Getting A New Tune Down


Hey all hope your all doing well. Had a thought today about learning a new tune and want to know others experiences along these lines. I have been for two days now working on the I am a Pilgrim break Ben does in the Tony style. I have found it very challenging to say the least.
After a full day of messing with it I have it all figured out and understand all the parts fine and have it nearly memorized, but am now down to working on individual parts to make them flow and putting it all in proper time. Ben’s video is very good and breaks it all down well.
I notice while listening to Ben he mentions in one particular part that it was the hardest and the one it took him the longest to get right. It got me to thinking about how long? At Ben’s skill level I always picture him learning at a very fast rate and not needing to put in a great deal of time to get a tune down. Myself it takes a tremendous amount of time and it makes me wonder if I am just slow or if anyone else has the same experience trying to learn new material.
I remember about 6mo. ago thinking I would never get Whiskey down and now it seems very easy to play, but I reflect and I must have played it hundreds and hundreds of times to get here.
It seems I need to play and play and play a new tune and then suddenly it falls in place, one days practice can be totally frustrating and the next day Bingo!!
Just looking for others perspective on this and hoping I am not alone. I will say after 3yrs. on here learning is coming more quickly and reading the tab like second nature so improvement is there, but still need to put in many hours before I can play a tune in time and up to full tempo.
My average is 4/6hrs. daily and some days all waking hours or until my hands begin to act up on me. Today after 5 hours I felt a touch of pain so quit and take a break for a few hours. I wonder if Ben Clark,Tony Rice, and Bryan Sutton, Doc Watson and all these guys had to go through the same trials and just pushed on and on or where just born with natural ability that only required polish to bring it out…Just some thoughts on a rainy day here in Oregon. Have a great day all. Jerry :mrgreen:


Jerry, you aren’t alone. Everyone has to put in time to learn stuff, even the stellar players. Some arrive on this planet with more God-given abilities in a particular area, but in my experience even they have to practice to make good use of it.

I haven’t been able to practice Bluegrass as much since picking up a recurring obligation to play in some other styles. What’s encouraging to me is this…when I do play Bluegrass, I am picking stuff up better than before taking up these other endeavors. So my point is… part of it is just time passing. Just keep playing and it gets better. Sometimes it’s hard to see it, but as the months turn to years results become more evident.


I’ve been strictly mandolin since I arrived here last year. But I finally got around to looking at the guitar lessons recently. I chose ‘Whiskey Before Breakfast’ as the first tune. I don’t know why I do this to myself, I started with ‘Jerusalem Ridge’ on the mando. Both must be among the more challenging tunes Ben offers.

Anyhow, while I’ve played guitar for decades, it was all Piedmont/Ragtime fingerpicking. Until I started on the mando I rarely touched a flatpick. I’ve been working on Whiskey for three weeks straight now and it’s still very much a work in progress. I’m having a hard time getting the pick strokes right, and jumping strings. I think I picked ‘Whiskey’ because I do it now on the mando, but the mando version was alot easier to pick up. I have at least 50 hours invested in the guitar version of Whiskey and I might need another 50 before I’m remotely up to speed and not looking at the sheets as I play it. I was initially annoyed and frustrated at how long it’s taking, but I’m over that now.

During my frustrated stage I went searching the forum for more on this tune and found this awesome older thread that if you haven’t seen, is a fun read:


On the other thread that Jim posted, I like Larry’s method from post two. I have grown more towards that approach, but I don’t generally have the patience to commit to learning the progression, then learning a basic version, and only after those items are done, then throwing in the fireworks. It’s very similar to Ben’s “Build a break.” On the songs I have come closest to doing that, I do seem to do better with playing it and retaining it.


I think the biggest step I take in getting a tune down is to go to Youtube, find a video of the song at a pace I want and the “style” I like and play along with it.

For “I am a Pilgrim” I started with this version by the Byrds, nice and slow and who does not like the Byrds? … qtjgbzfFu3

For Whiskey For Breakfast I worked with the slow version of this backing track and then progressed to the faster one: … qtjgbzfFu3

I think when one is learning a new tune they should (once they know the tune enough to play all of it slowly) jump in and give it a go with a band (jam track). Also I’d like to mention one thing that helps me immensely is learning the chord progression. I know a lot of guys that are good players/jammers and they will not even take time to learn the rhythm progression. I think one has to be real comfortable with it. Take for example “Whiskey For Breakfast”, “Arkansas Traveler” and “Gold Rush”…those 3 tunes in themselves are tough tunes to get the rhythm down. I don’t think many people play Gold Rush that often as finding folks that can actually stay up with or know the rhythm is tough…so make sure you first can play the rhythm to the song before jumping into the lead.

