Get better at guitar by learning cover songs

Today's lesson could entirely change the way you learn guitar, make it a hell of a lot more fun, and is good for any level of guitar player.

When I first started playing guitar, one of my favorite bands to listen to was Metallica. I wanted to know exactly what James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett were doing. I bought all of the Metallica tablature books, and as their new albums came out, I'd try to learn them by ear before the tab book was even published.

This forced me to learn techniques, playing styles, songwriting and a lot more, just by playing some of my favorite songs each day. I was giving myself a fun guitar education, and it didn't even feel like practice. It also led to a guitar habit I still use to this very day - learn the hard stuff first.

Other players at the time were still struggling to get better, and even though it was challenging at times, I'd make sure to put some really good practice time in, and my playing grew by leaps and bounds. So how can you take what I learned and apply it to your own practicing? Let's take a look.

What techniques or chords do you want to learn?

If you hear a technique, a progression, or a new chord that you really enjoy in a song, work on that a little each day for the week. This will make practicing much better, because it turns your practice sessions into playing music, rather than feeling like a robot running through scales or exercises.

I still think learning these things are important, it's just how you learn them that can set your progress apart. If you want to try and learn how to tap like Eddie Van Halen, make it your mission that week (or month even) to work on a song like "Eruption". Whenever you learn a new concept or technique, try and practice that concept in a musical situation.

Pick a new song every week

Pick a new song each week, depending on how much time you have to practice. If you want to learn pickslanting, pick one Yngwie song you want to learn. Want to focus on legato? Pick one Steve Vai track that you love. Looking to learn jazz changes? Change it up and work on a John Coltrane tune (you can learn a lot from instruments other than guitar).

Many players wouldn't try these songs at all, and be intimidated before even picking up their guitar. I'm here to tell you from experience that you can play any song if you learn it slow.

The other big key to learning difficult songs is by using chunking. Rather than be nervous to learn a huge solo or set of riffs that seem unplayable, break long lines into smaller groups of notes. This way you can focus on a bar or two at a time, and then string them all together.

Practice slow, and gradually build up speed. It's more important to learn a song slow and accurately, than up to speed and messy.

By tab or by ear?

Growing up I didn't always have the great resources that guitar players have today. Nowadays there are tons of sites that offer pretty accurate tabs, which leads to the question - should you learn a song by tab or by ear?

I think it's important to do both at some point. The faster you learn a song through tab is the faster you can move on to learning another song or technique.

Learning a song by ear is also very important though. Learning by ear will help you when you're jamming, playing out live, and when you're trying to get the notes you hear in your head out onto the fretboard.

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Increasing your guitar vocabulary

In the Six String Sunday newsletter I've talked about building a lick library. This library can be riffs you write, or riffs that catch your ear from a song you've heard. It's a good idea to steal a lot from a variety of your favorite players, and then make those riffs your own.

 The boat turned restaurant / Binghamton - Photo:  Fabio Amato

The boat turned restaurant / Binghamton - Photo: Fabio Amato

I'll never forget a guitar teacher I had when I was growing up. We would go to this boat turned restaurant that hosted blues jams once a week. Guitar players would sit in on different blues standards, and some of them were very talented. I remember my guitar teacher going up to sit in, knowing full well that he also had a large jazz and classical education.

Midway through the song he broke out a jazz line in the midst of a simple 12 bar blues, and everyone started to cheer. It's times like that, that I'll never forget how important it is to differentiate yourself a bit by picking and choosing from all over the musical spectrum.

What're your favorite cover songs?

Learning cover songs as your education can make you a better guitar player. What are some of your favorite cover songs that you've learned, that've taken your playing to a higher level? Let me know by reaching out on Twitter or Facebook.