Just playing songs - developer or time waster?

I love playing songs and I don’t feel one bit guilty about it at all. I learn the stuff I like, such as old Ozzy, Loudness, King’s X, Prince, Smashing Pumpkins, Michael Schenker, Nirvana, Soundgarden. Not all of it is technical guitar playing, but it’s so much fun to play along with.

I think it’s great for the memory, both muscle memory and for your actual memory. If you’re learning complex, shredding solos, then that is definitely not a waste of time, it’s bound to help your playing.

I’m not in a band or anything - just a home player who loves learning the songs I like.


I loooove King’s X. Dogman being my favorite, production is still gold even though it’s from 94?

I assumed the intent of the question was if from a technique-building perspective, just playing songs would work. I agree that it does help with memory which would in turn hopefully help remember challenging sequences, but I think not what the OP was really getting at.

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Coming at this as a guy who’s spent a lot of time on technical practice, a lot of time on writing and recording, and an unusually small amount of time on learning and playing other people’s music, and who isn’t sure - while there are a ton of valid ways to become a great player - he hasn’t limited himself for this…

I could see this being big. Performing “live,” either in front of an audience or just playing through a song start to finish in your bedroom, is probably a good way to build, um, “resiliency,” I’ll call it, the ability to fuck up but then jump back into the song and recover somehow, maybe picking up a phrase from a point you didn’t practice or don’t normally begin on, maybe improising something to bridge back in to what you were working on, whatever. I haven’t gigged with any degree of regularity in years and when I did I was exclusively plying improved leads which is a slightly different beast, but it does teach you to think on your feet in a way just running drills doesn’t, I’d think.

I could also, just spoutng off the top of my head here, see this as a good way to pick up new lick ideas, or ideas that could be re-engineered to become new licks of your own, different compositional ideas, different ways of thinking about harmony, and the ability to, um, I guess bring a line to life, and let it breath? Something I struggle with while playing “arranged” peices is that my phrasing (I think) gets comparatively rigid and stiff, whereas while I’m impovising I tend to phrase a little looser, with more inflection, and I see this as kind of a big weakness of mine as a player, that my ability to “interpret” something is pretty weak compared to my ability to improvise but add inflection while I play.

If it matters, I think this is something I probably SHOULD work on, so I’ve been tackling Andy Timmons’ “Deliver Us” here and there because I think it’s an awesome tune, I think the fact it’s loosely in the phrygian dominant mode without sounding it is interesting, his approach to writing (particularly the chorus) is very different than mine so there’s probably some stuff I can learn from it, and because there are some killer lead lines in there, where hopefully I can come back with a few cool ideas of my own. TBD how this goes down the road, and if it ever gets to the point where I can play it through beginning to end and really nail it, but I’ll probably learn from the process.

“Gretchen” and “Faith, Hope, Love” – I saw those guys a bunch of times. First show was FHL right up front on Doug’s side in a nightclub. He had 9 SVT cabs stacked sideways, 3x3x3. It was loud enough, but not crazily so – just MASSIVE. He was still doing that high distortion/low clean thing from the first four records. 12-string bass on “Fine Art of Friendship” was far out. I definitely dig the sound of those records, but they never got the bass thing right in that era, at least on the CD’s and cassettes (maybe the vinyl is different, who knows?). The closest I heard was the bass-only breaks in “What I Know About Love” on the self-titled one “What I Know About Love” – but I guess you really have to set your stereo right.

Then “Dogman” hits with that Brendan O’Brien sound – it’s HUGE, but it’s just straight Mesa and Ampeg (I’m assuming Mesa, because Ty was playing Mesa and Zion on that tour). I used to A/B hard rock mixes to “Shoes,” and I would just end up going back to the drawing board half the time. Brendan was pretty much batting 1,000 around then – I mean, RHCP (mixing), PJ, RATM, STP, Soundgarden…

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I spend a decent amount mixing and always try to get close to Dogman. Case in point:

I’m originally from Houston (close to where they’re based out of) so I saw them about twice or three times a year in the early 2000s. Dug is still the nicest dude I can think of, he’ll just sit there and talk forever!

