Inspiration vs. intimidation

If you hear someone play and it inspires you, makes you want to play and learn, and makes you feel great- follow it. Go and learn how to do it, whether it is a lick, concept, song, or whatever.


If you hear a person play and it intimidates you because you can’t do that- it makes you feel small and worthless- ignore it. This can happen in two situations- 1.) the person is purposely trying to show off, or 2.) the person is just playing, not knowing they have that effect upon the listener(s). The first one is a sign of an immature individual (which can manifest in people of any age). This is bad musical vibes. Ignore that feeling and person. These people are most common in music stores, where they like to demonstrate all the complicated things they have been practicing lately to a captive audience.

In the case of the second, ignore those feelings as well and just listen. That person is different than you, and means no harm.


Always follow inspiration.


This is a short and sweet blog- my fingers either want to be on the guitar and not the computer, or I want to be outdoors and not sitting at the computer. Thus, I have not been very prolific in my blogging.


One other thing- listen to B.B. King.

I’m just saying.

Yeah, I’m a “teacher”!

Ahhh.. Once again I begin this blog with an apology. I find myself playing guitar very little these days, simply because the weather is so nice and spring is such an exciting time of the year. My guitar finds itself sitting in the stand most of the time. That brings up a topic that I plan on covering in a future blog: you don’t have to play guitar. But for now….

I have been thinking about some of my past students lately, especially since I posted a video on facebook of one of them playing on a late-night talk show. I posted it stating that he was a past student of mine, and I did that for two reasons: 1, because he was!, and 2, to stroke my own ego a bit. I wasn’t trying to somehow make the post about me; as in, “look how great a teacher I am! One of my old students is making it!” It was more about the fact that I was really excited for him. But, it does feel good knowing that someone you taught is doing well.

But, to be totally honest, I have a very hard time taking any credit at all for him as a guitar player, even though he took lessons from me for a few years. As any teacher knows, often times the most successful students (and success can be defined many different ways) are usually the worst students. In the case of this person I am talking about, and with every student I can think of that I have taught who has really found their own voice and blossomed, I recall some frustration on my part during the time he took lessons because of his lack of practicing what I assigned or recommended him to practice. It wasn’t a tension filled frustration, just sort of “Ok, work on this for next week”, and then next week comes and it was more often than not “Sorry man, but I didn’t work on that.” But, more importantly, he would then show me what he did work on, and I was always totally blown away. Our lesson would then consist of jamming on the stuff he worked on, and then I would give him an assignment, with the same results the next week. I was always searching for things to assign him, knowing that he probably wasn’t going to work on it.

This is why I hesitated to post the video of him and call him my old student: I don’t actually feel like I taught him anything! He did it all himself! I thought of calling him a friend of mine (which is what I consider him), but my ego won in this case.

That has been the case with so many of the students of mine that have turned into great musicians. I remember another guy who began taking lessons from me as a freshman in college. The first semester that I taught him we started at the very beginning: hand positions, chord shapes, etc. He left for home after that semester, and came back the following fall, and the first thing he said to with huge, wide-eyes of enthusiasm, was: ”Skot- this summer I discovered the blues!”. He then proceeded to show me the blues riffs and licks that he worked on that summer, and totally kick-ass. He didn’t resemble the guitar player that I saw before that summer at all! He must have woke up every morning and ate guitar for breakfast. Over the course of the next couple of years he advanced in huge leaps, and I don’t feel like I can take credit for any of it. I eventually played bass in a band with him, and totally enjoyed listening to him play the coolest stuff on every gig.

So why am I telling you all of this? If you are a teacher, realize that sometimes your job may consist of, instead of actually “teaching”, being a cheerleader, guide, and inspiration to those who come to you for lessons. We can’t force someone to follow the same path we choose to the same goals we have. But, hopefully, we can make their journey a bit easier.

For all of you students (which is every one of us), know that you are the one in control of how successful you are at learning this instrument. Play guitar as much as possible, learn the things that make you excited, and do the work yourself.

I don’t mean to imply that you should not listen to your teacher; on the contrary, they are (at least they should be) more experienced than you, and can provide a lot of help and guidance. But, if all you do is practice what they are giving you, you are more likely to sound like them instead of yourself. A good teacher should be aware of cultivating originality and get out of the way if necessary, helping where needed.

