Recommended diversions

One thing I've noticed over these years of teaching guitar lessons is the principle that not only do we all start in the same place — suddenly finding yourself in the ownership of an instrument that proves in mere seconds to be much tougher to figure out than you originally anticipated — but that many budding rock stars still want to learn the same little batch of classic riffs, regardless of the year or what's “popular” on the radio or MTV or whatever else is happening within reach of eager eyes and developing ears.

The big two would have to be Deep Purple's “Smoke On The Water” and that lumbering titan of power-chord goodness, Black Sabbath's “Iron Man.” I've seen these two songs played so hilariously wrong that I'm now endowed with a well-stocked mental catalog of all the worst ways to perform these immediately recognizable jems. Some people go for the simplest approach; slap your first finger down on the low “E” string and dig around for the right notes, hunt and peck style like a chicken. Often the highest string seems like a better option, lending these otherwise mammoth riffs a certain “bad Chinese restaurant music” quality that's as endearing as it is nerve wracking.

After a few lessons, the next step is often a little ditty that's sure to get you kicked out of most guitar shops... yes folks, “Stairway To Heaven.” I've heard tell of music store employees in the middle of a particularly bad day vaulting the sales counter and attempting to strangle some hapless picker that was only hoping to woo his girl with that oh-so-sensitive batch of delicately finger-picked chords. One of my favorite variations into “wrongness” is to reharmonize the tune into a major key. The turnaround is hilarious. On a similar note, if you take “Sweet Home Alabama” and switch the first and last chords to minor, you ironically wind up with a Neil Young song. Weird, eh?

“Purple Haze” is a big one, but to this day I still love showing a student Clapton's resplendently heavy main lick from “Sunshine Of Your Love.” It's just fun to play, and it's one of those tunes that really makes you feel like you're “cool” once you get it under your fingers. And hey- it's Clapton for Pete's sake. Did you ever think that after just a month or so of playing you'd be nailing one of the most famous licks “Slowhand” ever created?

My point here is that before I even imagined myself as a guitar player, I recall my older cousin learning these tunes at the start of his bass guitar lessons. This was some twenty years ago. Much later these were the tunes I tackled in my formative months, even though I desperately wanted to be the angry punk kid. I think I once made a desperate attempt to figure out REM's “The One I Love,” only to wind up with something closely resembling the National Geographic theme. Oops. Once I started teaching, these were the songs that 99 percent of my students, children or adults, wanted to learn. So play! Get it wrong, then get it right, and never be ashamed of your roots, guitar players. Sometimes even getting it completely wrong can spur you along into something great. But really, no “Stairway To Heaven.” Please.

— By Chris Cooper

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