One of the guys who mentored me had a saying, which was “great songs are not written; they are RE-written.” Sure, there are the legendary moments when a song just flies out of someone or whatever, but I would say that if you show me a Percy Sledge “When A Man Loves A Woman”-type story, I’ll show you someone who’s paid a lot of dues and written a lot of songs, and probably performed quite a bit too. The pop song is idiomatic, and “good” or “great” songs don’t come from a vacuum. In fact, a lot of the art of production is really the art of arranging songs – changing the timeline of a song is an option in production. Of course, those are big, scary, moves that have incredible potential to either elevate things or royally screw things up.

Here’s the thing about paying dues: the experience we all go through is, we hear broadcast-ready finished product 100% of the time, and then we get an instrument and maybe a bare-bones recording setup, and we have the inkling (maybe) to take a shot at making broadcast-ready finished product. To say that’s “quite a jump” is putting it mildly. The YouTube thing can deliver revelation after revelation – don’t get me wrong. But let’s say that you do want to take a crack at the production of something that’s relatively straight-ahead for a general audience (i.e.: not a “shred record” or something). Maybe your niece/nephew brings a guitar by and shows you a song he/she wrote or is in the process of writing. Or maybe you have a hook idea or something, and you’re trying to figure out where to go with it.

Where I’m going with this is that writing/production ability is developed with practice just like any other ability. I was lucky enough to pay dues by working the Mac while some gifted producers and writers were behind me making sounds and getting creative. Of course, we didn’t have YouTube to learn from then, but, you know…

So I was on CL Los Angeles this morning, taking a break from looking at the For Sale (gear) pages, and there’s an ad with a SoundCloud for a young artist. I click – why not, right? Here’s the tune:

Syn Le Roi

It pretty much goes A, B, A, B, A, B all the way, with “B” being the chorus, I guess. But I have to say, I really dig the hook idea, and if you’ve been around at all, you know that hooks are where it’s at. There is no bridge or breakdown or anything.

To my ear, there are good things going on, but this does not sound broadcast ready yet, on a few levels. And the artist is looking for collaboration, so we can assume that there is a realistic outlook on where the demo is at. But that hook will be stuck in my head all day – not the worst thing…

For some reason, this track makes me think of this topic on the forum. If you ask me, this is a very produce-able idea and pretty representative of the kinds of demos a pro producer might get. And it is nice to see a song with a contemporary feel that can work in terms of just chords and melody. So let’s do a “thought experiment” and say, hypothetically, you have an interest in making a record with this demo as a starting point. Do you stick with A-B-A-B and say, “well, that worked in the 50’s, why the heck not now?” Or do you start looking for a way to put a middle 8 followed by a chorus breakdown in? Should there be a prechorus, and if so, should it be every time or (maybe) 2nd time only? What about a sax break – sorry, almost forgot what decade we’re in!

Anyway, if you get this demo and a down payment, with the order that “the rest will come when the master is KIIS-ready!” What do YOU do?

By the way, putting yourself in those kinds of shoes may demonstrate why great session players are so highly valued. “Division of labor” is kind of something that gets lost a bit in today’s workflows…with today’s budgets…


We got a reputable opinion on the subject :slight_smile:


Hey folks, super late to the thread but I think it is a great discussion topic.

From my experience, I believe playing through songs is necessary to develop certain skills which are super important, even if covering songs is not your ultimate goal - like in my case, it isn’t. There are many factors besides being able to play through a phrase or solo section, specially if gigging while ‘mixed in the noise’. For instance, being able to properly manage your sound, transitions and, on top of that, add your own touches here and there while staying focus on the tune at hand is not trivial. In my case this is specially true while standing and playing 2-3 hrs gigs. There are many things in addition to technique, such as knowing your gear, adapting to a changing tempo and dynamics, overcoming mistakes - which do happen, going from rhythm to lead (specially in a one guitar band competing with lyrics and keys). All these ultimately translate into how my picking and phrasing.