Again, my best learning technique is to get the song down on the lead at about maybe 50bpm, then I go to youtube and find a video or a version of that song that I like, then I play the rhythm part to the song about 100 times to set that in stone. Then off I go with getting my break up to speed to the song.

I then keep a youtube “play list” of these songs and after a bit of scale practice each day to get loosened up I go to youtube, click “Play All” and go through all the tunes I like to play.

Oh and it will take me about 20-30 hrs to get a fiddle tune down enough to go find a youtube video and play along. It will take another 100-150 or so plays of the backing track before I get to the point of being comfortable to perform the song.


I have a zoom recorder and after I’ve spent a couple of hours on a new tune I make a guitar backing track for it. Ben’s tracks just go through once which isn’t enough for me, and there isn’t a good way to loop it, so I just go on and on for about 4 minutes on my own track. Half the time I forget where I am because there’s not alot going on with these chord strumming things and I have to start over. Eventually I get it right, and that’s when I start making real progress.

I’ve also taken to using the metronome that’s built in to the zoom. So I can speak BPM’s now. A few on the mando I can do at about 170 now. Probably still a tad slow, but I’m getting there. I’m pushing 200 on 'June Apple. My problem there is that the mode is so easy to improvise on that I keep veering off the melody and doing my own thing. Which is great, but I’m trying to stick to the melody at least part of the time.


:mrgreen: Well, at least I know I’m not the only guy on the bus…well Pilgrim,no pun intended seems I’ve heard that somewhere, I have listened to Clarence play this thing a gazillion times, some of it is so fast and kind of muddled at times, but Ben’s version very , very close. And of course he clears up the parts I couldn’t make out. One of my favorite breaks of all time on acoustic. Took me a couple of full days to get it in time, but slowly, now just practice over and over.
Our Master is very knowledgeable and make grasshoppers play good! :wink: Have a great day all. Jerry


— Begin quote from “Jim_G”

Ben’s tracks just go through once which isn’t enough for me, and there isn’t a good way to loop it

— End quote

Just about any audio software (DAW) would allow you to cut and paste the song into as many loops as you wish (or just play it as a loop if you wanted to work within the DAW). Several are free (Audacity comes to mind). I use Reaper.


I know I am stepping into this conversation late.

My feel on whether everyone suffers endless hours of practice to play a specific tune is this… yes. Even the most talented folks still put their time in.

However, as a teacher, I have noticed that some students have an uncommon ability to learn new material quickly while others struggle with the simplest techniques. There can be all manner of reasons for these differences; one person may have a better memory, or physical coordination, or musical ear, while the rest of us have average (or in my case, less than average coordination and memory) skills in these areas.

So it is true that all good/great players spend serious time on their instrument. I believe, as you grow as a musician, your basic skill level is high enough for you to learn a new tune “possibly” faster than someone with less years on their instrument. I have also found that some amazing musicians have a difficult with some techniques that nearly beginning musicians can handle easily. For example, I was teaching a violinist from the Philly Orchestra to learn to improvise. This woman had no idea how to use her skills in that manner and the concept was completely foreign to her. While even beginners, if you give them a scale pattern, can bang out a simple improvisation with out much difficulty.

So some folks learn by ear, some folks learn by note reading, some folks learn by rote and some folks learn by some combination of the three. It has been extremely important to me (as a musician) to know what I am doing at any given moment. That means that I want to know WHY certain runs and notes sound good together over a given harmony. While some of the greatest bluegrass guitarists have never given a thought to such nonsense. The greats that I have had the pleasure to meet, often learn by ear and rote and never give a thought as to why this certain set of notes sounds better than that certain set of notes… they just know it sounds better and that is what they are looking for.

Unfortunately for me, my memory is not all that good and I cannot remember a good sounding riff much longer than the current practice session. The only way I can repeat such a riff is to know WHY is sounded good and apply that knowledge in the future to similar situations (a very long way to go to play a riff) :blush:

So, as this excessively long post has tried to point out, we all have our burdens in the process to learn music. Some very talented individuals can learn more quickly based on their strengths as a learner (memory, reading, physical coordination, ear for music…etc). Some of us (most of us) struggle with the process of learning. However, as we complete work on a well played tune, the payoff to ourselves is huge. And that is why I took up the guitar; not because it was easy to play, but because it required me to really work hard for everything I learned.

As Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson playing the devil in the Witches of Eastwick) said about playing the violin, “Music…It’s the one thing that keeps me humble.”

But it sure feels good when you get it right occasionally.


