Alternate Title: The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Your Favorite Guitarists to Gain Their Powers
All you need to get started is an ordinary spiral bound notebook.
This post will give you a quick-and-dirty process for learning from the music you love the most – and using what you learn to find your own unique voice as a musician.
This involves four simple steps:
1. Find a musical passage that captures your interest
2. Learn the passage
3. Learn about the passage
4. Use the passage’s pieces to write music of your own
Ready? Here we go.
Step 1: Find a Passage of Music That Captures Your Interest
As you listen to music, take note of any musical passage that you feel drawn to – anything that emotionally impacts you or otherwise captures your attention.
Jot down the name of the track, the artist, and a sentence or two on why it caught your ear.
You might also want to timestamp exactly what part of the recording you admire. Capture it in minutes:seconds format.
Here’s an example from my own listening: “Misirlou” by Dick Dale.
I fell in love with the haunting, mysterious-sounding melody of “Misirlou” the moment I first heard it. I’d love to write music of my own that had that same ominously beautiful quality.
Step 2: Learn the Passage
Once you’ve jotted a line or two about what you found, learn how to play the passage of music, either sounding it out by ear (preferred – see “Ear Training on the Guitar” and “Rhythmic Ear Training with Steve Vai’s ‘Velorum’” for more) or tracking down a transcription (if you have to).
Step 3: Learn About the Passage
Once you’ve learned how to play the passage note for note, you can start puzzling out what makes it tick. Often this involves transcribing the passage note for note so you can clearly see the melody’s contour, the rhythms in play, etc.
This is where music theory becomes music application – theory helps you make sense of what you’re hearing and understand how that music was created. It helps you gradually bridge the gap between the music you love and the music you make.
By feeling out the melody to “Misirlou” on my guitar, I was able to take all the notes from that melody and construct a scale out of them:
E F G# A B C D#
I’ve learned over time that the emotional tone of a passage owes a lot to whatever scale it draws its notes from, so that’s a handy little tool of analysis I use almost every day. I’m constantly asking myself: “What scale or arpeggio does this melody draw its notes from?”
Even a little research can be surprisingly helpful here. Even a cursory internet search revealed that the scale I derived from “Misirlou” is very common in Klezmer and Flamenco. Interesting – I love all those styles. Now I know why…
Step 4: Use What You Learned to Write Music of Your Own
It’s only natural that the things you like in the music of others are things you’d like to know how to do yourself.
Imitation gets a bad rap – we often criticize music for being imitative – but the fact is, imitation is a vital part of even the most radically unique music.
Human beings learn by observing others. It’s how you and I learned language, and it’s how we learned many other essential life skills, including shoe-tying and tooth-brushing and barre chords.
So it’s not really a question of whether your music is imitative. Instead, it’s a question of who you imitate, how authentically you imitate, and how you combine & transform your musical influences to find your own way in the world.
This process isn’t about stealing a passage of music verbatim – it’s about borrowing elements from that music to create something new.
In my case, I ended up using the scale I built from “Misirlou” to improvise over drum loops: rock patterns, funk patterns, Latin rhythms. I played fast tempos and slow tempos. I played in 4/4 time, 3/4 time, even gave 5/4 a try. I played the scale forward and backward in different rhythms and different melodic patterns. And in the process, I stumbled across some very cool ideas that sound completely different from “Misirlou” – but share the dark mysterious quality of “Misirlou” that I admire so much.
In the example given, all I did was analyze the notes in the melody and use them as a palette for my own creations. Please feel free to go deeper into analysis of your own musical loves, using any and all music theory knowledge you’ve accumulated.
Don’t be afraid to research your music selections more deeply, either. I’ve learned a lot by leafing through textbooks about jazz, classical music, and other genres.
Much of our training as guitarists involves trying to bridge the gap between what we can hear and what we can play. This method offers a solid starting framework for building that bridge one stone at a time.
The process may seem simple, but over time the insights gained really begin to add up. Intelligent imitation of what you love might be the best way to search for your own voice on the guitar.
And, if you’re a vegetarian, it’s a much more humane alternative to eating your favorite guitarists to gain their powers.
Have fun, and good luck.