Practice by improvising rather than learning songs

I used to because I really don’t like memorizing songs, but since I started playing on Yousician, I always have new songs at different difficulties in different genres so I don’t get bored playing. Playing songs is useful for developing your vocabulary and also building muscle memory for common string/note changes.

That’s important to do too, I enjoy improving over chord progressions and I’ve done some courses on jazz and walking baselines which were very helpful. Doing that stuff gave me the motivation to improve some of my theory knowledge and skills for playing scales, modes and arpeggio (which I used to hate).

Do whatever works for you; mix it up, try different things. I’ve been playing for about a year and a half and I find what works for me is constantly changing so whatever I say now might not be what I say next week :slight_smile: .


I’m “stuck” on the last level of yousician because it’s fast/metal stuff that I really don’t care about so I have’t really been motivated to get it done, I’d rather just work on playing songs… I don’t wan’t to half ass it just to finish it off but I’ve made it my goal to get through that last level this year :slight_smile:


No, it’s like reading literature to learn about writing which is an important thing to do to develop your vocabulary and sense of how to structure writing for different styles. Not anyone would suggest that you should go out and start writing stories without having spent time reading a good amount of them. Same with movies, you don’t go shoot a movie without spending a significant amount of time watching/studying other movies. Photographers study other people’s photographs, engineers study other people’s designs. Generally, you start by copying other works and then you create your own.

I mean you can skip the studying/copying step, if you really want to do things the hard way and reinvent the wheel.


Fast metal stuff … Love it :slight_smile: but I’m lost when it comes to slapping.
Once you get used to play with a pick, you certainly will master the last level. On many metal songs muting is more difficult than fingering or plucking. You’ll make it!!!

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I’ve found doing covers - by which I mean fully covering the song with my bandmate, not using a backing track - has been a fantastic way to practice mixing and mastering. The simple reason is you have a perfect reference track to target - the original. And eventually you get to where you can spot mixing issues in the original and that’s when you know you’ve got something you are working on down cold. But to gain mixing experience from this you really need to be mixing, effecting and gain staging all the instrument and vocal tracks.

I have also found doing covers to be a great way to learn about song structure. This is analogous to one author reading another’s work and noticing nice points of craft in their storytelling.

This has all generally been very valuable. Plus it is fun.

However, I have found learning other people’s work to not be very inspirational or effective at becoming better at composing on the instrument I am learning. It’s fun and a good practice drill to play others riffs, and playing the whole song can be good for endurance, but my focus is recording, not live play.

For recording purposes you generally play parts in takes and playing the whole song end to end is both rare and also not really a useful use of time. You might do it once at the start and then the bulk of the time is spent playing short takes to fix the parts that you missed or want to improve. The time split here is at least 5:1 in favor of the short takes, at least in my experience. You generally never play the song all the way through, except maybe for that first take, if then - otherwise it’s incremental.

So, as a result, I have lots of experience playing riffs from songs. Yay me. Has this improved my own songwriting or ability to produce my own music? Well… maybe. It can’t have hurt it, but I feel that improv would be a more definite Yes there.


Thanks :slightly_smiling_face:

Much of it is 3 finger triplets, in changing rhythms. I’m sure I’d get through it way easier with a pick but the idea is to use the skills you learned in the level.

I just noticed there’s a reddit thread called “how do people get past level 9?” :joy: :joy: :joy: there are actually harder level songs than that, I think 14 is the highest song I’ve seen.


Hey that sounds pretty cool :+1::+1:. Are you trying to copy a particular player or song?

I’d say for maximum results try to structure your improv. Best if you can go into an activity with an aim, and then analyse if you achieved it at the end …


Totally this - learning a song really allows me to dig into the structure and techniques, which I can then apply in improv…

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That’s not true. Playing through a song in itself contains no instruction about whether any part of it is right or wrong or how well it’s written. So you can play 1000s upon 1000s of songs, yet still not know anything about theory or correct technique, as many people can attest.
It’s essentially an exercise in finger movements. It’s passive processing where you’re not having to think for yourself. It’s like writing out someone else’s story.

Yeah, but neither does literature. I’d say his analogy was apt.

Depends on the song. It’s satisfying nailing a song especially if you are pushing the limits of your ability but sometimes you have to work on raising your ability. If you enjoy improvising maybe playing with others and developing original material is your thing?

Not at all. Passive processing is when you listen to a song on the radio. In contrast,to learn a piece of music, especially by heart, requires you to engage with it, not just listen to it. You have to repeat sections over and over, play them faster and slower, and really ingrain them through your hearing and finger movements. You have to develop a feel for it, which you carry over into your own compositions.

You don’t need to have a declarative understanding of the theory (i.e. be able to explain what is good or bad about as piece) - the song is a living document which reveals this knowledge when you learn it.

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I dig a lot of what everyone’s putting down when it comes to songs versus instruction. My two cents on the matter harkens back to the days in high school and forming our first bands. You always had two types of people in those early years – Those who learned a lot of songs while learning their instruments (generally, just messing around on their own at home), and those who learned a lot of theory (the kids who took band/music). I mean, I’m sure both types did a little of each, but the band geeks always got “the important stuff” right (mostly timing, but also the notes in general, dynamics, improv, etc…)

This is not to say the people who learned mostly via playing along to music were totally awful. Note too, that tabs weren’t as accessible in those days – especially the correct ones – so that was an issue we don’t deal with as much, now.

