When I first started playing guitar, I’ll admit that it was solely to learn the cool parts of songs that I felt were the “best” guitar part at the time. I was 14 and had all the time in the world to play, so it was nothing to practice for 4-6 hours a day until my fingers bled or exhaustion set in. Ever since I’ve started though, I’ve always felt the absolute NEED to play a riff or solo exactly how it was recorded. It was an urge or obsession at my core level that I would be completely dissatisfied with myself if I couldn’t reproduce the exact tone and nuances on the tracks. I would get mad at myself and just keep hacking away at it, one note at a time until I could get it at slower speed and progressively sped up from there.
As time went on, I found myself becoming a riff-based player, very dedicated to playing those parts perfectly, but not working on my personal musicianship and my ability to play things other than just intros or cool riffs from my favorite bands. This became blatantly obvious when I was 16 and went to watch one of our local bands here in town practice. These were all college-aged guys and I remember at the time seeing them practice how much their attention to detail came into play. I was heavily into punk rock (which I thought was easy) and they were a rockabilly band with punk rock and ska influences, so I was in teenage guitar player heaven. Their singer and lead guitarist was known in our high school for being legendary because he could play Eruption note for note.
I proceeded to watch them start one of their original songs, play for 10 seconds then stop and the singer said “Again. it wasn’t timed right. We have to be tighter.” This proceeded on for an hour of them practicing just that part to be sure it was absolutely perfect, and I could identify with that based on my own experiences. Then after they were done, they let me grab one of the other guy’s guitars to play around with. (I’ll never forget the rig: Marshall JCM 2000 with the orange crunch tolex, and a black American strat that had been beat to living crap from playing out so much. No pedals, just guitar and amp.)
The minute they handed me that guitar and told me to just jam along with them, I froze and had no earthly idea what the heck to do. If it wasn’t an Incubus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine or Green Day riff, it wasn’t coming out of my hands. I froze up and had no idea what to do, and just apologized and tried to stumble through the few riffs I could muster up as my nerves got the best of me. I was lucky because the guys remembered what it was like to be 16 and just really starting out, so they taught me a the basics of I-IV-V and my mind was blown. I had heard blues players use that, but didn’t realize it was that “easy” (little did I know at the time how many songs are based around I-iV-V). I stumbled trying to get my pinky to cooperate as I played a 12-bar blues rhythm in G for an hour, all while listening to the other older guys taking turns playing solos. It was one of the biggest learning experiences in my life. There was no script, there was no restarting or do-overs, it was just rolling with what came along and having a blast.
I’ve been friends with those guys ever since, and I’ve learned a lot about guitar and musicianship from them over the years. Yes, they were dedicated to nailing the parts of the song that they were after at the time, but when it came down to it they enjoyed it, and after enough practice it became tighter and they worked the kinks out and it was like they were born to play those parts that tight. There were many occasions where they would play a cover and would just wing it on a solo, not following the one from the song at all, and really making it their own, and I loved it. It didn’t have to be exactly like the song, and very few in the crowd really cared if it was spot on (more often than not they enjoyed the showmanship of an added epic guitar solo).
After that day it dawned on me that no matter how perfectly you learn a song (which truly is satisfying), it serves yourself as a musician to get out there and learn the various scales and chord changes and absorb every bit of knowledge you can from more experienced guitarists to improve your improvisational skills. Learning those skills COUPLED with learning the riffs and solos helps to shape and mold you as a player, and subsequently finding your own “voice” on guitar. If you think about it, most of the greatest bands in history have never played the song note for note from the recording, and it’s that unique improvisation and adaptation at the moment that creates some of the most iconic live performances to date.