I know I’m not alone as a teacher, in being somewhat embarrassed to call some students “students”. In these relationships, the teacher is often the one who learns more.













The cheapest tuner you’ll ever use

I realize that I have been taking longer in between blog postings as of late. It is difficult for me to be indoors, typing on a computer, when the weather is getting so nice. As nice as it has become, it’s still a bit too cold to bring the computer out into the yard and type; so, instead it stays inside while I am outside.


One thing that I have been aware of with guitarists coming up in the last 15 years or so has been the lack of emphasis of tuning the guitar by ear. With the advanced nature of electronic tuners now-a-days, it would seem like this is an outdated skill to develop. But, the way I see it, it is yet another way to develop a deeper connection, awareness, and attention to details that may be getting rare in our age of advancing technology.


I was made aware of my own weakness in this area about 15 years ago. I was teaching at a guitar camp and we were having a jam session with the students and faculty. I got up to play and realized that I didn’t have my tuner with me. I kinda panicked, and frantically searched for one. Another instructor looked at me with confusion, and said “just tune it?!?” He then proceeded to pick up an out-of-tune student’s guitar and tuned it by listening to the open strings- not even using the 5th fret or harmonic method! I felt amazed and really small.


After that I made it a point at getting better at tuning by ear. It’s not that I couldn’t tune by ear; it’s just that I had become so dependent on the electronic tuner that I had absolutely no confidence in my ear.


I began by getting used to the sound of the adjacent open strings- most notably the fourths. I even devised a method for practicing this. The first thing I do every day when I pick up my guitar is to untune it entirely. I then try to find the right pitch for one of the strings- for some reason I always use the D string. I think of the opening notes of Sweet Home Alabama, which I have heard approximately one million times in my lifetime. Other good reference pitches are the low E of Enter Sandman, or Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap), or the open A shuffle of Keep Your Hands To Yourself. Any song will work that you are familiar with.


Once I tune the guitar to what I think is the right pitch, I then check either the E or A string with a tuning fork, and adjust it if necessary, (which it usually is, though I have gotten pretty good at getting close after all this time). I then tune the guitar to the “in tune” string, checking it again afterwards.


I find it much more accurate to tune to one reference note, instead of starting on the low E and then going to the next string, etc. This has the most accumulation of error: if the A isn’t quite in tune from the E, the D will also be out of tune, and each successive string getting worse. Instead, if I start with the D string, I use the fourths to tune the A and G. I will get the low E in tune with the A, but then compare it to an octave above it with an E played on the second fret of the D. I like to hear the compound 5th sound of the low E and B to tune the B, but I then press the B on the 3rd fret and check the octave with the D string. I get the high E intune by either using the 4th of the E and B together, the compound 5th of the A and high E, or the 2 octaves of both E’s. But, then again, I fine tune it with the 2nd fret of the D string. So, in the end, everything is referenced to the D string. Of course, this is my own method- you will probably have your own.


Working in a guitar store, one realizes just how little emphasis people put on tuning. Many people pick up a guitar to try, and either don’t touch the tuners, or make a poor attempt at fixing it. But that’s not as important as showing off their “guitar store chops”! This is also obvious on the many youtube videos that are meant to review a new piece of equipment. Out-of-tuneness will automatically make the best guitar, amp, or pedal sound terrible. The true mark of an experienced player is their awareness of whether they are in tune or not; and if not it drives them crazy.


By developing this skill, it also heightens your awareness of what you play. When you put time into tuning your guitar by ear, you then start to become aware of how everything should sound, and in turn become very adept at fixing it. Tele players that have a traditional 3-barrel bridge on their guitar usually become pretty good at this. The inability of these things to intonate accurately forces those players to find a compromise in the bridge adjustment (usually flat), and then the player bend those notes sharp as needed. On my tele, I have a compensated 3-barrel bridge that is supposed to intonate better, but it still isn’t perfect. As a matter of fact, very few guitars are totally in tune on most of the neck, and once you consider strings stretch unevenly almost immediately after you start to play on them, depending on the instrument to play in tune for you is pretty hopeless. It is up to you to tune it as you play as much as possible. As a matter of fact, in orchestral settings, most horns and woodwinds are constantly aware of their tuning as they play each note.