Still, a few years pass and you listen to those old recordings and it becomes clear that your intentions for really learning a song might have gone no further than nailing the solo and fudging the rest. And I pick on guitarists for the most part here because I’ve been that guitarist. Too, it depends on how practiced your rhythm section is, and how well someone’s gonna keep you in line when you’re off-beat (I’m currently that bassist).

tl;dr: I think both are good. A lot of us don’t get inspired by playing scales all the time, but it’s true that learning nothing but other peoples’ songs doesn’t scratch the itch of personal expression. You shouldn’t feel bad about trying to figure things out on your own, and I personally would prefer someone improvising an in-time vamp or a root-3-5, or whatever – over and over, to someone with no rhythm who can knock out a few cool riffs but otherwise has no ability to jam with me because “they don’t know the actual notes”.


Interesting thread. For me, I’m 65, I only play for my amusement ( and perhaps my cats amusement as well) I don’t play out with others and can’t maintain focus when learning a new song. I do know many songs on bass, learned with tab, no patience with learning theory ( tempted to try Josh’s course, but have no desire to be a bad ass, lol, just having fun at my leisure) So improvising to whatever floats my boat when I pick up the bass ( or guitar, I play that too) is usually my normal approach.

Right now I’m into Mark Knofler and Dire Straits music, plucking around a half dozen songs till I get bored with that and move on. So, for me, it’s trying to keep focus, I just don’t have that and fully accept where I’m at as a bass and guitar playing hobbyist.


@HowLowCanYouGet The only issue I’d take with that blanket statement will depend on your experience level. I like a lot of people on this forum am a beginner. We all did Josh’s excellent Beginner to Baddass course. So what next when we’ve finished that?

I’d argue that learning songs, is an effective way of learning the bass. It teaches you:

  1. Timing
  2. Developing an ear for the melody / chord changes
  3. Dynamics
  4. Muting

The list goes on and on. But most importantly for some of us, it’s fun. I don’t have any lofty ambitions for playing bass. So learning songs keeps me motivated and because I’m playing 1-3 hours a day doing that, my playing has to improve.

I also improvise over jam tracks; but learning a song gives me a yardstick to measure my progress.

Playing Bass is a very broad church and there’s room for everyone.


Oh I don’t agree with that at all. As a matter of fact this is one of the best ways to understand other’s style, pick up little ideas for riffs, etc. I know bass is not as big of an improvised instrument outside of jazz, but studying other’s playing is crucial to developing your own voice, and builds a musical vocabulary to create your own style.

I am not much of an improviser, but I can say with certainty that spending the last few months with Paul McCartney lines I have a really cool understanding of his playing, and noted some tricks of his to try out when I am just fiddling around.

To add to the basics that @Barney cited, building the memory to memorize entire songs is an excellent skill that comes from learning songs. Each song I learn makes the next one that much easier.

FWIW, this is how pretty much every high school wanna be player starts, no?
At least all my friends spend the days learning songs vs. lessons and theory. I think bass and guitar are more suited to this style of learning than ‘classroom’, more than any other instruments.


Thanks !

No I was just trying to follow the beat really.

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Note tip# 16 in @JoshFossgreen’s video of the “20 Tips I Wish I Knew As A Beginner”……


What part of improvising includes instruction about whether any part of it is right or wrong or how well it’s written? I think you’re conflating many different factors that don’t inherently go together.

Copying other people’s works teaches you the language of music in the same way that children learn their first language and unless you’re deaf, there are plenty of options for feedback. Do you think it would be useful to tell a young child that they need to learn to speak a language by going off and writing a book? Pretty much every learning method starts off with you studying/copying existing works first. I doubt there’s a single musical instruction method that doesn’t spend a long time playing existing works. How do you think anyone is going to improvise without developing a vocabulary first? At best, that would be like writing a book only knowing spelling/grammar.

Classical music consists pretty much entirely of one just playing other people works and virtually no improvising. For the ~10 years I played classical music I didn’t need much theory and I didn’t want to write anything so that suited me just fine… but when I played in a jazz band, I had a good vocabulary from listening to a lot of jazz and swing and I. could improvise quite well. Many people can improvise just fine in their heads and hum or whistle a tune, their problem is usually not knowing their instrument well enough to get the tune from their head to their fingers and has little to do with lack of theory.

None of the things are mutually exclusive, they’re all important to some degree but if you want to learn music, you need to listen to music and if you want to learn to play, you have to play. If you want to learn to improvise, you usually study chord progressions/melodies from existing songs, write your own melodies over chord progressions and then gradually learn to improvise. There is a good reason that jazz standards like autumn leaves and blue bossa are standard. Much of improvising just consists of you stringing together short musical ideas that you learned previously.

You either don’t know what you do without thinking about it or just don’t think much about what you do; don’t assume that everyone is like you.


along with #8 :slight_smile:

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