In my last post, I wrote about the Top 10 Guitar Songs For Beginners, focussing on the best rock and pop tunes that students and teachers alike for those wanting to take guitar lessons and music tuition. However, in this post, I thought I’d focus on those of you out there who perhaps a little more advanced on the instrument, and are looking for a new challenge to stretch yourself with!
Now, as the title suggests, these picks are surprisingly difficult, which means that I’m not focusing on pieces by the likes of Joe Satriani or John Petrucci, as most people listening to music from those two artists can almost instantly recognise that learning to play their songs is going to present a challenge! Nope, I’m talking about the songs that you’re likely to hear on everyday mainstream pop and rock radio, that perhaps you didn’t realise are actually a little tricky! I have personal experience in learning and performing each song on this list in a live situation with a band or in an acoustic duo, and, while each song was in no way impossible, or on the same difficulty level as the aforementioned Messrs Satriani and Petrucci, they still took a little more learning and practice than your average pop song. As with my previous article, these are in no particular order, and I hope those of you who are advancing or intermediate guitar students find this list beneficial.
“Mr Brightside” – The Killers
As one of the most requested pop and rock function band songs of all time, it’s fair to say that I’ve had a lot of experience playing “Mr Brightside” in a number of different covers bands since it’s release in 2004. I remember first tackling this tune when I was fresh out of guitar tech, and, having studied jazz and advanced guitar techniques for the past three years, I thought this one would be pretty straightforward when I got asked to learn it for a dep gig I was going to do for a band.
The thing that makes the intro of the The Killers’ classic hit song tricky, is that not only is it a bit of a stretch for the left hand combined with at an upbeat tempo of 148 BPM, but it’s also played on the high frets where, typically, guitarists don’t spend a lot of time practising within. Since the majority of our guitar playing lives are spent playing rhythm guitar in areas below the 12th fret, perhaps occasionally venturing up to the 17th fret for a cool spot in a guitar solo, having to tackle something like “Mr Brightside” presents a bit of a challenge on the instrument. However, it’s not just the intro that’s tough with this tune! The stretch from fret on the low E string to fret 7 on the B string in the pre chorus is also a nightmare, and that’s before you’ve even put together each separate guitar part in order and in time to the record.
As a final note on this song, I originally thought that there must be some kind of studio trickery with the guitar parts on this one, but I was wrong again! The Killers’ guitarist Dave Keuning is a very accomplished musician, having played in a jazz band in high school, so it’s no surprise that he’s able to write and perform all the parts on this recording accurately, as evidenced by this live video.
“Adventure Of A Lifetime” – Coldplay
Coldplay can be very “marmite” for a lot of people out there, but there’s no denying that their recent hit “Adventure Of A Lifetime” will stretch even the most accomplished guitar players out there. Although, harmonically, the song is pretty straightforward, consisting of the chords D minor, G major and A minor for the most part, it is guitarist Johnny Buckland’s intro melody that will cause a few problems instead! Released in 2015, I was actually introduced to this song last year after having to learn it for a function band I was depping with, and I’m not ashamed to say that it took me a couple of gigs before I could perform it live without making any mistakes!
What makes the learning the intro to “Adventure Of A Lifetime” slightly more difficult is that at first, it can seem like a blur of notes, particularly at the song’s original tempo of 112 BPM. I believe that Buckland originally played this with a capo on the 12th fret, and continues to do so when performing the song live. However, I actually found this to be more of a hindrance than a help, as the capo kept getting in the way of the fingers on my left hand when trying to execute this riff! So, with a stretch from fret 17 to fret 12 on the high E string using my little finger pulling off to my index finger, I’ve managed to get it down without the need for a capo. Whichever way you try to play it though, don’t expect an easy ride!
“All Right Now” – Free
On first listen, the riff to Free’s hugely successful 1970 hit “All Right Now” sounds pretty straightforward. You’ve got a great driving rock riff, based pretty much around A, G and D, and, to top it off, this tune is frequently taught by many guitar teachers to beginners as one of their first pieces to learn. Must be pretty easy, right? Well… Yes and no. The problem with Paul Kossoff’s legendary guitar intro, is that quite possibly every single guitarist I’ve ever seen perform this riff has a different way of playing it. In fact, even the many different transcriptions of “All Right Now” in professional guitar books and magazines by some of the country’s top guitar players are all slightly different. Nightmare!
