What sometimes comes up is the question of the relative merits of learning a song exactly as the original artist did it. How much value does that have, really?
There was a time many years ago that I was obsessed with learning a song “right,” which at the time I took to mean as accurately as possible with every subtle nuance the original artist used, even things that did not show up in sheet music. I do think that working on songs that way had value at that point in the evolution of my playing. All those little tricks certain guitarists used could be incorporated into other things I was playing, especially traditional songs that were naturally open to interpretation. I know for sure that my ear improved by working out exact replication of songs.
Back in those days (and I suspect the same is true now with some players) I totally judged local bands and musicians by their ability to reproduce perfect covers of songs. There was a trio I used to hear back in the 1970s – guitar/guitar/bass or guitar/keys/bass, with superb vocals from all three players – who absolutely nailed covers of songs of that time like the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” and Orleans’ “Still the One.” After that trio dissolved I briefly played with one of the guitar players, who was a thoroughly miserable person but that’s another story (!), but I continued to have huge admiration for their talent, and not a little jealousy too! But about that time I also started to listening to a LOT of jazz, guitarists of course, but other instrumentalists too. Slowly but surely, I began to realize something.
Some of the most interesting and exciting music I was hearing moved far, far away from the original recordings. This of course is the essence of jazz and I think I knew that even then but I didn’t really appreciate the creative process involved. I dove into learning as much as I could about jazz and practiced a lot. Alas, it became apparent that if I was ever going to be the great jazzer that I longed to be it would require a level of commitment to that style that I was not able or perhaps not willing to give. I got to the point I could find my way through basic jazz arrangements and improvisation but I eventually accepted my limitations and moved back toward music I knew I could play pretty well.
This was also a period of time when I’d taken an extended hiatus from teaching. Because of that, without realizing it, I became less obsessed with perfect imitations of songs I was learning. I found that I really enjoyed figuring out what was essential to a song and including that but also leaving room for my own stuff (altered chords, different lead lines, new arrangements) while still staying true to the spirit of what the writer created.
Which brings me to today. The balance I have to find for my students is giving them a satisfactory version of a song and still have it “make-able” in terms of their abilities. For the last few years quite a few new students have come to me with a reasonable level of experience but wanting more, usually the result of finding songs online that they liked but “just didn’t sound right.” More often than not their interpretation of sounding right meant it being as close to the original version as possible. What they hardly ever realize is that (in my experience after lots of research) probably 90% of the lyric/chord postings on various websites are at best incomplete and at worst, outright wrong. Of course that version of the song is not going to sound much like the original! The way many music websites are structured, anyone can post an arrangement of a song. So the start point, i.e., the level of ability of the person posting it is all-important. A passionate recreational player who posts these basic sketches of songs may be helping out fellow recreational players who have little or no knowledge of song structure or music theory and my guess is that for many players, that’s just fine. Many novice players really just want to be able to get through a song they like and have it sound approximately right.
But what about the advancing player who hears more than the basic changes and recognizes that certain writers commonly use musical mechanisms in many of their songs that give them a recognizable style and sound? That’s where I come in.
Now, what I’m about to say may sound a bit arrogant but it’s a fact: At this point in my playing and the development of my ear, plus a solid understanding of music theory as it relates to popular music, I can figure out just about anything I hear. A bold claim, I know, but after playing guitar for better than 50 years I have reached that point. Yes, some things still are a huge challenge, such as chord inversions I hear when the player is in some obscure open tuning. I don’t waste my time on those…maybe I should…. But my focus needs to be on what my students want and finding the easiest and most practical way for them to accomplish that. Open tunings are fun and some sound pretty cool, but do they have long-term practical use for the average recreational player? I think not.
So getting back to the relative merits of perfect replication. Is it vital? I’ll say no, but with a qualification. A recreational player has to realize that the song they want to learn may include elements that are impossible to replicate with just one guitar. Also, that flashy guitar part may have taken days or weeks for the artist to get just right in the recording studio even though that artist makes it sound oh so natural and fluid in the end product.
Occasionally I’ll have an intermediate level student who has convinced themselves that anything less than playing a song exactly as the original artist did it is some kind of failure or perhaps not being true to the song itself as the artist intended the song to be. I do my best to make them realize this is just not the case at all. Adding some of the nuances beyond the simple chord structure or basic strumming can be totally gratifying in and of itself. Capturing the essence with those nuances is much more important – and ultimately, satisfying – than beating yourself up trying to sound exactly like the original artist. It’s called being creative!
Peace & good music,