I’m learning the solo from Hotel California. Everyone knows it. It’s genuinely iconic, and it’s bloody hard to play. There are two guitars, played by Joe Walsh and Don “Fingers” Feldon. Actually, there are 8 guitars on the track, but one is more than enough.
Playing the solo almost right is not an option. As my brother said, “it’s like Sultans of Swing. It’s so distinctive that you have to play it absolutely right or people will just think you’re a muppet because the mistakes will be so obvious”. No pressure then.
After four weeks, I can do all the licks in the first phrase (that’s like a verse, and no I don’t know why they’re called licks) of the solo. I can’t yet play them by memory, as in string them all together, but I’m getting there. There are 4 phrases to go, and the next one is by Joe Walsh who as far as I am concerned is just a smart-arse show-off. Fortunately, I can already kind of do the last phrase (which you would recognize instantly even though I would probably do it wrong).
What I have learned (and why is this relevant to you):
- Chunking: Complex skills can be learned by chunking down and repeating it until I get it right
- Focus on a skill goal, not an outcome: Master the art of bending the top string 3 notes. Master each lick in turn. Master transitioning smoothly from lick to lick. Focus less on the outcome of being able to play the whole thing from start to finish. That will come when I have mastered the individual skill goals
- Get help: I couldn’t work it out for myself so I went to youtube to find dozens of options. My learning curve is about 20 times faster than it would have been without help
- Leverage technology: I found some new technology that has made it easier and better. I would not have found this if I hadn’t taken on this crazy challenge, and I can leverage it for the next song
- Keep working on it: I have always struggled to read tabs (how guitarists map out their music) and I tended to give up too soon. Working so hard on Hotel California has forced me to grapple with learning. I’m not yet fluent, but the translation from the page to my head to my fingers is getting faster and more accurate. Again, something I am now able to leverage across other songs
- Adapt: I had to change my strings so I can bend them easier. Actually, they feel pretty cool and I might put slinkies on all my guitars, giving me more options and extending my range of licks
- Learn the basics first: I am learning basics that I half knew. They use a “Chuck Berry” lick, which I realise I’ve been playing a poor imitation of for about 30 years. Playing it properly makes it sound so much better (and it features in approximately 3500 other songs) The techniques I’m struggling to learn have already made all my other guitaring better
- Don’t make excuses for not doing the work: I could play some approximation of some of the solo, so could rationalize that it was close enough, not wanting to stymie my own expression and that it’s a “version” or “interpretation” rather than copy. But these are all just excuses for not doing the work
I am consciously enjoying the feeling of being on a journey from not knowing to knowing a bit to knowing quite a lot to hopefully knowing it completely – from novice to master. I find the incremental improvements feel immensely satisfying, and I enjoy observing myself in my learning struggle. I have this same feeling when I start work with a new client: I enjoy the feeling of not knowing the client’s business because I also know that I’m going to learn.
I know that’s not true for everyone, I probably have curiosity and a love of learning in my genes. But what is true for everyone is that learning, and learning how to learn, is the master skill. It unlocks everything else.
What are you learning?