Unless you are reading actual notes on a staff (which I enjoy about as much as doing long division), chord charts do not make a song.
In the excellent documentary
film The Wrecking Crew
[read more about it in Hot Links, April 2011], session
legend Tommy Tedesco says,
“Producers presented musicians
with a road map, just
chord symbols ... but that's not
music." And he was absolutely
right: Unless you are reading
actual notes on a staff (which I
enjoy about as much as doing
long division), chord charts do
not make a song.
Do you remember the first time you read a chord chart for a rock song? When I was 13, I wasted $4 on the sheet music for Aerosmith's “Walk This Way." I thought I was buying the key to the mystery of that awesome intro riff and the funky verse vamp. What I got were the lyrics, a notation on the staff showing the vocal melody line, and this:
Playing both alone and
with the record, I flailed away
manically for an entire afternoon,
never even remotely sounding
like Joe Perry. Like most of you,
I eventually sussed-out what he
was doing, surmising it was a bit
more complicated than a cowboy
strum-a-strum-a-strum on an
open C. Chord charts give the
reader alarmingly little information:
a time signature, a key, and
some chords laid out in measures.
In most cases, the chart is a
simplification of the actual part,
and there's always a good chance
that the chords on the paper do
not match the recording.
Most chart-reading situations
fall into two categories:
(1) Cold reading for a live
(2) Reading for a session.
If you are reading cold at
a live gig sans rehearsal, your
best bet is to listen to the bass,
drums, and vocalist, and find
a simple part that works with
them. It may not be a face-melting
performance, but you
will be a quiet hero for avoiding
any train wrecks. Shine on the
solos, but comp that rhythm
If you are reading a chart in
a recording session, ultimately,
you're doing more creating than
reading (unless it's a note-for-note
karaoke track). That's what
makes great studio players—their ability to start with a rough
road map and get to a destination
that does not yet exist.
Here are a few tips that have
helped me on chart-reading
gigs. Regrettably, I learned these
lessons the hard way by making
many embarrassing mistakes
(and missed takes).
1. If you don't understand
something, ask. Not sure how
to voice Eb13b9? Off the top
of my head, neither do I. Such
chords are like esoteric vocabulary
words we studied long ago
and seldom use, so they fade in
our memory. Start by counting
out the scale like a fourth
grader—find your notes and
see how they sound in context.
Find a voicing that sounds right
but that also uses a practical
fingering so you can smoothly
change to the next chord. If it
rubs the track, ask the piano
player to spell out the notes of
Is what you're playing conflicting
with one of the other
voices? Try substituting a plain
old Eb7 and ask if that works
better. In short, always discuss
any questionable parts before
you lay them down. It's better
to find problems before you
record, rather than when the
engineer pushes the solo button
on your track during playback.
Also, charts often have mistakes—
you can't always trust
the paper. If you are playing
what is written and it sounds
bad, it may be a chart error.
Probably the biggest mistake
novice players make on reading
gigs is that they bluff their way
through. Afraid of revealing
their ignorance, they refrain
from asking questions.
2. Play the first pass
conservatively. Begin with a
simple part—just try to hit the
right chords at the right time
and focus on a groove. If you
listen to the radio, you'll hear
a lot of simple parts played
well, which is deceivingly hard
to do. Focus on timing and
intonation. Simple rhythm patterns
lock with bass and drums
much quicker than complicated
parts. If you start with
something wacky, it will make
it more difficult for everyone.
3. Give your customers
what they want. Ask the
producer, session leader, or
songwriter—whoever is writing
your check—if they have
any flavor in mind. A lot of
arrangements begin with mimicking
another song. You may
hear, “This has a Hendrix-y,
'Wind Cries Mary' vibe,"
“Give this an AC/DC-ish
guitar riff," or “Try a Motown
'chick' backbeat on the second
beat of each measure."
On sessions, I never take
much stock in artistic integrity.
My philosophy is “the
customer is always right."
The best way to keep working
is to do your best to give
a voice to whoever is paying
you. Inevitably, your voice will
come through as well.
4. Once it sounds like a
song, experiment. If everyone
has found their part and pretty
much nailed it, see if you can
improve on what you're playing.
Maybe it's adding a band
push into the chorus, solo,
bridge, or ending. Maybe a
different chord inversion cuts
better or blends better. You
can always go back to the safe
part you have, but a tweak here
or there could add a deeper
dimension. Plus, it's just more
fun for you.
Unlike classically trained
string players who work exclusively
with orchestras, we
guitarists tend to be more comfortable
jamming than reading.
The problem with chord charts
is that they can restrict what
you play even as they don't
give you enough information
to actually play a song. The
trick is to let the paper guide
you, but not control you.