On the other hand, I also don’t need a full song for adding a lick or technique into my toolbox, therefore learning isolated sections is also another approach for developer OTHER skills. However, once I learn something new, I try to introduce it in a song I already know, to make it functional.

Finally, I do not play classic/hard rock at home. I like to write and fiddle with my own stuff and record etc… heavier melodic metal/rock tunes. However, I do play in a classic rock band and gig almost weekly, sometimes twice a week - I do enjoy it, and the songs take me hrs to memorize but only minutes to learn . The great thing about that is that, for example, by learning, say, "Hotel California/Sweet Child ", you can see excellent examples or functional, great sounding less demanding techniques and phrases. Conversely, in Pull Me Under, you have all the Petrucci craziness which takes a ridiculous amount of focus to follow through for almost 8:30 of song. I try to diversify which songs I will “fully learn” and play all the way, with purpose.


Tommo, I don’t know when you’ve got time to teach or research since you manage to know everything guitar-related on the web;) Glad you posted this. Yeah, he definitely speaks to my issue. Lots of what he says is, of course, right on. In no way do I want to diminish the importance of playing songs (as hopefully I made clear in the OP) or of the many specific benefits that Eller discusses when you do. But…

There’s one thing he said that I have a hard time believing - and which goes to the heart of this thread. Namely, that he got good at various techniques merely by employing them while playing songs (1:57).

I’m not saying he’s lying; I am saying he may not remember exactly what he did. And I don’t think it was just play-throughs like he seems to suggest.

Trap/escape picking is probably a good example. Most folks who post here, it seems quite clear, have spent a fair amount of time doing what’s called ‘deliberate practice’ - focus on the nitty-gritty of technique, outside of a song context, using exercises or maybe etudes. Maybe not everyone everyone, but I’d say certainly most.

And that’s my point. Yes, you need to play music; no arguments. But when it comes to learning a technique (‘why doesn’t my string-hoppy movement allow for fast runs…?’) and to perfecting it (‘I’m just gonna hunker down in front of the tv and do this a zillion times while I watch’) - we’re talking focus. Not songs.

Maybe it’s like they say about Clapton and Allman. They talk about having played musical stuff (a song, a lick) over and over. That’s… chunking. That’s focused technique work. You don’t get those benefits by playing the song once, then on to the next. The fact that an album was spinning while they did it is besides the point.

Again, I’m not questioning Eller’s honesty. But I a big source of frustration for me is that a lot of accomplished guitarists don’t seem to remember exactly what they did to get there. My favorite example: ever looked at suggestions in music books on how to memorize the fretboard? I doubt that anybody did that stuff. But they gotta teach it somehow, so they often come up with a pretty convoluted (and ineffective) program for doing it.

LIke @fgeraci says, there are important aspects of musical development that only come from playing songs. But we’ve got to understand what songs do and don’t do for our technique when trying to strike the balance in a practice schedule.

…I can think of one way, however, that you do achieve technique-focus while just playing a lot of songs. Maybe this is what Eller (others? you?) did. It came to me when he talked about playing your favorite guitarist’s inspirations when that fav’s own music is beyond you…

So in other words, your fav is technical A+, but his inspirations were Bs. So if you play a lot of those B’s - and what’s more, you start with their easier stuff, so maybe it’s really more like C - and you play a lot… hey look, we’re back to the chunking think again! You’re burning in patterns at a doable speed through tons of repetition - same as you would be if you followed Claus Levin’s advice.

I don’t think Eller is saying “never do exercises or focused practice of short phrases.” He’s saying “make sure those aren’t the only things you do.”

The point is that if you ever intend to record full length songs, or especially if you ever intend to perform full length songs live with other musicians, one of the best things to prepare yourself for that is to ensure that you have practiced… playing full length songs.

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I try to split my guitar time in three ways: 1. technique and exercises, 2. writing - improvisation and theory and finally 3. learning songs for the next gig, RARELY just because I like them. If I learn a song just because, it is because is hard, I can’t play it yet or something like that - in a way I know I will get something out of it.

Anything we do is better than doing nothing, just like physical exercise. However, doing the same ALL the time is just another way to pigeon-whole ourselves. It happened/s to me a lot that if I practice the same all the time, my phrases are almost indistinguishable from one song to another.

