How To Learn Rock Guitar Songs and Solos » Guitar Principles

How To Learn Rock Guitar Songs and Solos

how to learn rock songs on guitar

How do we learn how to play rock guitar songs and solos so that they actually sound like the original?

When a student wants to learn a  rock guitar song or solo, the student gets the tab off the internet, looks at the series of "numbers" on the tab sheet and dutifully attempts to turn each number into a "note". Often, the student is not really listening to the sounds which are the result of these efforts, and is certainly not comparing them to the original solo.  The first thing you need to know is:

GUITAR FACT OF LIFE

Unless you are constantly comparing what you sound like to the original when you practice, you will have no success.

Why is this?

You're Not Practicing Guitar - You're Training Muscles

Motor Control Learning 

The sounds you make depend on exactly how your fingers move. When you practice, you are trying to teach them to move the right way to make the right sounds. When we teach our fingers how to move, it is called "motor control learning".

For motor control learning to take place, the principle of "knowledge of results" must be applied. The essence of this principle is that we cannot acquire and improve a motor skill if we do not receive some kind of feedback that tells us how close or how far we came to our goal.  

 If we are shooting a basketball we cannot improve if we can't see the hoop, evaluate our effort, and make corrections for the next attempt. We will talk about how to do that below.

First, let's talk about the skills that must be in place before we can learn how to play rock songs on guitar.

First Learn The Essential Skills - Correctly!

Many students attempt to learn rock songs and solos when they have not even mastered the fundamental skills that are constantly used in rock music. These skills are: 

  • String bending in all its variations, such as pre-bending, done with each finger
  • Vibrato on plain notes and bent notes
  • String raking and string muting
  • Ability to play rock scales with power and speed

These skills must be learned correctly. If you don't know that string bending is done with the power of the forearm, and not the power of the fingers, you will struggle to play your licks and you won't sound good! I have fixed hundreds of players who have been doing this vital technique wrong for years 

Music is a language. To speak a language we must first learn to make the sounds that are grouped together to make the words and sentences of that language.  If these skills are not in place, your playing will sound like someone speaking with a speech impediment!  The lack of knowing the right way to do these things will make it impossible for the music to emerge.


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Get Your Practice Setup Together: A/B Testing

After learning the essential skills, we must understand the specific practice approach necessary to use for learning electric guitar solos.

Listen To The Model: When you sit for practice, you must have far more than the tab to the solo you are working on in front of you. The most important thing to have is some kind of recording of the solo you are working on (the model), so that you can listen to it, bit by bit, as you work on each lick in the solo. The best thing is if it is on some kind of player that will also play it half speed, so you can switch back and forth between the actual speed and half speed. One such program is Amazing Slow Downer.

The right sound is much more elusive in rock/blues than in other styles. This is because of the highly individual nature of a player's style and sound, and the actual manner of producing sound in this style, which leaves more room for error. By this I mean string bending.

The infinite variety of sounds made possible by the technique of bending strings makes it imperative for students to be constantly comparing their efforts during practice to the solo they are learning. It may sound obvious, but I am constantly meeting students who don't do this!

Listen To Yourself: This is the part that most students get wrong! As you are working on the solo, you must constantly record yourself, lick by lick, and then listen to the original. Ask yourself "does my playing sound like the original"? You must estimate how close or how far your playing is from that of the original. If there is a gap (and there almost always is!), you must work to close that gap. For this, you must know how to practice correctly.

After listening and judging your  own playing against the model, you make another attempt, recording yourself. Then, listen and compare again. Rinse and repeat until there is no difference between your playing and the model. You must discover exactly how yours is falling short, and then figure out how to fix it. Are the bends in tune? Is the vibrato even? Is the rhythm correct, and how about articulation? Your goal is to sound as good, as polished and professional as the original.

Putting It Together

After working on the solo in small pieces, and you feel your playing is reasonably close to the original in quality, it is time to start putting it together. You must do this by actually playing the solo to the rhythm background. This is something most students do not do, and it will prevent you from ever approaching a professional level of ability. You should never consider that you know a solo unless you have listened back to yourself playing it to the recorded rhythm background.

Once you get the solo together, stand up with your guitar and play along with the original. This will do wonders for your feel and timing. See if you can keep up through to the end. If not, find and fix the problems (correct practice again!).

Learn To Play The Backing Chords 

For any solo you are working on, you should learn the rhythm, or backing chords, as well, and record it at various tempos. Master the whole thing at a slow tempo first, maybe playing it to the background chords played at half tempo. The best idea is to make 4 or 5 versions of the rhythm part at different tempos for your practice sessions.

All students should avail themselves of the tremendous resources for study that are available; everyone should have some kind of multi-tracking software available (which can be found for as low as 20 or 30 dollars), and begin their own collection of recorded solos.  

I am not saying that everything you practice must be swallowed whole, and mastered in its entirety. Sometimes you just might like a small part of a solo, or one lick perhaps. There is nothing wrong with just sitting down and copying a fragment of something you like, but you should still use the same approach of comparing it, in recorded form, to the original.

But along the way, you should master some whole songs, or whole solos, and prove yourself with a recording. The next step, of course, is to prove yourself in a live situation by finding people to play with (of course, that means dealing with other real live human beings, and brings about challenges far beyond the scope of what I wish to talk about here!).

Summing Up

What is your "exit strategy" for any solo or song you are working on? How do you know when you "know it"? When all these things are in place.......

  1. Make sure you have nailed the basics of electric guitar - scales, bends, and vibrato, and muting. You won't sound good on any rock guitar song or solo until these skills are in place. 
  2. Have a recorded version of the solo you are trying to learn. Be able to slow it down.
  3. Have something to record yourself with.
  4. Work lick by lick, recording yourself and comparing it to the original.
  5. Learn the rhythm and play along with it.
  6. Play through the solo along with the artist playing the original
  7. Find other players to play the solo with

How Do You Know You "Know It"?

What is your exit strategy when you learn a new rock guitar song? Well when it comes to guitar, knowing is the same as doing. As I said in "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar" - "To know and not to do is not yet to know".

You know you know the song you have worked on when you can play it along with the original song, or a backing track, or a band. Until you have done that, and recorded yourself doing it, you don't know if you know the song.

Oh, and don't forget to listen back to the recording, you may hear a few surprises!

Does this seem like a lot of work? It is. Do you want to sound like the original? Do you want to sound like a pro? 

All of this is what the pros do.

What did you think? I'd love to know your thoughts on this article, please leave a comment.

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