Ultimately, it's up to you—not
the road map—to get the song
to its final destination.
John Bohlinger is
a Nashville-based guitarist
who works primarily
in TV and has recorded
and toured with over 30
major-label artists. His songs
and playing can be heard
in major motion pictures, on major-label
releases, and in literally hundreds of television
drops. Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger
Kick off the holiday season by shopping for the guitar player in your life at Guitar Center! Now through December 24th 2022, save on exclusive instruments, accessories, apparel, and more with hundreds of items at their lowest prices of the year.
We’ve compiled this year’s best deals in the 2022 Holiday Gift Guide presented by Guitar Center.
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The Generation Collection of acoustic guitars features the exclusive Gibson Player Port designed to offer a unique and immersive sonic experience.
The G-Bird, the newest addition to the Generation Collection--represents the glorious legacy of the Gibson Hummingbird colliding with modern sonic enhancement through the Gibson Player Port to add a new dimension to the G-Bird sound. The Gibson Player Port allows players to hear more of themselves as the audience hears it. With a tone that is crisp and resonant, all of the Gibson Generation Collection acoustics are designed to be comfortable to hold and play for long periods of time. All Generation Collection guitars feature the Gibson Player Port, slim, lightweight bodies, a flatter fingerboard radius, Walnut back and sides, Sitka spruce tops, and a stunning Natural finish. Additionally, the new G-Bird, and the G-200 and G-Writer are equipped with LR Baggs™ Element Bronze pickup systems which amplify deep bass and crystal-clear highs.
The G-Bird represents the glorious legacy of the Gibson Hummingbird with modern sonic enhancement through the Gibson Player Port adding a new dimension to the G-Bird’s sound. The G-Bird features a stunning solid Sitka spruce top and solid walnut back and sides for the ultimate in crisp, resonant tone. This square-shoulder dreadnought delivers all the rich low end and well-balanced mids and highs the original Hummingbird is famous for. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with chrome Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning. The utile neck, with its easy-playing Advanced Response neck profile, is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-Bird also comes equipped with an LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system, so it will always sound as good to your audience as it does to you. The G-Bird also comes equipped with an LR Baggs™ Element Bronze pickup system, so it will always sound as good to your audience as it does to you. The G-Bird is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
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Gibson built its first “Super Jumbo” SJ-200 as a custom order for country and western singer and film star Ray Whitley, who desired a big, loud, and deep flat-top over which to croon. The SJ-200 quickly became a staple of cowboy singers and horseback troubadours, and then country music, 60’s folk stars, and onto every acoustic guitar genre that has followed. Ray would be proud to hear the booming sound from the Gibson Player Port on the new G-200, which comes ready for the stage or studio with a LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system. Like all models in the Gibson Generation Collection, the G-200 is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly--skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. The G-200 features a beautiful solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The slightly thinner G-200 cutaway jumbo body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and provides excellent access to the upper frets. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-200 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is also included.
G-Bird | Generation Collection
For more information, please visit gibson.com.
Looking for a compact, “noiseless” way to plug in and play guitar? Check out the brand-new Gibson Digital Amp, available only in the Gibson App.
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The Gibson App uses a unique two-way, interactive platform to teach guitar students how to do everything from playing their first note to shredding loads of songs. The Gibson App features interactive lessons with thousands of lessons and songs. Learn the songs step-by-step with video tutorials from superstar artists and pro guitarists in the “Gibson App Guide.” The Gibson App also includes the new Digital Amp, a built-in tuner, a metronome, Gibson TV, and new songs are added every week. New Gibson App Guides are added regularly and include Tommy “Spaceman” Thayer’s favorite iconic KISS guitar solos, Richie Faulkner’s (Judas Priest) “Guide to Metal,” Jared James Nichols’ “Guide to Blues,” CELISSE’s “Guide to Songwriting,” and more.
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Learn Guitar With The Gibson App
The Gibson App is more than a pocket-sized guitar teacher, it’s loaded with an archive of exclusive content and original programming from its premium and accessible award-winning online network, Gibson TV, featuring music icons telling their best guitar stories, with more episodes and installments added regularly. Users can watch Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi share insights and tales from his decades-long career on the series “Icons,” dive into Joe Bonamassa’s assortment of legendary Les Paul guitars on “The Collection,” or see how Gibson’s iconic instruments are made in their Nashville factory from body to binding on “The Process.” There’s even a series called “The Scene” that focuses on backstage stories from hallowed music venues from coast to coast like The Troubadour and Grand Ole Opry.
The Gibson App free version features a few lessons a day; the premium version of the Gibson App offers full access and a 14-day free trial, then costs $19.99/£16.49 monthly or $119.99/£98.99 yearly.
For more information, please visit gibson.com.