I always find it cool watching a professional guitarist playing a gig, and seeing them, mid-song, reach up and turn a tuning key.


I also think that by developing your awareness of the tuning of your instrument will also heighten your awareness of the other members of your band. By acutely listening to yoyr own tuning, you also become more “in tune” with what everyone else is playing.


Electronic tuners have been a blessing for our ears- they make it that much easier and quicker to tune a guitar. But, by depending on these things, I feel that some important skills are being lost. Of course, in a studio situation, a tuner can be invaluable. And, in a live setting, using a tuner to quickly get touch up an out of tune guitar is much preferable than forcing an audience to endure the tedious sound of someone trying to tune their instrument between every song.


It does seem that developing this skill isn’t just about tuning your guitar, but more importantly, tuning your ear.



Takin’ care of business

Here is another simple method that is helpful for conquering a challenging piece of music. You can do this with a lick, a solo, or even a whole song.


The main thing that stands in our way of successfully and smoothly playing a fast or difficult passage is generally not being familiar enough with the passage- we hesitate when we ask “what is the next note”. I usually use the analogy of our locker in high school. The first week of classes, when we got a new locker and combination, we would always have to focus on what the sequence of numbers were, initially referring to the sheet of paper that they were written on until they were memorized. And then, we had to still think about them. But a week or two later, after doing it numerous times a day, the sequence is ingrained, and we flew through them, even becoming so good that we could spin the dial around and catch it on the right numbers. We became very familiar with the process involved with opening the locker. If we tried to go too fast in the first week or so, we would more than likely make mistakes. But, if we just did it at a speed that we were capable of, it would get faster as we became more acquainted with it.


There isn’t any easy way to conquer a piece of challenging music except through time and effort. Though, there is an easy way of kinda half-assed conquering a challenging piece: don’t practice enough. This is real easy. And the results will show that. Most of the time, easy solutions don’t have the best results. But simple is very different than easy.


This is the method I use. The first step is to become familiar enough with it at a very relaxed and comfortable tempo. Let’s say for example that the piece you are working on has a tempo of around 150 bpm. Forget that number totally, and just worry about memorizing it, and being able to somewhat smoothly go through the entire passage. Once you can do that, find out, with a metronome, what that tempo is. Let’s say it is 80 bpm. Start that metronome and play the piece until you can successfully do it. Then, lower the speed by the smallest increment available. I usually go one beat slower at a time, eg. From 80 bpm to 79 bpm. It is a great investment to have a metronome that is able to be adjusted in these small increments. I would imagine that you could find free websites that do this, or even a drum machine. If all you have is a metronome that adjusts in larger increments, that will still work.


Play the piece once at this new tempo, and then move it down again in that small increment. Do this until your metronome doesn’t go any slower, your fingers hurt, you can’t take it anymore, you run out of time, or you wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend,kids/friends or pets are ready to kill you.


This can take time, especially if you are doing a whole song. If that is the case, break the song up into individual parts, such as the verse, chorus, etc., and work that way if possible. If it’s just a short lick, it might still take more than an hour.


The way people usually work on something challenging is to begin where they are able to play and then get faster. Often times, what happens is that they might achieve the goal tempo, but it ends up sounding and feeling like they are barely hanging on and very sloppy. This method creates much better results.


By working with this method, you develop a confidence in the piece. The end results are a very strong rhythm and groove, a greater understanding of the dynamics within the notes, and confidence in “what comes next”, along with how to use your fingers properly to execute it. Instead of just tab numbers, notes, or fret patterns, the piece becomes music. It is a very cool transformation that takes place as you do this exercise.


Most of the time, it is more difficult to play something slower than faster. Try playing a solo that you can already play at 30 bpm.


One important point in doing this is to play at these slower tempos and try to make it good. Imagine that the lick really goes that slow. Relax into these brutally slow speeds. Don’t do this exercise and fight it- really try to make these slow tempos groove.