Obviously, learning someone else’s arrangement is much more difficult than just making up our own, even if the difficulty level of the melody is similar. Someone else’s strengths and weaknesses don’t equal our own.

I’m always impressed by musicians who play in cover bands, because they’re forced to play some other guitarist’s solos note-for-note, no matter how unnatural it feels to them. The other day, I was watching some ladies on youtube play metallica, and the guitarist had the solos down perfectly. That’s difficult.


— Begin quote from “Julian”

Obviously, learning someone else’s arrangement is much more difficult than just making up our own, even if the difficulty level of the melody is similar. Someone else’s strengths and weaknesses don’t equal our own…

— End quote

Boy, isn’t that true.

I tell my students that stuff that even great guitar players play is not always that difficult for them. Great guitarists rarely pick tunes to play that are exceptionally difficult for them to play or outside their technical ability.

Many years ago, a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis Indiana was writing an article on to great guitarists that were performing the same night in the city. One of the guitarists was Andres Segovia and the other was Wes Montgomery. The reporter asked both players about what they thought about the other guitarist. Each of them had the same response, “He is amazing. I could never play like that.”


— Begin quote from “drguitar”

For example, I was teaching a violinist from the Philly Orchestra to learn to improvise. This woman had no idea how to use her skills in that manner and the concept was completely foreign to her. While even beginners, if you give them a scale pattern, can bang out a simple improvisation with out much difficulty.

— End quote

I ran into a similar situation with a violinist. She could play (within reason) any music I put before her. She had an intellectual knowledge of music theory. But she had no ability to take the knowledge of what notes she would play while looking at a chord chart. I don’t mean this as a criticism, it is simply how she was.

You mentioned how people learned music (ear, rote and by reading)… that got me thinking about the “fundamentals of instruction” I have to take a class on for flight instructor renewal. The class discussed rote and concept learning and how a student has to take that knowledge and transition to analysis, synthesis and evaluation. I think the greats (including Wes and Segovia) had that next level of mastery where they could take what they had learned and apply it (analysis) into something totally their own (synthesis). In my experience, not everyone is wired to easily make that leap, but for others it is as natural as breathing.


I like the Wes and Segovia story for lots of reasons, but especially because they were being honest. Segovia, a trained classical guitarist who was famous for not only his playing, but his ability to transcribe difficult classical pieces in ways that made musical and physical sense. Among other classical guitarists, he was particularly well known for his choice of fingerings and even developed the proper way to finger any scale, up and down the neck (known as Segovia scales). Wes, on the other hand, was a man who could hear anything and know what to do with it. He had none of the music theory training(reading music, understanding chords and harmonies and scales…etc) but his ear told him how to handle any given situation. Wes was a man who enjoyed Charlie Christian solos, so he learned them by ear and went out and played them at clubs. At some point his music friends told him to try playing his own ideas and the Wes we all know was born.

Andre couldn’t possibly understand Wes’ approach to music and performance and Wes was clueless as to Andre’s approach.

However both men, definitely had a natural sense of how to synthesize what they knew (academic or by ear) into music on the fingerboard. Getting the notes from the brain to the hand can be like herding cats. And as you put it Mike, for some it is as easy as breathing.


In response to the original post …

You and I sound pretty similar in out learning abilities. I know for me, it takes a good amount of repetition before it sticks (learn songs right before bed, it sticks better). That is because I am memorizing it note by note, and not seeing it as a logical chord structure up and down the neck. This mainly comes from me not yet having the CAGED system memorized. I know what it is, and how it works, and I know it will help tremendously once I can see it all up and down the neck without forced focus. If you can see these shapes without trying, I would imagine it would help tremendously when flatpicking. You would no longer see just random individual notes being picked, but rather, for example … a quick roll through the 3rd C position, then a roll through the 2nd G position, etc…

The good thing is that memorizing songs from time to time has helped me accidentally learn the CAGED layout =)
I am finally starting to associate the notes being payed with the rhythm chords that accompany them … forcing me to see these different chord shapes up and down the neck.

For now it is mostly all memorization for me. But I am slowly starting to see the curtain be lifted and all the theory that makes it work.


