Practice makes perfect, right? And learning covers is fun too, isn’t it? You get to have a blast playing along to one of your favourite songs while honing your skills. Mirror pouts and bedroom shouts of “Are you aliiive, Donington?” are entirely optional. While I have never played in a covers band, I still love to play along with Megadeth, Metallica, Ozzy and Testament material as practice to warm up and see if my hands are behaving themselves. I’ve even posted a few to the Kill or Cure Youtube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4IvWJPDJRaaKXaVMUA39CdA_JLnAHjWG
Playing other people’s material can be tricky though – you’re interpreting a part that flowed out of someone else naturally, in a style that they are totally comfortable with. I have a lot of respect for cover bands that can really nail the nuances of someone’s playing down to a tee.
Being in a band with two principal songwriters, I often face the same problems with our own Kill or Cure tracks. The riffs I write flow naturally from brain to hand to strings, but the half that our singer Chris writes take me a lot of practice to get down. For solos I favour triplets, but Chris prefers note groupings in fours. Chris writes riffs emphasising the beat; I tend to write syncopated off-beat hooks.
It’s tough being the only guitarist on our recorded material, and yet only second best thrash rhythm player in the band! However, with a good practice regime, anything is achievable. Here’s my tips for learning other people’s material:
Guitar practice tips for learning songs:
1: With a copy of the music in front of you, play along and get to know the solo and the rough patterns. Improvise the difficult parts. Enjoy playing it before you get bogged down in the detail.
2: Once you can play an overall rough version, use a program like Guitar Pro to isolate one section of the notation and play it on repeat. The built-in speed trainer is a great help – start slow, get the part right at that speed, then build up gradually. Apply this technique to the different sections you are tackling in turn. If it’s a particularly alien section to you, don’t be afraid to go down way beyond half speed. It’s important to get it right before you speed it up. If you learn it wrong, your muscle memory may keep you playing it wrong at the higher tempos.
3. If you hit a brick wall and cannot move beyond a certain speed, analyse your technique – could you play it better on different strings; or change your picking pattern of up and downstrokes? Can you minimise the movement of your picking hand? Are you applying too much pressure or tensing up? Don’t concentrate all your efforts on your fingering hand – pay attention to what your rhythm hand is doing too – actually watch it and see its movements as you play the phrase. This will often highlight the cause of any mistakes.
And the most important practice tip of all…
4. Use your brain! Too often we concentrate on the hands. Yet often it’s your CPU that’s the problem. If I’m repeatedly struggling with a line, it’s often because my brain isn’t keeping up with my fingers. Think ahead – e.g. as you’re playing in 5th position, be aware that in 2 bars time you will be shifting to 7th position. If you don’t consciously think about that change until the last moment, your hands will falter and you will fluff the line. Learn the solo in your mind as well as in your hands.
Lastly, I find that if I have hit a limit on what I can achieve in a day on one piece, a good night’s sleep will give my brain time to digest what it has learnt and things will seem a lot easier the following day.