Once you finish doing this method, give the piece a try at a faster tempo- you will most likely be amazed. If it still not up to the goal tempo, a good idea might be to do the same process, but this time getting faster, starting at the same beginning tempo. Of course, that might have to wait for another day, once your fingers heal, and you have the available time.


When I do work on increasing the tempo, I usually do it the same way until I get to a speed that begins to challenge me. I then stay there for a few repetitions, and then move it up again. I repeat this until I get to a speed that I just can’t do, let’s just say 155bpm. I stay there working at it for a while, and then move it back DOWN to 154 bpm. 154 was tough the first time I got there, but after the time spent at 155, that little bit of change feels like a breath of fresh air. I then stay there, or sometimes I continue to go slower a few clicks, and then try moving back up, essentially getting a running start at the previously unplayable 155.


Like I said earlier- this can be a long marathon of a practice session or sessions. But, the alternative is to continue playing the piece poorly, for a much longer time. This is a great way to take care of business and finally polish up that musical piece that has been kicking your butt for a while.

Getting inside a tune

For the longest time I had been unhappy with my jazz playing, and most small jazz group approaches in general. My own playing consisted of what I call defensive playing: trying my best to not do anything wrong. I would see all the “right” notes on the guitar, and I aimed for those. If I stayed away from the wrong notes, I was successful, and if it sounded good, then it was a bonus! And, I tired of hearing jazz groups doing the same old generic formula on gigs (including the groups I was playing in): play the head in a sterile sort of way, accompany in a sterile sort of way, attempt to tear it up on the solos, and then play the head again to finish the song.


I mentioned my defensive approach to playing. This is opposite of an offensive approach, which is basically you thinking “I can’t wait for people to hear this- it’s gonna blow them away!” That is what people want to hear- that excitement and enthusiasm. And that is what you should want to express- your own excitement and passion for what you are playing. I hear that in all the greats, from Eddie Van Halen and Jaco Pastorius to Mozart. I can’t imagine a young Eddie Van Halen sitting in his room playing guitar, and asking himself if what he plays is right. Instead, he had that Eddie smile, and just knew it was awesome- if it wasn’t, he was going to make it awesome.


To get out of that sterile approach to jazz, I changed my approach to learning tunes. What it consists of is simply spending more time learning each tune you are playing. It might even be s stretch to consider it a method. I think that most players learn the melody and chords to a tune as quick as possible, and then devote the majority of their practicing to soloing, but in a very generic sort of way that doesn’t necessarily relate to the actual song. Instead, work on making the tune your own- strive towards putting your own stamp on it.


Play-a-long CDs are incredibly valuable resources if you, like most people, don’t have a band available at you every beck and call. Jamey Aebersold is probably the most famous source of these (, but you can find many on youtube as well.


Another tool that I use in conjunction with play-a-longs is a “slow down” program that allows you to change the tempo of a song without altering the pitch. My favorite is called Transcribe! (, but there are many to choose from. Most of these will also allow you to change the key along with tuning. Also, they make panning to either side very easy, which is valuable in eliminating the piano or bass on these recordings.


The main idea is, once you have the melody memorized, to really dig into it, trying any method you can think of to make it interesting. You might use open strings, harmonics, various articulations, or even effects and volume/tone controls. Or, none of these, and just internalize the melody as much as possible. The idea is to get control of the melody- don’t be limited to one way of playing it. Be able to manipulate it as you feel and have freedom in changing it when you feel like it. This will then translate into your soloing.


The same thing can be said about the chords- make them your unique interpretation of the song. Don’t just do the same generic comping- find your way of playing the groove for that song.


Inevitably, after playing the same melody straight for about 10 minutes, it will get very boring and feel like you are doing the same thing over and over, not really getting anywhere. You need to break through that boredom wall. Dig deeper into all of your tools that you have in your collection. Often times, I tread the waters of boredom until a happy accident occurs that opens up new ways of playing the melody. Play it in a different octave, try open strings, bends, tapping, volume swells- anything. Don’t be afraid to change the song to a different key, but be aware of the others in your band; certain keys might not be practical for different instruments. That said, comfort in all keys is a valuable skill.


