Welcome to Songs from the Guitar Studio, Volume 5!
As you might remember from earlier volumes, this series is dedicated to songs featured in my guitar lessons. Instead of picking a technique or concept and finding a song to match it, we’ll sometimes pick a song first and see what we can learn from it.
Listed below are just some of the songs my students have practiced over the last few months. It’s been a little while since the last installment, so we’ve got a healthy amount of songs here!
I’ve outlined a few of the main elements and takeaway points from each one. Hopefully you’ll see something here that may inspire you.
Let’s check out some tunes!
“Space Oddity” – David Bowie
One of my all-time favorite classic rock songs and easily on my “desert island” list. This is a great choice for the intermediate acoustic player because of the sweet mix of open position chords and barre shapes. It is also a prime candidate for the “jangly” chord approach (I’m currently working on a lesson for this concept, so keep an eye out) where you play a barre shape but leave strings 1 and 2 open, creating a dreamy, shimmering sound. “Oddity” also has very distinct sections, which makes organizing your practice fairly easy. Highly recommended for acoustic guitarists looking for a chord challenge!
“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC
Another all-time classic, this song is my go-to for rock players when we want to get away from the typical power chord approach or when we just want to reinforce basic chord shapes. The Young brothers did NOT spend a lot of time on standard, closed-position power chords; by contrast, AC/DC gets its sound mainly by playing open-position power chords, albeit with a few precautions – read: strategic muting and fingering – taken to clean up the sound. See “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “TNT”, “Dirty Deeds”, “Touch Too Much”, etc. for similar examples. This is “must know” stuff for rockers.
“Brian Wilson” – Barenaked Ladies
Quirky, awesome tune! Barenaked songs are typically not hard to play, but they always have a few oddball things thrown in to keep you honest. Although “Brian Wilson” is filled with a lot of normal open chords, the interludes have a cool Latin vibe, complete with chromatic movement in the chords and some sweet strumming. In fact, this song is basically a strumming extravaganza all the way through. Want to dial up your strumming chops and learn a great song at the same time? Look no further.
Unless you want to play The Big Bang Theory theme…
“Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes
This track has become a go-to for me lately. First off, it’s kind of the Ravens theme song, so a lot of my students here in Maryland dig that. Beyond that, it’s pretty easy to get going for a new guitar/bass student in that the melody can be played as single-notes on one string. You can then easily take it up a notch by executing that same melody as power chords. The linear aspect – everything played on one string – helps less experienced players to eyeball their spots, anticipate what’s next, and stick the landings.
“Little Wing” – Jimi Hendrix
Any Jimi Hendrix will make you a better player, period. However, many of his tunes require some experience (pun intended) to really get the most out of them. “Little Wing” is no different, but in this case, it’s more of a conceptual thing. This track is excellent for working on those rhythm-and-blues double stops that Hendrix so famously used (see “Wind Cries Mary” also), but to truly understand what he’s doing – and to apply it to other songs – you need a bit of fretboard mapping and theory behind you. The song also incorporates a few must-know signature moves, such as the sliding Gadd9-Fadd9. Highly recommended, especially for the intermediate player.
“Eruption” – Van Halen
Interestingly enough, many guitarists feel that you have to already be a guitar ninja to play “Eruption”. While that would certainly help for navigating the beginning and middle sections, the final tapping section is doable for late beginners-early intermediate players. And IMHO, it’s essential material for learning the basics of tapping (which EVH virtually invented for rock musicians). The tapping section can be conveniently organized into a few manageable sections and you can learn the two fundamental concepts: tapping in triplet rhythm and learning to coordinate a move of the left hand while tapping with the right. Tapping lessons should start here, period.
“Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine
This song was done at the suggestion of one of my long-time students and I learned quite a bit myself! First, the song has multiple sections to organize and navigate, which makes it a good mental exercise. Second, it used drop D tuning, but is not overly complex, so it’s a good introduction for the intermediate player. Third, it’s got some nice back-and-forth between chords and single-note melody, so it forces the player to navigate that obstacle course as well. Finally, the main verse sections are relentlessly groovy. A killer track, indeed!
