I remember back when I was in my first live band how awesome it was just to make it through an entire song from beginning to end. We would get a chord chart and the lyrics and just play through the songs. It was fun and it sounded pretty good. As time went on and our ability to listen to the individual parts that make up a song increased, we realized that we were missing a lot of subtle nuances that made the songs we were playing go from good to great. It’s true when people say “The difference is in the details.” That’s what I’d like to talk about today.
When I teach beginning guitar students they all want to play a song as quickly as possible. So I break a song down into it’s most basic components, harmony and melody. On the guitar that means playing the chords while singing the melody. That will get you playing a song as quickly as possible. I’ve heard live bands survive on this method alone where they’ll take a selection of songs, learn the chords and go out and play. It’s not bad but it’s definitely not all you’re hearing when you listen to music on the radio or on recordings that you buy.
Although it is good to be able to play the right chords and sing a song well, if you’re playing in a live band you need to play the details to be on the top level. If you’re covering a recording of someone else’s song and the song that you’re copying has sold millions of copies then there’s probably some good things happening on that recording that you’ll want to be sure and play live. Here’s a basic way to break down the components of a song that you’re going to cover. First of all you want to try and copy the sounds you’re hearing. What type of distortion is the guitar part using? What keyboard sounds are being used? What vocal effects are being employed? You also want to listen to the mix of the original recording. If the recording is extremely drum and bass heavy then you want to have the drums and bass front and center when you play the song live. So the most basic thing you want to do is try and match the tones of the original recording.
The second thing you want to do, and this is what will set you apart if you’re good at it, is copy the details in the playing. That means playing the chords on the guitar in the same chord positions as the original recording. If the guitarist does a little fill or hits some unique harmonics then take the time to learn them. It’s especially important for the drummer to get the fills in the right places. The bass player needs to hit the correct bass notes that compliment the chords. For all you bass players out there, that means that just playing the root and the 5th of the chord may not be the right choice for the song you’re playing. It’s the little details like the three note bass fill at the end of the first chorus, or the pick slide at the beginning of the third verse that make the song come alive. It’s the little details like these that truly do make the song come to life. Every player in the band needs to pay attention and learn the small nuances of the songs to really make the song come to life.
I have students ask me “How come this song is such a huge hit when it only has two chords?” and I tell them it’s because of the way it’s being played. All those little parts add up to a big, ear pleasing sound! The difference between playing a song and playing a song well really is in the details.