Tip 3

The job description is simple: Just play a song! It amazes me how many guitar players miss the whole point. When handed a guitar most players will play little bits of things, their coolest and newest lick (the one they can’t quite do yet) and then start talking about equipment or famous players or local band gossip. It is rare for a player to just play a song….a complete song! Of course when it’s show-time they play songs but what I’m talking about is when it is a casual environment like at someone’s house, at a party or at the local music store.

We end up sounding just like we train ourselves to. That is the point of this little ”tip”. Train yourself to play a song, a whole song, the minute you pick up (or are handed) a guitar. You will be amazed at the reaction you will receive. You will also start to understand what this job of being a guitar player is all about.

There are at least three ways to approach playing a song. That is determined by the situation you find yourself in. When you are alone and just beginning to work a song up you will sometimes play the chorus (or other sections of the song) several times to iron out the rough spots. You might play through only part of the song and stop to work on some other part. You might experiment with rhythms or chord voicings and repeat the whole song several times without stopping. This is the first step in getting to that place we can actually play the song. You can’t get around this step but you don’t have to get trapped by it.

The second way we play songs is how we do it when we are showing another musician how to play the song. You might play slowly and call the chords out, you might stop and say,”now it goes…” You might have to repeat a section so the other person can learn it. It might even require you to just play the section over and over until it smoothes down. This too is a necessary part of getting to the place you want to get to.

The third way is the ultimate: just play a song.

When I was a youngster I liked Elvis Presley movies. I remember a scene where Elvis was sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck with a girl talking about the situation the characters in the movie were in and out of nowhere appeared a guitar. He strummed one chord to start singing from and proceeded to play an awesome version of “Love Me Tender”. Then he kissed the girl! I immediately saw what had happened. He just played a song and reaped the rewards of doing so. I set that as my goal. I wanted to do it just like he did it. And, I wanted to get to kiss the girl too.

That was a breakthrough moment. I saw what it was like to really do it. I began to practice it. Wow! It was harder than you think. The first thing I ran into was realizing I had to have my song totally memorized to even stand a chance of getting through it. Then I ran into those little mental glitches that cause loss of concentration and wreck the song. In time I became able to do it almost without thought…..and I got to kiss lots of girls as a result!

Here are some thoughts that will hopefully help you to get there as quickly as possible.

Be sure your song is memorized. That is the number one reason people don’t play whole songs. They only memorized the cool intro and the first couple of lines. When they get past that there is nothing in memory and the song falls a part. I spend most of my time memorizing lyrics. I do that without the guitar. I will print out the lyrics and read over them a few times then I start trying to mentally sing them from beginning to end. If I get stalled I can look back at the paper and pick it back up. I do a lot of this while I’m driving. I can generally memorize a song by the time I’ve driven to Richmond (or Lexington) and back. When I get home I can pick up the guitar and make it all the way through the song because I took the time to memorize the lyrics first. Sometimes I will have to work on the guitar part but even that goes quicker if the lyrics are in place.

The next step is to repeat the song enough times it becomes a reflex to play it all the way through. This is hard work. You will find yourself getting bored, and without knowing you have done it, you will be playing another song or messing around with a lick or chord voicing. This is where concentration comes into play. You have to really focus to stay on task. This is something that gets stronger the more you do it. At first you will just have to put up with yourself and realize that this is part of the work it takes to get to where you are going. Once you recognize you have drifted off topic stop what you are doing and refocus. Maybe set the guitar down for a minute or two. Think about the job at hand and then pick the guitar back up, take a deep breath and get back to work. It doesn’t help to get upset and mentally beat yourself up. Realize what has happened and realize that it is a normal part of the process.

Regular practice is what it takes to maintain a song. I have to run through my set at least twice a week to keep everything together. If you are playing shows regularly you may be able to rely on that and not have to run through things as much as you would if you only play shows every now and then. My old friend John Jackson’s manager, Trish Byerly said she had never seen him have to practice a song….he just picked up the guitar and played whatever the song was beginning to end the first time. I believe he could do that because he had done things that way for decades. I don’t ever remember him ever making a sound on the guitar that wasn’t a song. His commitment was so strong I remember we were on live radio together once and John’s guitar went out of tune but you would have never noticed it from the way he played. He didn’t flinch at all. He finished the song and then tuned quietly while the interviewer was talking to me. I learned a lot from that one show.

Once you have totally memorized your song and played it enough to put it into muscle memory the next step is obvious. This begins before you pick the guitar up. Think about what you are going to do, pick up the instrument, play the song, end it pretty, then set the guitar back down. It is very important to set the guitar down so you are not tempted to make any sounds that are not part of that song. After it becomes a habit to play a single song this way, you can add more songs and eventually build up to a set of songs.

The last point I want to make in this article is it’s about playing a song NOT being the next Elvis. We all can make it to this level. Not all of us are going to be big stars. This is where you just have to accept your level of ability and do the best you can and leave it at that. After you can make it through a song you can then begin to sand it down and make it smoother. You can start working on developing the dynamics of the song and adding more guitar parts or varying the chord voicings or any number of other things to improve the overall presentation ONLY after you can make it through the song.

As a guitar player you will always be expected to play whenever someone asks. Be prepared! Always have a song in mind so you won’t be stumped. If you know what song you will play when the situation arises it will take a lot of the fear away. If you haven’t thought about it you may find you can’t even remember what songs know. Be ready….they will ask!
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