“Stash” – Phish
Another long-time student turned me onto this song and it’s awesome! The single-note theme (as played by Trey Anastasio) is a fantastic, if somewhat extensive, alternate picking-meets-finger roll exercise, but the logic of the melody makes it pretty easy to wrap your brain around. It also has a nice bluesy ending and some solid position shifts, which serves to make it a great, self-contained guitar piece – and that’s just the main theme! Some nifty jazz-influenced arpeggios make up the next section (that’s as far as we got). “Stash” has a bit of a Duke Ellington-”Caravan” sort of vibe, and is highly recommended for lead players looking for a new challenge.
“Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” – Bill Monroe (and others)
This iconic bluegrass tune features ridiculously easy chords for most players beyond the beginner stage. But the challenge here is not in the chords themselves, but rather what we do with those chords. First and foremost, the classic bluegrass strum (“boom-shaka-laka-laka”) is relentless and played at a fast tempo, so your stamina is tested. Better make sure your wrist is sufficiently loose on this one! Second, great bluegrass rhythm guitar often features embellishments and walking bass lines, so learning to work those things into the mix is key. Of course, these embellishment concepts are completely applicable to other, not-bluegrass, songs. Score! If you feel like your strumming is sluggish, this is the tune for you.
“Free Fallin’” – Tom Petty
Break out your capos, rock stars! Tom (and producer Jeff Lynne) play virtually the same three chords throughout the song, which keeps things relatively easy, but they layer them in different keys and with different capo positions. “Free Fallin’” is in the key of F, so one guitar is played at capo 1 in E, while the other plays at capo 3 in D. My students and I learned it both ways to maximize the awesome factor! I’d recommend starting at capo 3 in D, with the easier chords, so you can concentrate on the accents in the strum pattern. When you’ve got that down, move to capo 1 in E and use the “jangly” chord approach (again, a lesson is forthcoming), but with the same strum. A dynamite song for illuminating the concepts of transposing and capo strategies.
“Crazy On You” – Heart
If “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” is not enough of a strumming challenge, consider this Heart classic to be your musical dragon. But you better bring your A game if you want to slay this beast – it’s relentless and not for the faint of heart! (pun definitely intended)
As a teenager, learning to strum “Crazy on You” at the correct tempo was a kind of guitar player rite of passage and it still is. Super-fast 16th-note strumming and strategically anticipated accents are the order of the day here. The verse has more of the same strumming, as does the bridge, albeit without the accents and with different chords. Various sections to navigate. Some lead guitar riffage. All in all, a truly epic classic rock tune and highly recommended for strumming masochists!
“Margaritaville” – Jimmy Buffett and “House of the Rising Sun” – The Animals
For the beginner student, these are great songs for introducing the basic open position chords. They’re also perfect for the “common” strategies that I advocate for changing chords: common finger, common string and common shape.
Learning the Buffett classic in the standard key of D is great, but if you start off learning chords based around G – as I recommend with my students – you can transpose “Margaritaville” to that key and get started that way. Ultimately you can play the song in two different keys to get as much chord action as possible, while keeping the format of the song the same. It’s a good call, especially since early beginners need to focus as much as possible on one thing at a time. If you’re prioritizing the left hand, don’t make them think about much else.
As for “House of the Rising Sun”, you simply engage in some other moves that are not present in “Margaritaville”, such as the Am to E shift, Am to C, etc. One caveat: although this song uses an F chord, I absolutely, unequivocally reject the use of that chord with a beginner student. If you’re a beginner and your teacher is trying to force your hand (literally) into an F shape, be wary. A standard F grip requires too much finger strength, leverage and dexterity for a beginning student. I substitute Fmaj7 in its place and it works beautifully. Hold off on F until you’ve mastered the other open chords – you’ll thank me later.
“Cat Scratch Fever” – Ted Nugent
One of the first riffs I ever learned and still one of my all-time faves! The beauty of this intro is in its partial barres on the middle strings that alternate with the open A bass notes. Of course this is a move that is perfectly applicable to lots of other songs in lots of different genres, so it bears practicing well. (One somewhat similar riff might be the verse section to “Crazy Train”, where the open A note is pedaled and alternated with changing partial chords. I’m sure there are another thousand examples of this.) Take it all up a notch by sliding the chord shapes like the Nuge!
The Songs From the Guitar Studio Series
Wanna check out some of the earlier volumes of this series? Need some new inspiration? Follow the links!
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