A significant number of musicians believe that learning cover songs is a waste of time. It's fair to say that the majority of those people don't understand the difference between memorizing and studying. You can work on almost every aspect of your musical talents by studying other artists' masterpieces. Here are 5 essentials you can study while exercising your fantasy of being a rock star.
1. Theory. Analyzing and backwards engineering music is an excellent way to learn theory and musical concepts. To name a few, you can study form, harmony, melody, scales, not to mention the emotional structure of a song. Yeah, OK, so you might have to step out of the shower and get a little involved.
By using your brain to think at a deeper level you magically gain understanding of a song that's on par with your level of music theory. I want to know if the chords are in a progression or retrogression. Using this profound strategy allows you to understand music in a language you can identify with: Your favorite songs. This process happens almost naturally but does require some effort on your part. You're taking the time to memorize a song. Take the extra minute or two and dig up the scales.
2. Technical Skills. Whenever you learn a song, make practicing it with a metronome, drums or a backing track a high priority. If you're past the point where you no longer have to babysit your fingers, arguably that's one of the most important things you can do. Rhythm is a significant weakness for a lot of musicians, and even intermediate players often can't play in time. It may be easy to count to four, but do you practice it? The most effective way to get better at this is to record yourself playing the song, listen back, and compare your rhythm with the studio version.
Here's an idea that could completely change your paradigm on lead guitar. Get out your iPod and play the song you've been hooked on lately. Play the vocal melody on guitar, and experiment by using different phrasing techniques and ideas. Use slides, bends, harmonics, and different scale positions to play the same melody. This could make a massive impact in your lead playing.
3. Lyrics. Be mysterious. When writing lyrics, don't be so logical. Make things random and unpredictable. Seriously. That will spark interest and provoke deep interest on the song.
4. Aural skills: There have been lengthy debates over whether you should learn songs by ear or use tabs. One was the theory that the best guitarists in the world learned everything by ear, citing Jimi Hendrix as an example. The theory is valid, but needs to be exercised with calibration of the musician's skill set.
Here's why learning by ear is important. You're exercising the musical muscle: Aural skills. That's what music is made of. Obviously, it's a hearing art. You're always going to be better off by taking the harder path: Training your ear. This also explains why singers are better at creating guitar phrases - they rely on their ear when soloing instead of or running up and down a scale. Which, by the way, is astronomically better than running up down random notes on your instrument. However, all are futile if you don't practice your rhythm.
The problem with training exclusively by ear is you can't run to the local guitar shop, walk out with your first guitar, plug it in and pull off I'm a Viking by ear. Beginners have to start with tabs to save time and frustration, and in the process they do train their ears to some degree, though ineffectively.
A common sense guideline: No matter where you're at in music, you should always dedicate part of your practice schedule to learning stuff by ear. If you practice 30 minutes a day, spend 10 of those getting frustrated by finding notes on your guitar using trial and error. This strategy will get you massive benefits in the future. Just don't smash your shiny Squire in the process.
I recently learned Steve Vai's For The Love of God note-for-note by relying on my ear and by studying performances of the song. This would have been impossible without a decent level of theory, rhythm, technique, and aural skills.
5. Creativity: If you're one of those players who fear imitating the best, I can assure you there are no monsters under the bed. One of the most effective strategies in life is to study the greatest in order to become good at something. This could be sports, business, relationships, and most certainly music. This common sense logic tells you not take fitness advice from the guy inhaling a deep-dish with extra cheese during half time. The music game is a little different because art is hard to replicate, and creativity is a complex topic. Copying artists is harmless because of the elusive nature of music.
By building a vast number of licks, sequences, and phrases into your muscle memory you're essentially creating a subconscious bank of ammunition to draw from when getting hit by inspiration. If you would be on stage every weekend playing a set of shredtastic stuff, eventually your subconscious would have everything burned in, and it would come out whenever you improvise.
Many musicians have the fear of becoming clones of their favorite guitar players, and go out of their way to be original and carve a new niche out of a genre. This is a lot of like training to be a pro tennis player and walking out onto a football field on game day. Forcing the idea of being original is going to prevent you from writing good music. Your best songs are going to come from being yourself, the person you've evolved into at that stage. This is obviously going to change as you draw more and more from different influences.
If your self-expression consists of being completely unoriginal, your integrity should give you the obligation to be draw as much from inspiration as possible. Your life experiences and physical abilities are going to make it impossible not to riff out a brand new creation. Just be yourself, stop thinking of something new to invent, take action and that will manifest itself into something that's never been heard before.
Matt Waldner is a professional guitar instructor in Minneapolis, MN. To get more free advice on becoming a rock star go to mattwaldner.com.