September 19, 2011

Songs from the Guitar Studio, Vol. 1

guitar student

Welcome to the inaugural post of Songs from the Guitar Studio!

I often tell my students that there are really two ways we can learn stuff on guitar:

1 – We can pick a new technique or concept and find a song with which to apply it.
2 – We can pick a song and see what we can learn from it.

The first method – pick the technique/concept – is a cleaner, neater way to handle things. And in the early stages of playing, this is usually the smarter way to move a student along. After all, they need fundamental things. So you pick a fundamental and run with it.

But I find that it can be a lot of fun, especially with students that have been playing at least a few months, to go with method two: find a song and see what it can teach you!

The is definitely a messier approach, and you may find that you run into some parts that the student isn’t ready to handle. But my tactic is usually to just acknowledge that and concentrate on the stuff they CAN handle. If you use a little foresight in picking the song, there shouldn’t be any real surprises.

In the Songs from the Guitar Studio series, I’ll talk briefly through the songs featured in my lessons during the past week or two. We’ll see what they can teach us and maybe inspire you to check some of them out!

“Dream On” (Aerosmith)

You gotta have classic rock in your repertoire, and this one is decidedly more sophisticated than most. Great mix of clean, arpeggiated figures, lead guitar lines, and power chording. The intro, verse and interlude sections are fairly complex and will test your physical coordination as well as your mental organization skills. The solos require a decent level of chops, with good slurring abilities.

Probably best suited to the intermediate player, or a very ambitious late-beginner (although you’ll probably have to bag the lead guitar parts). All in all, a great challenge and test of your complete skill set.

“The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” (The Script)

To play it accurately, this guitar part requires good finger strength and dexterity. Double that if you play it on acoustic guitar. But the chord changes are simple enough to balance out any physical difficulties. Great lyrics, too, for you songwriting enthusiasts! Good choice for singer-guitarists.

“Day Tripper” (The Beatles)

Rubber Soul

An all-time classic, must-know tune! My student is working on tightening up his alternate picking and had actually never been much of a Beatles fan, so he never learned the song. This should definitely be part of any rocker’s repertoire. You can work out the left hand while playing all downstrokes with the right hand; then up the challenge by using strict alternate picking with the right hand. The rests and ties make it deceptively tricky to get perfect.

“Ode to Joy” (Beethoven)

This was used for basic note reading on the 1st and 2nd strings for a fairly new student. She has limited reading and playing skills, so it was important to pick something that would not be overwhelming. Plus, the melody is recognizable to most people, which most new readers seem to prefer (helps them to know instantly if they have played it correctly). Good choice for note reading with students of all levels.

“Girl From Ipanema” (Antonio Carlos Jobim)

Quite possibly the most famous Brazilian jazz/bossa nove of all time and a must know for any aspiring jazzer. My student is relatively new to the jazz world, so we worked on learning the chord vocabulary and making efficient changes across the board with decent feel. His school band’s arrangement has a key change, so there was some added complexity there.

“Hotel California” (Eagles)

Another classic tune. Like “Dream On”, this song has a ton of material to offer the rock/pop guitarist, including one of the best guitar solos of all time. But in this case, I simply used the chords of the verse to work with a student on basic barre chord shapes. Since Bm and F# have the same shape – just sitting on root-5 and root-6, respectively – it’s fairly easy to integrate the barre concepts into the song. Great choice for students just starting on barre chords.

“Such Great Heights” (Iron and Wine)

Iron and Wine

Sometimes you just luck out and find a great song that also makes a great guitar exercise. My newest student (yo, Brad!) suggested this song and I immediately knew we had a winner. Simple in structure, but a wealth of fingerstyle concepts!

I would NOT suggest this to someone just learning fingerstyle, however. This song is more appropriate for the student who has a decent mastery of Travis picking, and more specifically, the “inside-outside” technique.

If that’s in place, then this Iron and Wine cover (of the original by The Postal Service) is chock-full of variations to test your chops and mental organization. If taught in a logical way (naturally), it’s pretty easy to have sounding good by the end of the lesson. Highly recommended for acoustic players!


“Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin)

This was requested by my student, and is another of those must-know classics for aspiring rockers. There are many signature parts in this epic song, but we stuck to the fingerstyle intro, which is actually two distinct sections. We worked each section individually and looked for patterns to latch onto. Then we added in the little variations and connecting parts, such as the long slide between Am sections, the ascending bass line into the C sections, and the lone Dsus4 lick.

One important point that is not to be underestimated: Just like “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved”, this song’s Am intro requires solid hand positioning and decent finger strength and dexterity. Depending on the experience level of the student, I would consider teaching this on electric rather than acoustic. The electric will be physically easier to deal with.

“Come On Get Higher” (Matt Nathanson)

I love this song for any student who needs a bit of challenge to their strumming. It features a bass note/strum-type of pattern, which is always a little harder to execute than it looks. Additionally, the strum is very groovy, with some chord changes happening at the mid-way point of the pattern – an extra level of challenge. The chords themselves are pretty simple and use a lot of “common fingers” (notes anchored at the same spot across two or more chords). Great pop song choice!

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Until Volume 2…

6 Comments »

  1. […] you might remember from Volume 1, this series is dedicated to songs featured in my guitar lessons. Instead of picking a technique or […]

  2. […] you might remember from Volume 1 and Volume 2, this series is dedicated to songs featured in my guitar lessons. Instead of picking a […]

  3. Gary Lacey says:

    Hi, what I like to do is take a riff, lick, arpeggio, or anything I’ve picked up from a song and change it around and see what else I can do with it.

    It might just be asomething as simple as a scale practice routine. I’ll try it in a different key and change the timing.

    You can change it from a minor key to a major one or the other way round. Try different fingerings. In fact, do anything you can think of to make it interesting and suit for style of guitar playing.

    • jim says:

      Great ideas, Gary!

      I always encourage folks to be as playful as possible – take a lick and use it over the “wrong” chord, or play that arpeggio backwards instead of forward. One of my favorites creative applications (which you mentioned) is to change the timing/rhythm of a phrase, to get the most out of it.

      All these things jump start the process and get the creative juices flowing!

  4. […] Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4 Volume 5 Volume 6 Volume 7 […]

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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.

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