Play Songs, Not Riffs

When I first starting learning to play guitar, and after the initial absorption of chords, scales, strumming, and the like, the focus was on playing all the classic guitar riffs from the bands of the day. Throw in an electric guitar copy and a cheap practice amp from my folks one birthday and all you could hear from my room was many out-of-tune distorted licks all day long.

Eventually, the guitar came into tune (better ears, plus a Boss tuner), the distortion a bit better, but the premise was the same. Learn all the most complicated guitar music note-for-note, rhythm and lead parts both, until I could play along with the recordings with ease.

This was not a strategy that I alone cultivated — in my town, this was the standard. Everyone wanted to be the local hotshot guitarist, and those in the mix were practicing many hours daily to make this happen. It was like our local version of the Guitar Olympics.

There are a few situations in which these skills really shine, most notably onstage with a band, and with all your own gear. However, more often than not, life is not like that. It might be a friend whose spirits need to be picked up and there’s an acoustic guitar laying around. Or at a house party and people want to hear you play a song alone with a roommate’s beater guitar.

Being able to shred every Metallica lick is a valuable skill, but in these situations, knowing, playing, and singing (I’ll get to this) is infinitely better. No one wants to hear the Best Guitar Licks from Metallica — they want to hear a Metallica song. A good musician should be able to play the music that they care about in any situation, any environment, with whatever tools are available.

This is where the song comes in. It was written for a reason and is the part with which the listener ultimately connects. When you can replicate as much of that as possible, using whatever means are available, the connection becomes that much stronger.

And because the listener’s bond with the song is so strong, more often than not, they’ll forgive your singing if it turns out to be poor, as long as it’s heartfelt. If you can tune a guitar, then you know what “in tune” and “out of tune” sounds like, so you should be able to correct your vocal pitch to the point where you can at least carry the tune. If you can’t, you just haven’t spent enough time doing it. Practice it with as much gusto as your playing and you’ll see the difference.

Now, presumably if you’ve learned riffs for various songs, then you know how those songs go. It’s just a matter of remembering the chords, the song structure, and the lyrics. To aid in this, you can look up the chords and melody on tab sites like Ultimate Guitar, or if you want the official stuff, check out any online seller of music songbooks.

For me personally, I never knew many complete songs until my daughter was born. When she was one year old, my wife and I could barely get her to eat while sitting in her high chair. However, we eventually found out that if I sang and played guitar while food was in front of her, she’d become absorbed in the music and start to eat without noticing.

Thus, playing for her during mealtime became standard practice and I needed to start learning songs in a hurry. So I pulled out my Beatles Complete songbook and started memorizing a new tune daily until enough I had enough repertoire to last a few meals.

In the end, it isn’t about being a jukebox or a karaoke machine. It’s simply tapping the love of music shared by yourself you and the listener via your performance.

And that’s a very powerful thing. Can you think of a better reason to be learning & playing music?

10 Ways to Make Your Band Better … Fast


Whether you’re thinking about putting together or joining a new band, or you’ve played in one for years, it’s easy to fall into certain traps and patterns of behavior that hold the band back. The very nature of playing in a band can be conducive to bad habits.

Here are ten quick tips to make rehearsals more efficient, your sound fresher, and your band more confident when playing out.

Some of these ideas may already be in play with your band, some may be quick reminders, and some may be completely new. But whatever the situation, keep them in mind during your next practice, rehearsal session, or gig:

  1. Use Electronic Tuners – Don’t tune to each other. Everyone should have their own tuner, and should tune to it constantly. Most effects units for guitar & bass have a built-in tuner. Learn how to tune silently and use it every chance you get, even in the middle of a song when you’re tacit (e.g. laying out).
  2. Kick Everyone Else Out of Practice/Rehearsal – Practice is for the band, not to impress people you’ve invited to hear the band. That’s what the gig is for. If there are people in the practice space that are not actively taking part in the creation of the music, it’s time for them to leave. You can meet up with them later.
  3. Don’t Play When Someone is Talking – If someone is constantly noodling during practice, then they need to either keep quiet or take a hike. It’s not possible for anyone to make a useful point or suggestion over the drone of someone’s musical mumbling, and it’s the fastest way to create anger, frustration, and fisticuffs. If it’s you, stop it. If it’s someone else, unplug them.
  4. Locate Drummer and Bass Player Together – They are your rhythm section. They are the foundation for everything that can be good about your band. They can’t completely make the band, but they can easily break it. Thus, they need to be in sync, and the first step toward this is physical proximity.
  5. Play Half as Loud – Everyone wants to be heard. So what happens? Everyone, in succession, turns themselves up or plays just a little louder so that their part is just a bit more prominent. A few go-rounds of this and the volume is so loud that you can’t objectively hear the music anymore. Drummers can use Hot Sticks or similar to bring down the volume. While playing, if you have to shout to the person next to you in order to be heard, the band is too loud. You also won’t be able to practice as long because the extra volume causes everyone to fatigue faster.
  6. Eye Contact – If you’re just looking to rock out in your own head space, you might as well play along with your MP3s. Playing in a band is about playing with other people, hopefully people you like. Take time to look at each other, both to acknowledge when the band is really rocking, and also to take cues when there are upcoming changes in the song. If the bridge is meant to be played twice and the band keeps forgetting this, you need to work out a signal from someone as a reminder, and then everyone needs to pay attention to the cue.
  7. Record Your Rehearsals – The only objective way to evaluate how you sound is to record it. Check for problems with tuning, starting tempos and subsequent changes (bands tend to speed up over the duration of a song), overall volume levels, and how locked in the band is playing. Anything that sounds unprofessional should be eliminated.
  8. Rearrange Your Best Song – Take your best song and re-work it in another style or feel. Try it in an acoustic/unplugged vein, or re-arrange it as an emo or ska tune. Part of what you get out of it is, of course, some new version that your audience will find interesting (you can always switch up to the previous version whenever you like), but the other part is that your musicianship will grow. You can then draw on what you’ve learned as you write or adapt new songs to be added to your repertoire.
  9. Play Covers as Originals – If you play cover tunes, you should alter their arrangement or feel to fit the originality of your band. This may take a little bit of time to hone, and that’s OK. The point is: you’re a band, not an iPod. Make sure the audience can tell the difference.
  10. Rehearse the Gig – When preparing for an upcoming gig, the band should run through the set list a few times as if it were the real thing. This means no stopping, no matter how many mistakes are made. You should simulate all aspects of the performance, such as chatter with the audience between songs from your frontperson/singer, or equipment changes/mods/re-tunings that occur between songs.