I started playing guitar at a very young age in 1984. I had walked into the kitchen and proclaimed to my parents I wanted to play guitar to become a "rock star." This moment was the start of my musical journey.
It started out on a very different path then I had imagined "rock stardom" to go. I started with a very strict classical guitar teacher, being immersed in predominantly classical guitar. I had a great relationship with my teacher and developed so many amazing skills as a guitarist, but I remember when I went to Jr. Highschool and started hanging out with other musicians, my heart sank when they all could play parts of "real" songs - aka songs that I heard on the radio.
I quit my "classical guitar" lessons and went to a teacher who was very jazz and blues oriented. From him, I learned improvisation and blues and some really cool "rock licks." I was starting to form an identity as a musician; but I would say my growth was still fairly slow.
The turning point in my development came with three albums - Metallica's "Black Album," Nirvana's "Nevermind" album and then Metallica's "...And Justice for All."
The Nirvana thing was a no brainer for me - the guitar parts were easily accessible, and when I was in social situations and pulled out the chords to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" everyone KNEW what song I was playing. Here's where technology plays into it though - this was the first album I ever "learned by ear," but I learned it from a CASSETTE TAPE!
I played along with Kurt's guitar parts and taught myself all of his songs. The satisfaction and feeling that I got from connecting with the music was incredible. I could literally play along for hours. The first few tries through a song were tedious though. Stop, rewind, play, made a mistake, stop rewind play etc. If anyone can remember what it was like having a cassette player and trying to "rewind" to just the right spot knows it was pretty much impossible.
The next challenge for me was Metallica's "Black Album." At the time, the album was huge in my school. I didn't learn every note on the album, but I had the licks to "Enter Sandman," "Sad But True" and "Nothing Else Matters" down pat. To this day, I could probably play most of those songs.
Then, the ultimate challenge was presented to me. To learn every note on Metallica's "...And Justice for All." I spent every day of the 14th year of my life attempting to learn every single guitar note played on that album. It was not easy; there were layers and layers of overdubbed guitar parts - stop, rewind, play. Stop, rewind, play - so much that I ended up stretching out the tape and had to buy another album. My guitar teacher helped me with some, my friends helped me with some, I even bought a TAB book for those parts no one seemed to have answers for. But I did it! And it took a tonne of work.
After this, CD's started to become more accessible and the first CD I bought was Jimi Hendrix's "Ultimate Experience." The upgrade to learning to play along with CD's was the fact that there was a counter - so you always knew where to rewind too. And although they sometimes scratched and skipped, they were generally for more reliable than cassette's.
Throughout all of this though, I never once played along with a "real" song in a lesson. It was always standard notation, or guitar tab and me and my teacher going through it together. The real progress came in my development when I was able to start connecting and playing with the "real stuff".
So as a teacher, I have always made this an integral part of my approach to teaching. From day 1 - my students can play along with real songs. As they develop their finger strength and technique so do the complexity of the songs I teach them. Each lesson we spend time on all the basics - technique, note reading, chording, etc and then the payoff is at the end when we get to play along with a real song from start to finish. Even for me, the last 10 minutes of every lesson is always my most favourite.
When I first started teaching I used to download CDs onto my "sony minidisc" player and run that through the PA system in my studio. Later came an iPod and all of the various upgrades, then my phone. And now we are at a point where we can access pretty much any song on the planet via YouTube. Kids can take what they learned from lessons with me and play along with those versions at home! Or they can discover what the world has to offer and just play along! They don't have to go out and "buy" an album just to play one song. No cassette tape - stop, rewind play, no CDs (again with their rewind), they can just point to that little counter along the bottom of the page if they make a mistake and need to go back.
I can't imagine what that would have done for my playing if it existed in my time. My parents probably wouldn't have ever seen me.
I encourage my students to play along with real songs as much as possible. Honestly I would rather them spend 30 minutes of time just playing along every day with whatever it is that sparks their interest. Obviously I'd like them to sit down and work on their scales and their theory, but in a meaningful way, they are doing that when they play along with these other songs - and it is so much fun.
For me personally, it's absolutely amazing to just unwind and hit "shuffle" on my iTunes and play along with whatever comes up... or learn a new song I have never heard before because one of my students wants to learn it! Then the ultimate pay-off is to pick up a guitar at some sort of social gathering and start a sing-along/play-along. There is truly nothing better than connecting with other humans in a musical way.