I find the following exercise really helpful:

Learn a song, understand the progression, find a backing track, try to improvise on a similar progression (say for example a mode or certain scale) and attempt the technique or lick I learnt, even if at a lower speed etc…

An analogy would be go to the gym to get huge, or go to the gym, train, play sports to be athletic and actually functional. Stupid, but it works for me.

I think a lot of people would agree with you… but let’s go to the tape:

“I never even really spent any time practicing any of those core, foundational techniques that we use all the time as guitar players. I just learned songs that used them and played along with the recordings.”

What’s more, here’s Troy:

“If you want to know whether it’s necessary to do highly repetitive exercise-type practice… I can tell you for sure the answer is no. I never did that.”

[in both cases, emphasis mine - but those are direct, accurate quotes]

I wanna be clear that this is not a game of gotcha. I’m not trying to nail or disprove anyone. In fact, I’m fascinated by comments like this because, deep down, I believe them.

The fascination is that it runs so counter to much of what we hear coming from the world of guitar teaching. But hey, you can’t argue with success. That’s why I’m trying to decipher it.

And I’m interested in what you have to say as well. How do you understand these statements? Sounds like you don’t take them literally like I do. Yet I think we can agree that these guys weren’t sitting there with a Mel Bay book and a metronome.

(I’ll throw in one more theory of my own… You could play a lick at a doable speed for months, like Claus Levin says he did. Or you could go a completely different way like Eller and play tons of songs. But wait a minute… Levin was slowly training the whole neuro-muscular apparatus in a way that speed and accuracy began to flow on their own… Eller kept changing the tune - but he was also training the whole neuro-muscular apparatus to slowly speed up and coordinate on its own, without too much deliberate effort. So maybe one used a single lick, the other countless more - but they were essentially doing the same thing, at the physiological level…?)

I’m not trying to play “gotcha” either, but I don’t interpret those quotations the same way you do.

I think Troy and Ben both are rightly speaking out against going too far down a rabbithole of “regimented amuscal technical practice.” But when Eller says “I just learned songs that used them…”, stop and think about how much room there is for interpretation on what actually goes into “learning a song.” I think you’re taking his statement too literally and broadly. How likely is it that when he was learning a song, he always played nonstop from the first bar to the last bar, never stopping to work on tricky bits?

Most old-school guys who talk about learning from vinyl records talk about moving the record slowly with their hand to figure out the tricky fast parts. That in itself is anathema to the idea of playings nonstop from beginning to end every time, and speaks to dissecting and repeating tricky parts. And since transcriptions were often either entirely unavailable or lousy, people had to transcribe from the record in order to learn the songs they wanted to play. It’s highly unlikely that transcription was done without repition of the tricky parts.

Since @Troy is right here on the forum, we can get his own clarification of his quote. But I’ll be shocked if he says he never spent time working on particular difficult phrases, or never practiced a solo without playing the entire song that surrounds it. That is, there’s a lot of room in between one extreme of “I played 2-bar exercises with a metronome for 6 hours a day, never moving onto the next exercise until the last one was perfect” and the other extreme of “all I did was play along to records, and once I dropped the needle to start a song, I never stopped playing until the song was over”.

I think the problems Eller and Troy are warning people against are: 1) spending time on exercises that aren’t useful musical phrases, and 2) excessively and obsessively practicing fragments outside of musical context.

And another important point in favor of including “full length songs” in your practice, is that even if they had zero value for developing technique (though I don’t think that’s true), they have value in other ways, improving patience, listening skills, and consistent time.

Agree 100%. :smiley:

But I’ll close with a few Eller quotes from the video that speak to the point about “balance”:

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I’ve been at a very low point with my playing, to put it mildly. This thread represents a lot of internal dialogue I’ve been having lately. I can only speak from my experiences or lack of!

I believe I’ve developed the necessary rudimentary chops that I thought I needed thanks to CTC. I’m at that point where it’s the “morning after the revolution”, what now, where do I go from here. What does music mean to me at this point, how is it different from a decade or two ago?

