Welcome to Songs from the Guitar Studio, Volume 4!
As you might remember from earlier volumes, this series is dedicated to songs featured in my guitar lessons. Instead of picking a technique or concept and finding a song to match it, we’ll sometimes pick a song first and see what we can learn from it.
Listed below are some of the songs my students have worked on through the holiday season. I’ve outlined some of the main elements and takeaway points from each one. Hopefully you’ll see something here that may inspire you.
Let’s check out some tunes!
“Silver Bells” (traditional Christmas)
I developed a basic chord-melody arrangement of this song for my students as a nod to the holiday season. On the plus side, chord-melody (strategically incorporating melody and chords simultaneously in a song) lets you hear both melody and harmony, so the tune sounds “complete”. This also forces the player to think on two levels at the same time, which is good for the brain and fingers. On the negative side, it forces the player to think on two levels at the same time, which can be very challenging!
As opposed to piano, chord-melody is a relatively difficult thing to accomplish on guitar, so it’s important that the arrangement be adaptable to some varying skill levels. For beginners to this style of playing, it should also be in a basic, open chord-friendly key (in this case, G), so that the player isn’t overwhelmed with barre positions.
To that end, we first learned the melody on strings 1 and 2. When that was solid, we figured out the basic chords to the songs. Having the chord structure, we could then work the song a few different ways, depending on the student. At its most basic, you can do just melody and bass notes, to make a two-part structure. From there, you can ramp it up to small chord forms, or even to full chord shapes that require more finger strength and motor control – chord-melody can be molded to the student’s needs and skills. Score!
“This Christmas” (Donnie Hathaway)
My bass student was performing this awesome R&B classic in the school jazz band’s winter concert. The chart was fairly complex, since the arrangement was “jazzed up” a bit from the original song – some odd time signatures and added chromatic phrases. But at its essence, it was still smooth and funky Donnie Hathaway and we got a ton of note reading practice. And my student got an introduction to one of the masters of R&B!
“Pumped Up Kicks” (Foster the People)
This song has been very popular in my studio, and it has quite a bit to offer beginner and intermediate students. First, it has a great bass riff, which is easily converted to guitar. Beginners might play it one consistent way, but intermediates will find that the riff has some cool variations that they can improvise as the song progresses. For my more advanced students, I had them learn the bass riff and chords by ear, which was fairly challenging for some of them.
Foster the People play this song in the key of Eb and start on Fm. At first glance, it seems like it would not be a good fit for young or beginner students, because songs in the key of Eb require lots of barre chords. But a simple capo 1 adjustment puts the song in the more finger-friendly key of D, starting on Em. That’s perfect even for a young student who has limited skills and still wants something “cool” to play. Anyone can strum the basic chords to “Pumped Up Kicks”, even if they don’t play the main riff.
“Somebody Get Me a Doctor”, “Unchained” and “Dance the Night Away” (Van Halen)
These are for the Van Halen fanatics on your student roster! Honestly one can learn a TON from just about any VH song, but my student especially liked these tracks. “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” is chock full of typical Eddie VH goodies: killer main riff, unique and hooky rhythm track, and of course quirky solo section.
“Unchained” and “Dance the Night Away” feature Eddie’s pervasive use of moving triad shapes. Get those three basic shapes down and you’re golden; add the sus chord maneuvers and you could be next in line to tour with Diamond Dave!
The cool part here is that Eddie doesn’t always just use the triads in their entirety. In “Dance the Night Away”, he creates a groovy rhythm part by breaking them into two-note combos (double stops) so they slip and slide around the fretboard. Definitely for the intermediate player (and beyond), and definitely worth learning. Two thumbs way up!
“Crazy On You” (Heart)
This Heart classic is one of the first legit rock songs I ever learned on acoustic guitar as a kid and felt good about, because I knew that if I could strum the intro, I had some strumming chops! That still applies.
In this case, though, my student and I were working on the REAL intro, which is a complex and hardcore fingerstyle section. Definitely for the late intermediate to advanced fingerstyle player, as it contains lots of position shifts, banjo rolls and syncopation, and just generally kicks tail. If you’re looking for a fingerpicking challenge, look no further: this tune delivers!
“I’m Yours” (Jason Mraz)
This uber-popular tune from Jason Mraz is a great example of the “boom shaka-laka-laka”-style strum, which is a standard strum pattern in lots of different musical styles. The original song is in the key of B and has lots of barre chords. However it easily converts to the key of G on capo 4, which changes the chords to much more manageable versions for strumming. It’s also good practice for the guitarist to figure out how to capo the song and reharmonize it for greater convenience. More than all of that, it’s just a fun song to play!
“Presbyterian Guitar” (John Hartford)
One of my students introduced me to this beautiful, intermediate-level fingerstyle piece by late folkie, John Hartford. It’s a relatively simple piece, in that there are only two main sections to the song. But it has a few challenging parts, such as a major position shift up the neck, a few non-beginner chord grips, and a nicely awkward partial barre smack in the middle of the action. Perfect for the acoustic player looking to take it up a notch without killing themselves.
“Hole Hearted” (Extreme)
This is a tune I break out when I’ve got an acoustic student who wants something rockin’! Believe me, this one does the trick.
Nuno Bettencourt is an extremely underrated player (who just happens to have been born on the same day as ME), and on this one, he is smokin’! Although he recorded this track with a 12-string, we play it on 6-string, which is plenty challenging enough. Complete with moving chord shapes (a la Led Zep’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”), bluesy barre moves (a la James Gang’s “Funk 49”) and some wicked hammers and pulls (a la anything by Brad Paisley), this song is NOT for the faint of heart! An awesome challenge for a late intermediate to advanced player.
“Terrapin Station” (Grateful Dead)
I was not familiar with this epic suite of songs when my student suggested it, but I quickly found it to be full of challenging items for guitarists.
In classic Dead fashion, the changing time signatures alone take the difficulty level up a bit. It also has a syncopated intro/signature riff and some strategically placed bass lines interspersed with the chord changes. There are also a number of distinct sections to navigate, which forces the guitarist to mentally organize and anticipate as he/she goes along. All in all, a pretty comprehensive set of skills are needed to bring this one full circle.
The Songs From the Guitar Studio Series
Wanna check out some of the earlier volumes of this series? Need some new inspiration? Follow the links!
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