Thursday, May 7, 2009

Who Writes the Songs?

I know a lot of songs.

Rock songs. Blues songs. Jazz tunes.

Hundreds of them.

I'm not talking about just sort of knowing the songs. I know them: I know the arrangements; I know the lyrics; I know the guitar licks and horn lines; I know when to take it to the bridge (if there's a bridge for it to be taken to.)

When you do work as a sideman, you gotta know tunes.

Some cats, when you call out a certain tune, they just say something like, "Yeah, I think I remember that one. What key is is in?" That's usually code for, "No, not really, but I'll give it a whirl because, you know, I've heard the song dozens and hundreds of times, but I've never really sat down and played it."

They might even actually have a copy of the song somewhere.

Then the song, generally, proceeds to get butchered.

Now when I say butchered, I don't mean like a full blown train wreck (although that still happens too, some times.) I mean that it's just not played right. And when you're not playing it right, that means that you're playing it wrong.
Born Under a Bad Sign (Albert King) is one of the most wrongly played blues tunes out there that I can think of. It's also a song that just about everybody "knows". When you call that tune, and someone asks what key, they actually mean it, oddly enough. There certainly won't be anything even close to a train wreck. But when it's (inevitably, usually) played incorrectly, the band is usually (inevitably) unaware.

Because they probably never really listened to Albert King's version of it. They've only heard the version(s) that are played live on stage night after night.

The song works, sure. It might have even been a stellar performance. But when you play a song wrong, it's still wrong.

Which still means not right.

The audience usually is unaware of these type of things, hardcore audiophiles notwithstanding (are there any, anymore? just asking.) Maybe that's how some cats justify not learning how to really play tunes correctly. Even when they've flubbed a song the night before, and they know it will be called again tonight, they generally don't seem to take the time to listen to the song.

Did I mention that musicians have big egos? Especially us pros. We don't like to be told how to play, yours truly included.

However, for those of you out there who are getting their feathers ruffled a little bit as you read this little nugget (guilty as charged, I suppose,) let me just remind you that there's this great new invention called the Internet. A quick search will allow you to listen to just about anything you want to hear right now without ever having to leave the house.

If not for the sake of personal pride, then know this: learning tunes will make your job as a player that much easier. It won't be as much work, so to speak (we're all used to not much work, eh?) You'll be able to have more fun, as a result, which is why we do this in the first place, really.

Is that why we do it?

When you really know the tunes, then you can really play. It frees you up and allows you to make full use of your vocabulary. Ultimately, it makes you a better player all around. You don't have the crutch (see excuse) of not having a copy of the tune.

Listen to it. Learn it.

A large repertoire is a life's work.

So it goes...

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