Finally learned all the notes on the fretboard recently, it took an app to get it done, “FretQuiz” on Android. Also playing a game to learn to read music notation fluently. These are things I keep working at, something tells me they’re essential tools for a Eureka moment I may have down the road.

I’m learning more songs these days, classic rock, mostly stuff from the 80, my fav era. But there’s another side to this, at some point growing up everything after the Black Metallica album was just fusion jazz rock funk, and a lot of blues as well, country did come in but much later, huge respect for all the Nashville cats, got me to embrace the clean single-coil bridge pickup that a lot of folks struggle with.

Here’s where I’m at right now, my game plan is to start concentrating on improvisation and writing. Hell, I’d love to play baroque like ted green but also not be a fish out of water playing over fusion changes.

I think I need some help, guidance and/or reassurance from more experienced players here. My current approach is to work on modal exercises. For a refreshing change, I’m not playing blindly or by ear entirely, since I know the notes I can try to start targeting the chord tones and understand how they transition over changes with some sort of way to develop voice leading, to play something that sounds more meaningful.

I also like the Beato video on the spread or dropped chords, this is what I need to start working on immediately I think. Part of the basics I severely lack at the moment.

I totally get the learning songs things, but I’ve never worked out enoght of songs nor have I really analysed what going on even with simple songs, neither have I developed the ear to know what changes are on by ear, like a I IV V, or II, VI, I etc. I think these are things that worry my now more than ever. I’m trying to put some strategies together to help me get better at these things. Some ear training is involved but man, so much brainpower needed, this stuff isn’t’ a walk in the park like the mindless motor development stuff.

Ne ways, great thread guys, I wish humans had another 20 years of life span even.

This reminds me of all the stuff I ignored in Guitar For the Practising Musician magazine. All I cared about as a young fella was learning “which buttons to push” to make it sound like the record, but the transcriptions in that magazine typically came with a prose analysis that tried to explain the musical underpinnings of the solos and key licks.

One thing that CTC and other sources have made clear in recent years is the idea that completely freeform improvization is mostly a myth. I think the gap you’re alluding to is that many of us learned a bunch of licks over the years, either explicitly or from copying songs, without being “active listeners” in terms of understanding how those licks relate to the chord tones and their changes. Not that you can necessarily be aware of all the details of how every note of a fast lick fits a musical context at any given time, but you can still work to understand how a fast lick fits over a particular chord, or over a particular change.

You may be further along the “relearning licks in context” journey than I am, but one resource I’ve found promising are books from the popular “Fundamental Changes” series by Joseph Alexander. In particular, his “Blues Guitar Book Three: Beyond Pentatonics” and “Chord Tone Soloing For Jazz Guitar” are approachable yet instructive.

I’m at a very nascent stage of this journey, I really like the Fundamental Changes series, to the point and don’t bog you down with too much info at any given point. I’ve added your recommendations into my want to by list, I might get them sooner than later if I don’t have much success with my own lesson plans, thank you :slight_smile:

I have a frightening selection of books I’ve collected over the years that I need to put to use. And there’s more.

I have to come up with lesson plans for my self, one part would be to pick a tune from Robben Ford or Scott Henderson and try to take them apart while learning the tunes in a more meaningful way. The other would be an all things chords study.

Pretty daunting but it has to be done.


Everyone raves about those Ted Greene books, but I haven’t looked into them yet. Piles get bigger, days stay the same length…

Yeah man, not getting any younger either :slight_smile:

If I had to pick one desert island book it would be the Ted Greene Modern Chord Progressions book, most know the Chord Chemistry book, but that’s only a dictionary. The stories are in the Progressions book and can stand by itself with a life time and more of material.

I think your take makes a lot of sense. My vote’s with that. I guess it’s just a language thing for me; I’m always doubting because these quotes always read like a ‘diptych’…

image It’s a rabbit… No, it’s duck!

I read once about Duane Allman going through an album, stopping on every lick he wanted to learn. There’s the dissecting and repeating, probably.

Another perspective helps, so thanks for that. I’m beginning to see the duck… I think;)

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