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Playing songs you don't know how to play...live


Ross Brown

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What are some tricks you use to play songs that you dont know when playing at a gig? I started thinking about this on Friday night. We were playing fairly large bar with a big dance floor. A couple of fairly intoxicated, but insistent patrons where sure they needed to hear Brown Eyed Girl. No real biggy. We have never played it as a band and the singer was pretty sure he didnt know all of the words. Latter in the evening apparently the words came to him and he wanted to try it. Guitarist and I agreed on chord changes and off we went. Sounded pretty good and the dance floor filled up nicely.

 

This was fun, but not much of a challenge. I have read some members of this forum talk about playing songs live that they never have heard before (or never played before). This would be fine for many songs and a lot of blues tunes, but some songs I would never be able to do it. [Think Hotel California (lots of chord changes).]

 

Are there tricks for survival when you dont know a song that suddenly starts? Might be useful information for auditions too. Just curious.

 

"When I take a stroll down Jackass Lane it is usually to see someone that is already there" Mrs. Brown
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Listening is key for this to me.

That along with the theory knowledge that can get you through a song, especially if you haven't heard it enough.

Brown Eyed Girl is probably on every musak system in the world. I think that Hotel California would be easy enough also.

Playing a song you NEVER had heard, tougher. Knowing chord progression cycles, be able to tell major from minor shifts and all of you intervals are the BIG test.

And hey, as if you don't have enough to think about during the gig lets throw a song in there you haven't rehearsed or heard for that matter. 1, 2, 3, go!

My g**t*rist does it all the time.. "Let do that song we thought about doing 6 months ago that we hummed the melody,..1-2-3 Lalalal alal lalalala... just lovely.

Brocko

Don't have a job you don't enjoy. If you're happy in what you're doing, you'll like yourself, you'll have inner peace. ~ Johnny Carson
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One of the guys in my band is one of those individuals you LOVE to hate: he has an incredible ear and memory and so can play most songs if he has just heard it a couple of times and, if that wasn't enough reason to string him up, he can play every instrument in the band at least moderately well. So, when someone in the audience wants a song, being the accommodating kind of sweetheart he is, he readily agrees to give it a shot--totally forgetting that the rest of the band is made up mere musical mortals. :)

 

As other have said, surviving this situation comes down to two things: listening and knowing your intervals. I spend at least some time each day doing ear training drills at www.good-ear.com and playing along with an Internet radio station to keep these skills sharp.

The groove is in the spaces.

 

 

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If I've heard it a couple times I can usually stumble through but if I have never heard it? I won't even try.

 

People tend to remember what you butchered alot more than what you played well.

"He is to music what Stevie Wonder is to photography." getz76

 

I have nothing nice to say so . . .

 

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Being the new guy in an established band, every now and then they call out a song I have never played. I just ask the key and roll with it. Usually after the song they'll comment that it sounded great, at that point I tell them I've never played it. How's about we practice it some time!

Bass, the final frontier...

 

http://www.myspace.com/johnnyandtheboomers

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JB, love the signature. :)

 

My trial by fire came just a few months after taking the stage for the first time; my blues band was hired to host a monthly jam at a local club. While I've been a blues fan for many, many moons, all my listening experience was songs from about mid-70s and earlier. So you can imagine my shock when every single guitar player wanted to do a SRV song. Other than the stuff I had heard on the radio back in the 80s--rock radio, BTW, I had never listened to the guy. Of course, most of the material is based on standard blues forms, but there were a LOT of gotchas in those early jams.

 

But, I must admit, I did sort of enjoy the shock on their faces when I said I didn't know the songs. :)

The groove is in the spaces.

 

 

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I've posted this before, but it applies here also.

Even when you're totally lost, don't stop playing. Just mute the strings and do an atonal "thump thump" thing until someone on the bandstand notices and shouts out a chord or a number.

 

Hah! Baffle them with the B.S. Show must go on. All that stuff.

Things are just the way they are, and they're only going to get worse.

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I think a lot of singers and g+++++r players are slightly ahead of the beat. I am a laid back type and usally I'm slightly behind the beat, this gives me time to hear the chord changes and I can cover them pretty well. I was blessed with the ability to remember almost every note of songs I hear for the first time, if I like the song. If I don't like the song, I don't rememer it at all.

Rocky

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb, voting on what to eat for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb, contesting the vote."

Benjamin Franklin

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Once I was playing at an open stage jam and my band was done. The next group came up and started setting up as I was getting out of the way and the drummer asked me to sit in and I agreed.

 

They played some Greenday song with a lot of chord changes that I couldn't follow.

 

In the past I usually watch the guitarist left hand for the changes as I play guitar too (I'm not a guitarist...I'm a bass player dammit!). If there's no guitar but a piano then I watch the pinky of the piano players left hand and play that note.

 

Anyway back to the open stage greenday debacle...what I did was play the root of the first chord and just stayed on that note through the whole verse as the guitarist went through a myriad of barre chords. I figured that the root of the first chord is probably the tonic and it's a rock song I just stayed on that and the drummer told me after that it worked (he was kind of well known in the area and that's why I agreed in the first place) but that's what I do.