It’s definitely true that every time I’ve been tasked with playing this tune in a live situation, I’ve always questioned myself over whether I’m playing the riff correctly. Have I got the right feel? Is it played in the open position, or is it a combination of an open A, with the G and D chords being voiced on the fifth fret? It has been rumoured that Kossoff tracked up two or three different variations of the riff to “All Right Now” on the original recording, which could explain the confusion surrounding the correct way to play it. However, at least the multiple guitar layers make those chords sound huge, and no doubt contributed to Free’s classic rock track surpassing 3 million radio plays in 2006.
“Johnny B Goode” – Chuck Berry
Another hugely popular song amongst covers bands all across the country, Chuck Berry’s legendary hit is actually surprisingly difficult to play on guitar. Although, harmonically, this whole tune consists solely of the chords Bb7, Eb7 and F7, it’s the instantly recognisable intro riff from Mr Berry that has flummoxed guitar players since its release in 1958. In fact, a guitarist friend of mine summed it up perfectly when we were discussing this tune, when he remarked “yeah, but no one plays it properly!” To which we both agreed that neither of us played it properly either!
So what is it about the intro to “Johnny B Goode” that’s causing the problem? Surely a piece that was played by a guitarist in the fifties can’t be that hard? Well, while this classic piece of rock history doesn’t contain any Van Halen style tapping licks or Yngwie Malmsteen style sweep picking, it is Chuck Berry’s unique and unusual phrasing that often catches people out, and while I’ve seen many guitarists do a very good job on the intro to this tune when performing it live, a lot of time it wasn’t quite there, with perhaps one or two notes slightly wrong, or the rhythm just slightly off. With that in mind, “Johnny” gets the nod in this list because, although it may be an easy one to “blag”, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to play it note for note perfect as per the original recording.
However… It’s not impossible!
Last year, I decided that I’d finally had enough of bluffing this tune and taking a “that’ll do” approach to that famous intro. So I sat down, and spent an hour or so really listening to it and working it out, before deciding that yes, I was finally playing it properly! So, how can you do the same and learn how to play “Johnny B Goode” the right way? Well, you could book a lesson with me, or you could settle for the next best thing and watch this video instead, which is easily the best lesson I’ve seen online for this piece.
“Neon” – John Mayer
With a string of former celebrity girlfriends including Katy Perry and Jennifer Aniston, and a number of hit singles under his belt, it can be easy to overlook how good of a guitar player John Mayer is. Although his playing is rooted in the blues, often leaning more towards the tasteful rather than the technically spectacular, one need look no further than “Neon” from Mayer’s debut album “Room For Squares” to be reminded of the Connecticut native’s technical prowess on the instrument. Although, on first listen you’d be forgiven for thinking that the guitar on this smooth, mid tempo pop song doesn’t sound that difficult, which is exactly what I thought…
Until I tried to play it!
Using a unconventional tuning, with the low E string tuned to an even lower C, the guitar parts to “Neon” can definitely be filed in the “surprisingly difficult” category. Throughout the song, Mayer makes use of a number of different suspended chords with unusual bass notes, such as the Ebsus4/Ab and the Csus2/Bb chords in the verse. The aforementioned bass notes are fretted with the thumb in the left hand, and the stretches with the other fingers have caused many a guitar playing attempting to learn this piece a problem in the past.
Although the unconventional and surprisingly complex chordal melody makes this tune difficult enough, especially since the whole thing is performed using a fingerstyle technique, I’ve also noticed that it can be tough to get the right ‘feel’ when attempting to perform this song in a live situation. I put this down to Mayer’s own unconventional fingerstyle technique which he employs on “Neon”, as demonstrated in this superb live acoustic performance, in which he plays every note using a combination of just his thumb and his index finger on his right hand. Yikes! I have no shame in admitting that learning to play this tune took me a little while, and it’s for that reason that “Neon” claims the final spot on this list.
So there we have it, 5 tunes that perhaps may not be at the forefront of a lot of guitarists’ minds when thinking of hard songs to play, but are definitely going to represent a surprising challenge for most. Now it’s your turn! What are the songs that you’ve attempted in the past that have surprised you with how difficult they’ve turned out to be? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear your suggestions. Finally, until next time, ciao!