Are You Stuck Playing Short Riffs And 4 Chord Songs On Your Guitar?

The last post ended with a video of me playing “I Thought About You” on a nylon-string acoustic guitar – which hopefully I made sound more expensive than it actually is.

The idea for this post came from the fact that my students are currently practicing for a recital. They will be playing a few of the pieces they have learned in groups, ranging from 5 to 30 players in size. As we have been working on the arrangements of the songs, I’ve been realising that in the beginning of your playing career it’s easy to get stuck playing “riffs” and bits of songs here and there, a 4 chord loop played a few times, then on to the next thing. Of course, you have to start playing this way. But soon you have to try to break out of that and learn something with a longer form.

“Form” means how the larger sections of the music work. For example, lets take our arrangement of “Stand By Me”. This song has 3 different groups of players:

1) Group 1 play the bassline

2) Group 2 play the chords

3) Group 3 play the melody

The song is based on an 8-bar section. For our arrangement of the song we play the 8-bar section 5 times:

1st time: Everyone plays the bassline.

2nd time: Bassline group continues bassline. Chord group start the chords, Melody group start the verse melody.

3rd time: continue with 2nd part of verse melody. This time the bassline and the chords STOP on the downbeat of the last bar. This is called a “break”. The melody fills the break with the line that leads in to the chorus, “Darl-in, Darl-in”

4th time: As before with chorus melody.

5th time: Everyone plays the bassline again.

Sound easy? It’s not too difficult, but you are exercising a completely different skill, trying to play through this arrangement, than you are trying to learn how to play the D, Bminor, G and A chords. You are lengthening out the amount of time you need to hold your concentration. You need to know where you are in the song, all the way through. For example, at the end of the 3rd time through the 8 bars, you need to stop at the end (if you are playing the bassline or the chords). So you need to know WHEN you are on the 3rd time through! It might sound easy, but it is quite easy to get lost by the 2nd or 3rd time through.

Jazz musicians call this “getting lost in the form”. You suddenly don’t know where you are, and you have to figure it out and get back into the right place. I was really bad at this when I was studying jazz in college! It took me a long time before I was able to hold my concentration long enough to play through a 32 bar form a few times without getting lost.

The arrangement of Stand By Me is only an 8-bar sequence for the bassline and chord parts, so you won’t need TOO much concentration to get the arrangment going! Another very important skill you learn while doing this is the ability to listen to what’s going on around you – in other words, listen to the other musicians playing – and relate what you are doing to what everyone else is doing. If you block everything else out and just concentrate solely on what you are doing, you won’t be able to stay in time with everyone else. It’s a balancing act, because when you are listening to everyone else, 3 things can happen:

1) You know where you are, but you hear someone playing something wrong and you think you are in the wrong place!

When you hear someone going wrong you have to stay where you are – don’t second guess yourself and move to another part of the song thinking “Oh crap he’s playing the Bminor chord already and I’m still on the D, I better change to the Bminor!” On the other hand if you are actually lost then you need to listen to

2) You get lost but you think you are in the right place. Everyone else sounds wrong!

In this case you need to quickly realise you are lost and then get a cue from what other people are playing so you can get back in. I’ve played gigs where I got into the wrong place in the form and stayed there for ages thinking I was right, only to realise after a while that I’m in the wrong place!

3) You are in the right place and everyone else is in the right place too

Ah! The goal. Everyone playing together in harmony, everyone playing off the same hymn sheet, everyone working on the same team, etc etc. It’s sweet when it happens. The better you get as a musician, the more chances you get to play with better musicians, the more this happens. It’s great!

I’m sure this is all a metaphor for something really cool about life, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself. Here’s a video of me playing Giant Steps, a pretty hard tune by John Coltrane. The form is 16 bars, I play the melody twice, then improvise around a few times, then play the melody twice again. Enjoy!