I used to feel that working with play-a-longs was a very un-inspirational way of practicing, but after spending time using them this way, I find it gets more fun the longer I do it. I think the bland feeling I had earlier was a result of not really being aware of what the other instruments were doing. You can focus on the drums or the piano and get many rhythmic and melodic ideas. If you are only thinking of your own playing, often times weird syncopations and un-grooving things are happening that you don’t notice.


I have been talking about this in a jazz context, but of course this applies to any type of music of an improvisatory nature. If you are playing in a cover band, it might depend upon how much freedom your band allows with the songs. Some bands are impressively accurate with their reproduction of the recorded versions, but many have a more interpretive approach.


Once again, the methods I am talking about are very simple- in this case, basically spend more time on the melody and chords. The better you know these, the more it will translate into your soloing. Sometimes we make things way too difficult, and the results are lacking. Our response is to try harder and make them yet more difficult. For a long time I was looking for magic ways of getting better, assuming they hid inside of difficult methods. Instead, there isn’t a magic way to improve, except by putting in the time. I have learned much more from simple concepts than I ever did from complex ones.


This blog is directly related to my blog about playing the song. A song should be considered a topic of musical conversation. It is an opportunity for you to express what it means to you, your thoughts about it, and who you are. But, to do that, you need to really know the song. After doing this with a couple of tunes, you will start to see it getting easier to learn new ones.

Your main musical idea

This concept is another very simple one to add to your guitar playing that you can devote as much time as you want to it, varying from day to day. It consists of choosing a lick or melody that becomes something you spend some amount of time on every day- from as little as 5 minutes, to as much as you care to.


The main criteria for choosing your lick is that it should be easy and it should be something that you like. Don’t choose something that you can’t already play, and don’t choose something that you think may teach you a lot but you don’t actually like.


The lick I chose is a basic major 7th arpeggio type lick that I got from a Ted Greene book. I simply opened the book, played the first lick, liked it, and that was it. It’s not hard or complex. I say I like it, but it’s not something I ever care to use in a song- it’s really just an arpeggio; but for some reason, I like to play it and hear it.


What you do with it is up to you. It should be a source of curiosity that makes you dig into music to answer questions you have.


When I first began this activity, I would basically play the lick as a warm up, somewhat absentmindedly. But soon, I started to explore it. I first began to play it as perfectly as I could: making the rhythm as smooth and consistent as possible, and making each note as pure as I could. Then, it started to branch off into many other topics.


A lick or melody consists of a few basic things: melody, an underlying harmony, rhythm, key, and fretboard location/fingering. You can use your lick to explore any of these avenues. You can even put it into different styles; if it’s a country lick, try it out in a jazz tune, changing it up as needed.


By having one idea that you are very familiar with, it makes learning anything easier. For instance, if you are trying to improve your alternate picking, why learn a whole new melody or scale exercise, when you can play your lick that you already know, and simply create a picking exercise out of it that accomplishes what you need. This allows you to focus on what you want to accomplish, opposed to spending time learning the musical elements, and then eventually getting to work on what you originally intended.


Of course, if you need to learn the solo to Purple Haze, only playing this lick isn’t going to get you there, but it will help in many other ways.


When I first started to spend time with my lick and I realized how much it was teaching me, I thought to myself “If this simple lick has so much to show me, think of what a complicated thing can do!” I decided to switch to Charlie Parker’s “Conformation”. After about 5 minutes I realized that it wasn’t the same. The idea of using a simple melody or lick is that it isn’t difficult. Also, all complicated things can be reduced down to simple concepts, and 99% of the time the focus is on very simple things that everybody can understand with possibly an occasional complicated thing thrown in. This is much like when we speak- most of the words we use are basic ones (the, and, but, etc.), and complicated words are used only when necessary. It is usually easy to spot someone who is attempting to appear smarter than they actually are just from their needless use of big words.


This activity isn’t meant to imply that you only play your lick- you can play whatever you want, but you devote some time to your lick each day. Like I said, sometimes I play mine for 5 minutes, other days all I do is play my lick. It becomes a very familiar sound, and kind of like a friend.


Some suggestions for what to do with your lick:

Change harmony- if it’s a major lick, make it minor, or dominant.

