“Playing” Songs on Guitar vs “Playing Along” with Songs


I follow a couple guitar beginner forums, and one comment I often see refers to being able to “play songs”. For example, a typical comment goes something like this: “I know enough chords to play a few songs, but I’m not happy with my progress.”

What do they mean when they say “I can play a few songs”?

I think they when they say this most new guitar players actually mean “I can play along with a few songs.”

There’s a difference, and understanding that difference has a bearing on the way you play your guitar.

When you “play along” with a song you are usually just strumming chords, sometimes playing the melody, or adding an improvised riff. You are accompanying your own singing, or playing along with a recording.

When you actually play a song your rendition stands on its own. It is not supportive of or an accompaniment of another recording, or of a song played by other musicians, or even of your own singing. Of course there are many different styles of playing, but I think generally this distinction holds. When you “play a song” that song stands on its own, not as an accompaniment.

Consider this example of “playing” vs “playing along with”…

Consider the song “Ode to Joy”. Actually playing the song goes beyond just strumming the appropriate chords. It includes the melody. So that a listener would say “Hey, you’re playing Ode to Joy!”

When you “play along” with Ode to Joy you are providing support for the recording, blending with the other musicians playing the song, or accompanying your own singing. Your guitar part is not meant to stand on its own. It is not “the song”. Being able to play along with songs is an important accomplishment and, in many cases, is all a guitar player is trying to do. But it is not “playing the song”.

In the accompanying video I demonstrate what I mean by “playing the song”. While most new guitar players are content with playing along with a song – usually just accompanying it by strumming the appropriate chords – actually playing the song requires taking your playing a major step forward. It requires a different mindset – a different approach – and in many cases is not actually that difficult.

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