5 Songs That Will Improve Your Playing

Published on 22 April 2020

Nothing's going to improve your playing like practising and spending time with your instrument. Don't worry though, that doesn't mean it has to be boring! Learning almost anything is going to help you to explore new techniques and playing styles while encouraging you to think about your axe in different ways. So if you're bored of running through scales and chord progressions, why not learn a new song? Often a quick scan of the tabs to something challenging and unfamiliar can be enough to put you off but if you slow it down, take it step by step and dedicate time to it, you'll get there - trust us. Below, we've put together a handful of tracks that we reckon will get you out of your comfort zone and trying something a little different. Don't worry, that doesn't mean we've found the most difficult songs we could think of (although learning Free Bird will DEFINITELY improve your playing...), just a few that are a little different and will get your hands moving!

Jimi Hendrix - Little Wing

Who better than Hendrix to help you step things up a little bit? Of course, almost all of his songs utilise unorthodox techniques and moves sure to baffle and amaze you but we've opted for one of his more chilled out pieces. Little Wing is a fantastic track to learn not only for how smooth it sounds but for Hendrix's use of his thumb over the top of the fretboard. Initially, this feels pretty awkward and kind of goes against everything you know about playing but bringing in the thumb allows you to reach rhythm notes that would otherwise be impossible. On top of that, there are some lovely little runs and licks in here that are pretty easy to adapt and improvise on once you have the main shapes and chords down. This one will take a bit of practice, so don't worry if you don't sound like Jimi on your first, second, or one hundredth go, once you crack this you'll have a blast playing it and better still, you've just added another digit to your playing! If you've already learned it, why not have a go at Stevie Ray Vaughn's instrumental cover or improvising over the original?

Red Hot Chilli Peppers - Scar Tissue

Next up comes from the great John Frusciante, an unstoppable guitarist in his own right but who was massively influenced by Hendrix's style, also employing his thumb over the top technique on more than a few tracks! Scar Tissue may sound fairly simple but it's a great exercise for basic fingerpicking. So many of us are guilty of over-relying on our picks and this track simply doesn't allow you too! Getting your thumb and middle finger working together on this one really gets you thinking, particularly when you start to introduce Frusciante's runs leading into the chorus and have to think quickly! If you struggle with using your fingers, this is a great way to warm them up and get them moving. On top of that, it features some gorgeous slide playing where you can really practice keeping the notes sustaining as you play. The good thing is the track is fairly straightforward in terms of the actual notes you play, so you can really concentrate on the technique and sound!

Metallica - Master of Puppets

Enough of this laid back stuff, it's time to ROCK! Metallica have a seemingly endless collection of big riffs up their sleeves and while lead guitarist Kirk Hammet may have some deadly moments, it's frontman James Hetfield whose rhythm playing you're going to master (no pun intended...). Often thought of as the best right hand in metal, Hetfield's deadly downstrokes are utterly relentless. What's more, he doesn't ever seem to tire, flawlessly dishing them out night after night on tour and that rockers, is what we're going to work on. The iconic title track of their Master of Puppets album is essentially an exercise in timing and composure, testing fingers and forearms alike. With some huge-sounding riffs and licks that stop, start and drive forward without fail, this tune is perfect for working on your control over a sustained period. Push through that forearm burn and get into your metal zone, these big chugging riffs sound utterly badass and will hammer any audience.

Radiohead - Let Down 

Let Down is both a fantastic song for improving your playing and a total headache at the same time. If you either love playing songs in different time signatures or are baffled by the concept, this is the track for you. Its delicate lead picking sounds fairly straightforward and aside from a couple of stretches, it isn't too hard to play... until the rest of the band comes in... This song is in 4/4, however, it's main guitar part is in 5/4 and requires a seriously keen ear to keep on time. This is as much a lesson in patience as it is in guitar playing but the two go hand in hand. Get to work on the main parts but make sure that when you do so you play along with the song itself to keep yourself right. Playing in different time signatures is an awesome way to keep listeners guessing and mastering Let Down will open your eyes to how even small parts can totally alter the feel and swing of a piece of music. Have a go and don't get frustrated, just relax and you'll get there (promise). 

Led Zeppelin - In My Time of Dying

Thought you could put that slide away after Scar Tissue? No chance! The slide is a criminally underused tool for how truly fantastic it sounds and we reckon it's time you nailed it! This killer 11-minute track from Page is the perfect piece to get that slide in your hand and get you rocking out with it. Adapted from a classic blues track, Led Zep made this their own with unforgettable slide guitar, killer bass grooves thumping drums and shrieking vocals to match. There are a bunch of awesome riffs and guitar parts but the main slide riff in open A tuning is a great one to get you into the swing of things. It also makes a great platform for improvisation once you get it down so it's a great choice for helping you learn the technique. If you don't nail it the first time? don't worry, you've got another 10 and a half minutes or so to put that right! With a deadly solo that you can attempt once you get the rest nailed down, this track sounds incredible and will get you not only using your slide but thinking out of the box in terms of how you use it. Don't let it gather dust in the corner, try this out! Page would be proud...

Final Thoughts

Like we said at the beginning, learning pretty much anything is bound to improve your playing so the most important thing is to keep practising and keep challenging yourself. As good as it feels playing those same old favourites on repeat, pushing yourself to learn something new is when you really notice improvement and we'd encourage all of you to have a go at something more challenging, no matter what level you're at. There's no feeling like conquering a piece you thought was out of reach no matter how long you've been in the game. If none of these tracks take your fancy, or you've mastered them already then have a think about your favourite tracks and what makes the guitar stand out to you, you might just find there's something in there you can bring in to your own playing! Most importantly, don't stress out - progress comes slowly but surely. In the meantime, all you can do is stick with it and have fun rocking out!

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