Play it in different keys.

Change the rhythm.

Rearrange the notes, or add and/or subtract notes.

Play it in as many places on the neck that you can find.

Use open strings or harmonics.

Use it to learn the names of the notes on the fretboard.

Use it for various picking patters

Use it to build speed.

Play it on one string.


Don’t think that you actually have to do any of these suggestions- these are just some of the things that I have done. Most importantly, let your lick lead you. Music is all about blazing your own path, and the inspiration for that is your curiosity. My lick has taught me a lot, but if I list everything that I have worked on with it, it gets interpreted as a sort of overwhelming list of things that you might feel you have to learn. Don’t think that way. I have a few books by people such as Ted Greene and Mick Goodrick that are more like encyclopedias. They are incredible and awesome books that have so much information; a lifetime’s worth, actually. I have spent many hours working on them, but when I look back on it, I don’t think I have learned very much from those books. I can imagine that these guys decided to write those books because they were excited about the new concepts they devised or found and wanted to show them to people. I would see the books as a mass of info that I had to learn. I have done similar things in my own teaching, in which I find a new way of making sense of the fretboard that I find exciting, and it quickly grows into mammoth proportions when I finally cover all of the avenues. I think that everyone would benefit from this approach and I want to share it with my students. When I show it to them,all I see is either confusion, or that overwhelmed, hopeless look. The concept that I find exciting and makes me want to dig farther and farther into it, loses something when it is presented to a student. They see it as more stuff to learn. But, if that student could be inspired to dig into a concept themselves, discovering new ways of seeing music and the guitar- that’s where real progress is made. Basically, you want to “write your own book”.


This concept is similar to the idea presented in my earlier blog about simplification.

Don’t try to get better by adding more things to your collection of things that you “kind of“ know- instead, learn what you “kind of” know better.


By working on a lick like this, you become much closer to mastering it. This sort of approach then bleeds over into all of your other playing. If this lick helps you understand chords better, that becomes apparent in everything else you play.


Of course, this concept isn’t guaranteed to help you in every aspect of your playing, but it will help you in many ways. Every little bit counts.


There are no real rules here- only guidelines. If you choose a lick, and then a few days, or even a year later are unhappy with your choice, change it. Maybe you want to choose a chord progression instead of a lick. But the basic idea is to have one musical thing that you spend time playing every day and you get to know really well. If you find yourself saying “I need to improve my speed”, use your lick to create an exercise.


I once read about a Zen method of learning how to paint which involves painting the same plant every day for a year. That may sound like you would only become good at painting that one plant, but I don’t think so. I would expect that for the first few days or weeks it might be boring, but soon you would start digging deeper and finding new ways to paint that plant. Not only would you technique improve, but your ability to see objects would improve also. This lick is your plant that you explore daily.

Ear Game

Here is simple activity to do to develop your ear. Though it is simple, you can make it as difficult as you want. The basic idea is to depend on your ear to learn a song or piece of music, but using your memory instead of a recording.


I am always reminded of this “game” every Christmas. I love Christmas and every year I spend a lot of time playing Christmas carols.Since I only play them for a short period each year, I make a game out of it by relearning them by ear from memory. The melodies can be easy if you are an experienced player, but may be a bit of a challenge if you are a beginner. The trick is to not write them down as you figure them out- devote the melody to memory. An important part of doing this is that each day (or however often you do this) you end up having to relearn it, and each time gets progressively easier, until it is eventually memorized. Depending on your musical level, it might be obvious the way a melody fits into a key, and then your job becomes a bit easier. But if you don’t understand key/melody relationships, this is a good way to learn. When using simple melodies such as Christmas carols, or any other melody that you have heard your entire life (Happy Birthday, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star etc.) you can expect most of the notes to fall within a major scale or less frequently, a minor scale. I emphasize most because there are many times when what are called non-diatonic notes (notes that aren’t in the key) are found. For instance, the C major scale consists of the notes C D E F G A B C. A common non-diatonic note used is F#, but it will occur less often than the F.