Rob Robitaille

 

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mmmm... think I´m gonna try the "thump thump" BS technique tonight. ;) One thing that surely helps is to practice by playing along the radio, so whatever song they put in you have to play along to. It strengthens a lot your sense of tonality. Also helps an awful lot to know well your intervals and harmony basics, so you ain´t got stuck into playing just root notes for the entire song. If the song is not too complicated, mostly II-V-I´s progressions would serve as well...

 

Couple things that happened to me... As a guitar player, at a friend´s party, we were mostly jamming along, mostly simple tunes, a come-along jam without any rehearsal. Then it came a guy and said "Oh.. you do play nice.. how about playing something by Dream Theater"??? :D

 

Some time ago, I was playing keyboards in a small dance band in a bar, and the bass player used to sit by my left side, so he could at least see my left hand. At one point of a certain song I don´t remember now, the guy got lost, and made the LONGEST glissando on the 4th string, wayyyy up and down the neck, about 4 times, until he found the next "right" note. Right away I asked him What was THAT?, he nodded and winked at me and said "Oh, that´s The Whiplash!". I didn´t asked any further. :P

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One thing that surely helps is to practice by playing along the radio, so whatever song they put in you have to play along to. It strengthens a lot your sense of tonality. Also helps an awful lot to know well your intervals and harmony basics, so you ain´t got stuck into playing just root notes for the entire song.
Besides good ear training you just may learn that song that you didn't know that someone requests that night. :freak:

 

I also "cheat" like Rob mentions. Learning to read a guitar fretboard or a piano keyboard can be helpful if your ear isn't working for you. You have to watch out for non-standard tuning, though.

 

In high school I sat in with a band I'd never seen before for a set and played a bunch of '50s and Elvis tunes I'd never played (nor heard in most cases) before. I did it by watching the guitar player like a hawk! (They were also very accommodating and cued me for things like breaks.)

 

Obviously it's easier if you can follow someone else's lead, like the guitar player I mentioned above. In other cases I've done the leading, sometimes dumbing down the bass line to roots only so it's easier for the guitarist to read my fretboard.

 

Being able to anticipate chord changes helps, too. If a piece was written on piano expect a lot of circle of 4ths/5ths. (For example, G C F Bb etc.)

 

Obviously developing absolute ("perfect") pitch helps immensely in both learning songs and following on ones you don't know. Easier said than done, though.

 

It is a little easier for support players to fudge their way through a song. Since drummers and bassists rarely have the lead melody or a naked signature part, they have it easier in general. Just slap a genre-fitting line to a song and have a go at it. (Again note SmittyG's tale of the trials of playing SRV songs.)

 

Karaoke should be a clear indication that you shouldn't attempt to sing a song you don't know, even if the lyrics are right there in front of you. :eek:

 

Even the guitarist is going to draw a lot of funny looks when he or she doesn't nail a signature lick. (Improv'ing a solo is generally ok, but you'd be surprised at how many "non-musician" people know the solos to their favorite songs note-for-note.)

 

As mattulator points out you at least have a fighting chance of pulling off an unrehearsed song if everyone has at least heard the song before. That's because you can follow your "music memory". What you'll lack (at least initially) is the "muscle memory" to pull off a solid performance.

 

And if you think "Hotel California" would be hard to pull off without ever having played it before, try some Return to Forever ("Spain") or some of the prog rock stuff, like Dream Theater or Rush or Yes or ...

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Lynne Davis has something called Harmony Hill which she uses to redict what the next chord change will be. She has become rather an expert at playing songs live she has never heard before and often gets the call for last minute deps in LA.

 

http://www.lynnedavis.com/

 

A lot of songs have a regular kind of structure to them Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus Guitar solo etc. and a lot of jazz tunes are AABA. Let your ear hear the structure and the general tonality and then fill in the rest.

 

With many rock songs you can guess when the tune is going to the IV chord or the V chord. There's a difference for me between playing tunes I have heard before but never played (1st time I played Come Together was on stage - and it worked), and playing songs that are completely new to me - hey, I've done that often. Just use your ears and adapt.

 

Ed Friedland's Working Bassists Toolkit has some good tips but basically the best thing is to jam along to the TV, radio or random CDs to put yourself in the position of being able to fake it.

 

Brown Eyed Girl is a tough one to fake as it's one of very, very few tunes that the audience will know the bassline.

 

 

 

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And if you think "Hotel California" would be hard to pull off without ever having played it before, try some Return to Forever ("Spain") or some of the prog rock stuff, like Dream Theater or Rush or Yes or ...

 

Or something with a time signature like Ric's signature:

12/21, 1/4, 1/5, 1/19, 2/16, 4/5 & 4/12
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12/21? Piece of cake.

 

I've gotten moderately good at faking my way through songs in the past few years. The method that works best for me is to watch the guitarist's fretting hand.

 

One of my bands used to be a five piece (we are down to three), and I had the keyboard player trained to shout "I IV V" or whatever at the appropriate times. Keyboard players are easily trained. ;)

My whole trick is to keep the tune well out in front. If I play Tchaikovsky, I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggle. ~Liberace
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