Along the lines of Wes, I had the pleasure of meeting Wes Montgomery in person and sitting about 6ft. in front of him watching him play for two hours straight. I was born and raised in Chicago and there was a club called the Wooden Nickel there on Rush st. that had 2.00 matinees on Sunday afternoons. That Sunday Wes was the headliner and did the matinee. There were no more than 50 people in the place, he had his bass player and piano accompany him. I was blown away for weeks after. This was in 1965 before he was putting out the Yuppie jazz on his last albums playing all octaves and popular songs, he was playing straight ahead Jazz guitar and it was Phenomenal. He came down to our table and talked for a bit. I loved that guy! I also saw George Benson, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, and many others not so well known on the South Side, a place you can no longer go unfortunately.
Wes couldn’t read a lick, but had a understanding of harmony that was genius, and chops to match.
Now I’ve revealed how old I am, :mrgreen: I still play some chord melody now and then and remember all the jazz harmony studies and so on but I gotta tell you all, when I started on the BG thing about 4yrs ago i was amazed how difficult it can be to play in four keys…just playing G for a whole measure instead of multiple inversions 2 to 4 a measure is considerably easier obviously but the single note lines with all the pulloffs, bends, hammer ons, etc. I find a real challenge. Add to that the naturally more difficult, IMO, acoustic guitar and it’s a handful.
When I go back and play the 17" jazz arch top it feels like cheating with the low action and slim neck, but flat pick BG just don’t work on there.
I am memorizing as well all the solos, but after I get it down as written I take it my own direction, and sometimes change some of the fingerings, as I notice a lot of licks etc. use the third where I was taught to use the fourth finger and not move from position for economy of motion so I change some of them. But everyones had different teachers, I was started out on Jazz guitar for many years and my teachers where all strict and required being able to read charts. NO tab at that time. And if they saw your thumb over the top of the neck you got hollered at!
But i am sure enjoying this music now and rarely listen to jazz much anymore, now it’s Bryan Sutton , or Tony , or one of the others out there. But starting out in the manner I did made my vision wider and i appreciate it all. I even took a crack at classical at the Chicago Conservatory with Jack Chiccini but found out rather quickly I just couldn’t cut it. So after a year gave it up.


I want to add one thing to this and that is "with each tune learned you have all the skills of playing that tune , come to another one and I bet you without you knowing it, learning the one tune will help you do it faster and better with each one you learn. As you build your bevy of tunes it helps when you want to learn a new tune having learned those. I hope I am making sense ? LOL or was it it works best if in a snow storm in June with a heard alligators stampeding sorry if I confused any one LOL can we spell “convoluted”


Hey Welder hope you had a great Thanksgiving, your right about the learning skills, I have learned an awful lot of skill from Ben over the past couple of years just by learning his arrangements and now find the new tunes much much easier to learn. Big Sciota is one example, I started to break it down 10/18 and now can play pretty well, I date each one when I start to tell how much time has passed to completion or when I feel I am playing it well. All the pull off, hammer on, slides, double stops etc. that are in all these tunes you start seeing repeated in one form or another over time.
There was one tune in particular Granpa’s Clock I had a heck of a time with, don’t know why but struggled with it, went back after almost a year and now it seems very easy to me. It is the culmination of skills you don’t even realize your picking up along the way.
I think Ben has a subtle way of injecting into his solos these learning tools and is a Very Good teacher for it. I have learned more from him than any other person I have ever worked with. However I must also add I put in a great deal of time and practice every day with fail. If I have a Holiday for instance I get up early like 5am and get in a couple hours before any activities start.
Another thing I have just started noticing of late is I no longer need more that about 5 min. to warm up and I am back into it. Seems for years it took me a good deal of time to get going. Must be because I don’t have long periods without playing.
Anyway I know one thing for sure, this lesson plan if you can call it that works and works well. In the upcoming year I hope to finish all the tunes and continue on with new. The hardest part for me is the first few hours figuring out the fingering and picking out the parts that are difficult, the rest is just practice time. Jerry


— Begin quote from “welder4”

I want to add one thing to this and that is "with each tune learned you have all the skills of playing that tune , come to another one and I bet you without you knowing it, learning the one tune will help you do it faster and better with each one you learn. As you build your bevy of tunes it helps when you want to learn a new tune having learned those. I hope I am making sense ? LOL or was it it works best if in a snow storm in June with a heard alligators stampeding sorry if I confused any one LOL can we spell “convoluted”

— End quote

It does make sense and that is how I have taught guitar for the last 40+ years. Each tune learned offers techniques used in subsequent tunes. After a while, learning a new tune is quite easy as most of the techniques used in the tune are already imbedded in the fingers of the player.

I find that teaching classical guitar is easier in many ways then popular guitar styles as this approach works quite well when learning classical guitar. However, popular guitar styles (and the accompanying techniques) are so varied that it is more difficult to find a step by step approach to the learning process; imagine teaching funk guitar and then bluegrass to the same person… ouch. :open_mouth:


I would like to make a statement : “Music is a life’s work, it never ends until you do.”

Play your hearts out !!!~


You always hit it on the head what I wanna say only you say it better DR… :mrgreen: Jerry