May 26, 2011

Songs Are Overrated. Riffs Rule.

Ted Nugent

I figured that title would get your attention.  Especially if you believe that learning entire songs is the best indicator of your progress on guitar. 

Is learning a whole song good for you?  Sure. 

Is it absolutely necessary?  It depends. 

Can you make tremendous progress as a guitarist without learning entire songs?  Absolutely.

The truth is that learning entire songs is overrated for the beginner guitarist. However, learning riffs, intros, chord progressions, melodies – the recognizable and memorable parts of songs – well that’s just plain fun!

And contained within each memorable part are invaluable nuggets of musical goodness waiting for you to discover them. Do not underestimate the value of the classic guitar riff.

How can I be sure that this approach to learning guitar will work?

Easy. I became a professional guitarist using this approach. :)

I Got the Fever

The first riff I remember learning was “Cat Scratch Fever“, by Ted Nugent. 

Catchy, greasy, bluesy and pure adrenaline once I got it cookin’.  I’ll never forget how powerful I felt – and cool, let’s be honest – when I finally wrangled that little beast. Hearing it sing from my guitar strings for the first time was a life changing moment for young JB. 

After that one came the tried and true “Smoke on the Water”, then “Stairway to Heaven”, “Day Tripper”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Purple Haze”, “Back in Black”, “Crazy Train”, etc.  Each riff became a short, manageable piece of music that I could practice and conquer before moving on to the next gem. 

The brevity of the riffs helped me build confidence – they were long enough to sound like something, but short enough not to overwhelm me. 

In the process, I learned a bunch of moves that were completely adaptable to other songs.  I was bending strings, alternate picking, hammering-on and pulling-off, strumming, power chording like a maniac – I was onto something!

You Complete Me

Learning complete songs is, of course, a critical milestone in your development as a musician. I’d never want to suggest otherwise. 

Eventually we all need to learn how to start a song, navigate the middle, and bring it on home to a nice conclusion.  You learn to see the musical big picture. 

But the key word is ‘eventually’.  When you want to or need to, you’ll learn a complete song. 

When you start a band with your buddies, when you decide to play at that open mic, or when you want to post a video on YouTube – then you’ll learn a complete song. 

Believe it or not, completing a song is the easy part.  Learning and polishing the fundamental skills is the hard part.

Fun Is Good

Finally, riffs are much more fun and economical than songs, especially for the less experienced guitarist. In the time it takes to learn one song, you can learn ten riffs. That kind of momentum is priceless for any player.

So learn those riffs.  Make ’em sing.  Then learn another one and make no apologies. 

The Nuge would approve.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on riffs versus songs? Leave me a comment below!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

© 2012 Jim Bowley All rights reserved.
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