“How many songs and solos do you need to learn to improve your playing or creativity?”

This was a question I was asked in an email from a student recently. This is a common question and a very good one so I thought I would publish our email conversation for anyone else who might have the same question.

Hey Dean,

How many songs and solos do you think you should know by heart to dramatically improve your playing or creativity?

I read somewhere that Paul McCartney knew at least 50 songs before joining the Beatles.

It’s a concept I have been struggling with, finding balance between creating my own material for my band, learning new songs and becoming a better well rounded musician.

Cheers.

A great question! Thank you for asking it.

There could be two answers to this question. The first is for the type of guitarist who has no interest in writing original music and would rather build up a repertoire of cover songs to play with a jam group, on there own or in a cover band.

For this type of guitarist the answer is simple; as many as you want / need in order to make up a set list.

The second answer is for the guitarist who is much more interested in writing original music and developing their own writing / soloing style. The answer for this kind of guitarist is more complex.

There is no specific number of songs that is guaranteed to help a guitarist develop there own style.

In fact I encourage my students to focus less on “how much” of something they do and more on “the results” they achieve.

For the original musician songs should be viewed as “examples” of how they can use certain musical concepts for there OWN music.

With this being said, there really isn’t any specific number of songs an original musician can learn in order to develop there own style, it could take 20 songs, it could take 120 songs before they feel they have a solid grasp on a personal songwriting style.

The best thing an original musician can do is spend a certain amount of consistent time writing and working on their original music.

Though learning songs that you feel are good examples of the style of music you would like to write is good, spending time actually writing is better.

I once saw an interview with Stephen King where he was asked what one should do to become an accomplished writer, his answer was simple; consistently spend time writing your own stuff and reading other people’s stuff.

The advice for someone wanting to become an accomplished songwriter is very similar; consistently spend time writing your own stuff and learning a certain amount of songs that are good examples of the style of songwriting you would like to accomplish for yourself.

Once you start to build up a repertoire of original songs you will be able to sit back and listen to your own music and hear a certain personal style shining through, from here you can write more songs with that certain musical approach.

It might be as simple as a rhythm pattern you like, certain types of progressions you favour or certain techniques you like the sound of.

Understanding what musical and technical concepts you like the sound of and would like to play yourself is pretty much the most important thing about developing your own sound.

There is nothing wrong with favouring a certain style and having this style present in your own music.

Don’t ever feel pressured to do a certain thing just because someone else is doing it.

People listen to BB King because he sounds like BB King. No one ever walked out of a BB King show and said; “Sure he was great and all, but I would have liked it more if he played a couple of songs in the style of Eddie Van Halen.”

If you want Eddie Van Halen, go and listen to Eddie Van Halen, if you want BB King go and listen to BB King.

Every guitar player’s style plays an important part in a colourful tapestry, it’s all these different styles that make this guitar playing tapestry so colourful. Hopefully one day your style will be added to it.

When it comes to developing your own soloing style learning solos is a beneficial thing, in fact I think it would be very difficult for someone to develop their own soloing style if they have never learnt a certain amount of solos and licks from guitar players they admire.

There are a couple of different ways of learning solos, you can learn an entire solo paying close attention to the notes the guitarist has chosen to use over what chords in the progression, as well as what notes they have chosen to resolve their soloing phrases on over what chords in the progression.

Or you can pick and choose interesting licks within the solo and simply learn them.

Either way works fine so long has you understand what notes you are playing within these licks and what chords they would sound best over or resolve best over in a progression.

Thanks for getting in touch!

Warm regards,

Dean.