The next step in this activity is to figure out the chords underneath the melody. You can do this “scientifically”- meaning, if you understand harmony, you can usually deduce what chord is played from the note(s) in the melody and the key. Actually, there will be multiple choices of what the chord could be, but usually only one will sound right. For instance, the melody note C could indicate most likely a C, Am or F chord. I usually try each of the possibilities, pick the one that sounds right, and then strum the chord progression while singing or whistling the melody. Again, do this from memory- don’t use a recording to help you out. With an understanding of chord/scale harmonic relationships, you will be able to narrow your choices down to obvious ones. For example, in the key of C, it would be rare (though not necessarily out of the question) to find a chord like Ab minor in a simple song like the ones I am talking about. Most of the chords in these simple tunes will be I IV or V chords, with an occasional vi or ii. Often, a II is used, such as in Rudolph.


The “unscientific” method is to just try out chords and listen for what sounds right. Again, with an understanding of keys, you will be able to avoid wasting time on unlikely choices.


With this activity, you can make it as difficult as you’d like. Christmas carols can be easy, like Rudolph, or more difficult, like The Christmas Song, or Christmas Time Is Here.


This is especially fun when you have children. They love Christmas songs, but you can also do it with their favorite TV show song; you obviously don’t have to limit yourself to Christmas tunes.


One way of increasing the learning potential of this activity is, once you have figured out the song’s chords and melody, to then transpose it to a different key. You can do this either just as an exercise, or to place it in a more singable key for you or someone else. This is valuable “real musician” power! Oh yeah- a capo doesn’t count here! This is a good way of becoming familiar with those less common keys and chords.



An important point of this activity is to not look at the written music until you have figured it out or put in much time and effort and you are at your wit’s end. By doing it this way you are getting the sounds lodged deep inside your head, and when you finally look at the music, it will make more sense and be a big “A-ha!” moment. This is different than using the written music as a starting point, in which the song then exists as a mental visual in the form of a bunch of dots or numbers. When you get the sounds in your head first, the moment you look at the music it is like a head-slap: “Oh, no kidding! Of course that’s it!” The meaning is then totally different.


This also applies to figuring out a complicated song or solo- work on it by ear first, and eventually look to the music for help (after putting in some serious sweat) of to see if what you have is the same as the published results. Sometimes you will be musically right, but the positions you arrived at are different than what original artist did. This is still a success, but try the other position. You might see why they chose to play it where they did.


One thing worth mentioning is that when you look online or in various books and magazines (for the chords especially) you will usually find a few variations. Some are going to be obviously wrong, some will match your results, and some will be different than what you came up with, but still sound good. The internet gives everyone the ability to publish their transcriptions, for better or worse. Some of the other good sounding variations are an example of reharmonization, or alternate harmonization. What this is, is that often times an artist will change some of the chords in order to create a different sort of sound for the song. Of course, the results can range from awesome to awful. But, it is good to keep your ears open when listening to these different versions, and admit if one sounds more right than what you came up with. Realize that with things like Christmas carols, so many versions of these songs have been released, that the one that you are thinking of may be very different than the one by Mariah Carey, which happens to be the version that you found while searching for that song’s music.


The chords and melodies, when learned with your ears, become sounds in your head, as opposed to labels or dots/numbers. A C chord going to an F chord has a unique sound that you remember, but if you only know that chord progression as “data”, you are of course missing one of the most important elements of music, which is obviously what it sounds like! You will also start to hear how things like the 3rd of a chord sounds different than the root when played over that chord. After doing this activity, you will eventually be able to identify those different sounds with your ear alone. In this day and age, every song’s written music, especially TAB, is available for free online, and all a person has do is a search to find it. Though easy, this isn’t necessarily the best way to become a better musician. Learning a song by ear develops your connection to that song in a way that learning from written music just doesn’t do.


This activity has something for players of all levels. Experienced people can work on more difficult tunes, and beginners can focus on learning the melody only, eventually working up to note names, key relationship, and the harmony. If you have never done this, be sure to pick tunes that are easy and you have heard your whole life. Regardless of how basic a song is, I always seem to learn something from this activity.


A final note: I have attempted to keep the theory elements of this discussion brief- if you don’t understand anything I have talked about, be sure to message me and I will try to explain it more thoroughly.