on the page or if you’d rather me just take stuff from the site too post. just a thought, let me know your thoughts on this.
Learn a few jazz standards in a chord melody style.. if you have about 10 which is stupidly easy to do. You can come across as smart and learned.. works every time. LOL
I really appreciate you guys for impacting people with your skills. Kudos to you. Pls I want to learn how to play fingerstyles. Can you show me the easiest way to learn this. Tnks