By Jason Wilford

When it comes to learning the guitar, I find there are two types of guitarists (and many in between): those who likes to learn something exactly how it was played on a recording or written down, and those who like to focus on doing their own version (in other words, doing your own thing). There’s not a right or wrong way to do this, but there are valid points to both sides of this debate — should you play something note for note, or make your own version of it? I want you to be able to decide for yourself what will work best for you, so here are some benefits for both sides.

Arguments In Favour Of Doing Your Own Thing

  • You will spend less time focused on just one practice item, meaning that you can progress more quickly through different material (this is especially good when you’re just starting to learn songs)
  • You won’t get stumped if you encounter a part in a song that’s too hard for you right now -- you simply find a way to make your way through this part (like changing the strumming pattern, making the chord easier, playing the note in a different area on the fretboard etc). 
  • This can be a good practice for learning someone else’s improvised solos - sometimes there is so much to learn and memorize that it doesn’t need to be perfected for you to get the benefit of learning the solo. 
  • When learning a song with strumming, it can make it much easier to play if you don’t focus on making it exactly like the recording. 
  • This approach makes it easier to memorize a number of songs in a short period of time -- for a gig, etc. 
  • This works out well when you’re covering a song in a band -- if all members play their own approximation of the song, you end up with a unique version of the song.
Arguments In Favour Of Playing Something Note For Note
  • ***If you’re learning classical music, this is important and should probably be your sole focus since that is how much of this repertoire is taught.*** 
  • It helps you build your memorization skills and forces you to do specific motions, regardless of whether or not they are easy for you 
  • When playing single note melodies or riffs that need to be concise, it can be important to make it sound exactly like the original. 
  • It helps you think a little more about perfection and how to get there. 
  • When practicing things like scales, arpeggios etc it’s important to play the correct notes cleanly to get the full benefit, otherwise you’re memorizing something that may not be correct. 
  • When studying music, it’s important to follow the music exactly as it is written to really understand what’s happening.
I could add much more to this lists above, but another big deciding factor here can also be which way best allows you to get better at your instrument. In the earlier stages of playing guitar, the most important thing to help you push your guitar playing forward is that you practice things repetitively and work on a variety of skills. Which skills those are and how much you repeat them is completely individual to you as a guitar player, but in the end we’re all trying to do the same thing: slowly but surely improve our guitar skills and gain a better understanding what the music we’re playing is all about. As you progress and become more comfortable and proficient on your instrument, it becomes more important to investigate all of the small nuances that comes with different styles and pieces of music.

If you’re someone who is a perfectionist, sometimes it’s good to force yourself to work on a variety of things so that you can balance out your skill set. This might mean not playing everything perfectly like it’s played on a recording, and that’s okay! Not everything needs to be perfected in order to get the benefit of learning it — for example, mastering every single strumming pattern exactly as it was played on a recording can be a futile endeavour for a number of reasons. For starters, most likely the guitar player was altering their playing in reaction to the drummer and bassist, and you’ll probably see that it’s a little bit different every time they play it live. The important goal is to be able to play in time and make it through the entire song, whether or not your strumming pattern matches up perfectly is not as important as you may think. Same thing goes for a guitar solo — it doesn’t need to be perfectly matched to the recording to sound like it. Learning a solo to your own strengths is much more beneficial than just simply copying every little nuance note for note if it means you’ll have to spend months getting those nuances down. And in this case, it also comes down to what’s important to you; if it means a lot to you to learn every little part of a song or solo, then go for it! But it doesn’t mean that going that extra mile is going to improve your guitar playing as a whole — it just means you had the patience and desire to go the extra mile for that piece of music. If your practice time is limited I would focus more on this approach. 

On the other hand, sometimes it can be important to really get every note of a piece of music down and make it sound like the song. If you’re playing a classical piece, there are a lot of nuances that are meant to be there, and it’s good practice to go through and make sure to really make the piece of music come alive. Keep in mind, though, that even in this case every guitarist will play it slightly differently due the fact that every guitar player has subtle differences in how they approach the instrument. If you’re learning a scale or arpeggio, it’s important to really nail down the notes perfectly so that you build the muscle memory to play them correctly over and over. Same goes go a lot of exercises or etudes — they are built with a specific purpose in mind, so following the instructions on those pieces is very helpful to you. Also, if you really consider yourself a student of music and spend a lot of time playing and practicing, it can be good for your musical understanding to really examine what people were doing in the past.

Learning to play an instrument requires a bit of both of these skills (playing things note for note, and putting your own spin on something). You can almost look at it like the “left brain / right brain” divide where the “left brain” focus is to play a song exactly how it was written, and the “right brain” focus is to express creativity and put your own spin on a piece of music. I believe that to be a well rounded guitarist you need to be capable of doing both, so keep this in mind as you’re practicing your instrument. If you tend to focus on one way of learning, it can be fun to take a walk on the wild side and try out the other — who knows, you may even discover something you didn’t know you were good at!

About the Author:

Jason Wilford is the owner of Pro Guitar Studio and offers Mississauga Guitar Lessons .